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Almost Lucky

 

 

Almost Lucky

By Joaquin Emiliano

Copyright 2017 Joaquin Emiliano

Shakespir Edition

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this ebook and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

***

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidences are all either products of the author’s imagination, or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Now.

February 11, 2003.

8:05 pm.

 

The door swings open.

Closes.

The difference between these two moments are marked by Lucky Saurelius. Standing at the entrance, dying gust of a familiar winter chill. Hair cut haphazardly short. A few stray tufts sticking up and out. White T-shirt wrinkled under a worn gray leather jacket. An authentic relic, hide cracked with history. Looks around. One single, sweeping glance to take in details of this underground world. Cracks in the wall displaying what must have once been an eggshell white beneath the dulled tangerine paint job. Lit candles dot the rickety tables, backed by the soft orange glow of scattered lamps built into the wall. Row after row of straw hats, stapled upside down against the ceiling. An immense mural has found its home along the entire length of the far wall, wild medley of colors depicting a Caribbean village. Across from those brushstrokes, empty stools nestle beneath the chipped, unfinished bar, where ghosts, forced confessions, evenings past await indefinite departure.

All this viewed through eyes gone far too long. A slight smile emerging as the memories rush in, surround him, jostling for pole position. Cloud his surroundings, where an eighteen year old sits, alone at a table. Alone in a blue off-the-rack suit, waiting to see if this is the one he’s been searching for.

A pleased voice calls out: “Lucky!”

Lucky glances over.

Bar’s end, he sees Zephyr leaning back in his seat. Legs propped up on an accompanying barstool. Dark skin glowing under the nine o’ clock shine of a red-and-white Budweiser clock. Thick mustache matching trimmed hair, trace amounts of gray in both. Mischievous eyes beneath wire-rimmed spectacles.

You are back,” he observes. Welcoming half-notes dancing along with a Haitian accent.

And ready for more,” Lucky replies.

From his table, the kid watches with veiled astonishment as Lucky and Zephyr meet in the middle of the room with an affectionate embrace. He feels the fire, threatening to overwhelm. Fortunately, for now, wonder wins. Stuck to the spot. Quietly assuring him that this is how he had always imagined Lucky.

And with opening ceremonies now out of the way, Zephyr heads behind the bar. “Want a drink?”

Actually, I do.”

Jack Daniels, still?”

Still enough, sure.”

Lucky crosses the red tile floor, all dotted with cigarette burns. Stations himself in the middle of the bar. He follows Zephyr’s movements, towards the spirits, three rows of bottles stacked against a lengthy mirror.

So…” Zephyr snatches the sour mash. Digs beneath the counter, and scoops some ice into a rocks glass. “How was your day?”

Lucky goes for a smile. “I been gone for over a year and a half, and you want to know about my day?”

Time is a little funny down here. How old are you these days?”

Time is funny all over. Let’s just say for the sake of the walls… Let’s say twenty-four.”

Zephyr whistles lightly. “Twenty-four…”

And my day was fine, Zephyr. Just peachy.”

And now you are back…” Zephyr sends a four-second pour to fill the space. “Double Jack Daniels for the big-time writer.”

So much larger than life,” Lucky replies, enjoying Zephyr’s inflation of the facts.

You still trying to get into the movies?”

Not my cup of tea.”

Double Jack…” Zephyr reaches for a napkin, sets the drink on top.

“There’s my cup of tea.”

Long Island Iced Tea without the Long Island.”

Thanks, Zephyr.” Lucky picks up his prize with an imperceptible nod. “Cheers.”

Also,” Zephyr leans in close, voice going deep. “There’s a kid sitting behind you. Across the room. Says he’s looking for you.”

Lucky takes a nice, slow tug. Experience reminding him to never look over his shoulder when told. Simply lets the salacious heat of chilled Jack satisfy his every last contradiction as it makes its way south. Puts down his glass and asks if there’s going to be any music later on.

The kid watches from his table, having learned a thing or two himself. He knows he’s been made. Hangs back as Zephyr absconds, heads past the bathrooms and through the kitchen door. He trains his eyes back on Lucky:

Toying with a Zippo, then pulling a pack of Reds. Lighting up with a silver snap of his fingers.

The kid takes a deep breath, picking up the scent of Lucky’s cigarette.

He begins to walk across the room. Parallel recollections of his first junior prom. The thought makes him feel small. Childish. Out of place in a man’s world.

Another breath, slow count to five, and he’s finally completed the journey.

Doesn’t take more than a second to see that Lucky’s no top model. Stoic face beneath light stubble, skin a pale shade of olive. Small ears, like eroded seashells. Modest lips, chapped and parked in neutral. Angular nose, unobtrusive, though the bridge appears to take liberties with its length. Disappearing between a pair of thick, dark eyebrows. Lower lids underlined by a losing battle with sleep. Trancelike state of an informal narcissist, though on that score there seems to be an alert intentionality present.

As if everything about him might be an act.

A wave of mellow reggae makes its slow introduction from the surrounding speakers.

Lucky sniffs, takes a drag: “Have a seat.”

The kid slides onto a barstool all his own and makes a quiet nest. Ankles crossed beneath him, arms crossed in front. Staring straight ahead. He catches sight of himself in the barback mirror. Regards his twin with curiosity, recognizing features as he would a distant relative. Sixty-watt color to his skin. Shaggy sandalwood, naturally, hanging down to meet well-formed hazel eyes. Nose, cheeks, lips, all full yet contained, proportional. Balanced. Precise. A little too baby-faced though, he feels, among the junkyard of chipped paint and uneven table tops.

Lucky catches the kid squinting through Marlboro haze. “Don’t smoke, do you?”

The kid blinks. “No.”

Lucky moves the ashtray away from him and switches smoking hands.

The kid doesn’t comment, and they both sit for a bit.

What they get for their wait is Zephyr, back from the kitchen with a fifth of Myer’s Dark.

You want a drink?” Lucky asks his new companion.

No thanks.”

That’s a nice suit, but it don’t make you look any older. Want a real drink and Zephyr will get you one, just ‘cause I said so.”

Doesn’t impress me.”

Lucky ignores the tone and polishes his drink.

Zephyr slides on over, points.

Lucky nods. “And get the kid whatever he wants. On me.”

The kid realizes the seven seconds he’s taken to think about it makes his inevitable request all the more infantile. “A Coke.”

Not another word spoken in the time it takes to pour.

Sensing an outlandish tension, Zephyr serves them up and returns to his post at bar’s end.

Lucky and the kid reach, then drink. One from the straw, the other taking a shortcut, lips kissing the frigid rim. Beverages placed back on the bar. One lights a cigarette. The other takes a follow-up of syrupy fountain. Both remain silent as one song ends and another begins.

Lucky continues to stare straight ahead. “What’s your name, little man?”

The kid bristles, “Didn’t get lost on a class trip or anything, so… easy on the little man shit, all right?”

Fair enough. Name?”

The kid takes a moment. “Joyce.”

Lucky volleys with his own cautious pause. “Really?”

James Joyce.”

Really?”

Yes.”

Like the writer?”

No, like the tax attorney.”

Can’t say I’ve read any of his work.”

The kid beats it back with another sip of Coke.

So your name is James Joyce, then.” Lucky nods. “And seems to be you already know who I am.”

You’re Lucky.”

That’s right.”

Lucky Saurelius, born in Amsterdam due to events beyond your control.” James turns to face Lucky, words on automatic. “You moved to the US at around one year old, Bethesda, Maryland. Moved to Verona, North Carolina sometime during the mid-nineteen eighties, but got bumped around quite a bit. Spent a good deal of time living in South America, a lot of time traveling, though I suppose you would have to call North Carolina your home base. Father’s a journalist and professor at Pantheon University. Your mother’s a human rights activist. You have a brother, though he’s twelve years older than you, and you guys don’t talk so much. You went to Jefferson elementary, Pleasant Evergreen, a couple of schools in Chile. In the late 90s, you came to New York City to be a director, actor, anything famous, really… And then you just kind of dropped off the face of the earth, didn’t you?”

James comes to a screeching halt, breathless from all that backwash. Once more aware, once again, of where he is. Who he’s talking to. Unsure how this outburst must have sounded, but the burn in his body suggests it was not pretty.

So now he just waits, stark naked on the first day of school, for Lucky to throw him out on the streets.

Instead, Lucky smiles with a sly kind of approval. “I knew you knew who I was. I just didn’t think you knew who I was.”

James swallows. “I do.”

No kidding.” Lucky takes an amber swallow, licks his lips. “Though I notice you left out a rather large detail in your Cliffs Notes.”

What’s that?”

Rebecca Demarco.”

James is caught off guard, quick dose of his own medicine.

And before he can ask, Lucky cuts him off: “Because it always seems to come back to her.”

James can feel Lucky sizing him up.

You want to tell me about yourself?” Lucky asks.

No.”

Lucky frowns. His eyes land on a bottle of Bacardi Select and stay there. “I don’t know if that’s going to do it, stranger.”

James digs in.“Too bad.”

Doesn’t seem fair.”

Life isn’t fair.”

Truth.” Lucky’s musing aimed at James, himself, the whole length of an empty bar. “But as to your conditions? I may not know you from a hole in the wall, but whatever you know about me, I got a feeling it ain’t enough. So any sense of leverage you think you may have, I’d watch your mouth… You’ve come looking for me, not the other way around, so, measuring your tone, and using very small words, tell me now how this is this even worth my while.”

Because I’ve got a message for you.”

Lucky turns in his seat to face James. He props a leather-bound elbow on the bar, cigarette tip towards the ceiling. Bar door opens with the chime of a miniature bell. Two men stroll in, dressed to the nines. Diamond studs and golden rings glinting along with pleased smiles. Casual shout out as they walk on by: “Hey, Lucky!”

James jerks his head towards the pair, then back to Lucky, who hasn’t budged from his cautious stare. James returns the favor, awaiting further questions. Desperate for a blink, tiny wink against a nicotine trail of blue and gray.

All right, then,” Lucky says. Drops confrontation and snubs his cigarette. “That’ll do.”

James allows his toes to uncurl. “Yeah?”

For now, that’ll do.”

Ok.”

So what do you want to know?”

James knows this one: “Everything.”

Everything covers a lot. A lot of ground I suspect you’ve already walked.”

I need to hear it from you,” James says. Words so genuine, they almost die beneath the music. “All of it… I need to hear it from you.”

Lucky recognizes.

Motions for Zephyr. Genie in a purple, white-striped Baja jacket.“More of the same, please, Zephyr.”

And so a fresh transfusion makes this the best moment to begin. Zephyr pours another round as the door opens and serves up a few more customers. Lucky catches sight of them in the mirror. Looks away. Pulls out a fresh cigarette, pops it between wet lips. James nudges the Zippo towards him. Lucky accepts the gesture and lights up.

James, this is the story…” Lucky reaches for his drink. Brings it close to his eyes, watching the ice interact. “This is the true story of a young man, a famous actress… and the girl who looked just like her.”

James sees Lucky’s eyes soften in the quiet candlelight.

Yeah,” Lucky says with a low, submissive sigh. “I guess one more time can’t hurt.”

James watches Lucky take a good long hit off his drink as underground fades into something else, and the glowing clock on the wall inadvertently slows, then stops.

Then starts to tick back on itself as Lucky goes back to the beginning.

***

It’s not as though there aren’t other versions out there.

No fake. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve heard more about myself than there actually is to my strange, little existence. But there’s no stopping rumors, whispers. Myths. Except maybe the truth, though I don’t really think much about that anymore.

Because truth is, it all started with a woman, seated in her office. Face to face with a pair of girls, sitting side by side. A pair of hopefuls, if you want to be nice about it. A pair of nobodies, if you want to be honest.

One of them would leave the same way they came.

The other would stay, and that day would be the one that changed the world.

It turns out I can only imagine those two, sitting in a West Coast office. How they wore their hair, their shoes, clothes. Nervous displays, dead giveaways while waiting to see how this moment would play. I can only guess at the walls, the furniture. Whether the sun was shining that day. Possibly through slanted slats or maybe an open window revealing large letters, set in distant hills, reminding them that this was, and always would be HOLLYWOOD.

Whispers, rumors and myths. I’ve had to make up a few of my own, as I was never there. Wasn’t until later when that decision finally caught up with me, and the one thing I can say for certain is exactly when that moment was.

December 5th, 1993.

That was the date. Printed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Top left corner, just above a black and white of Trent Easter, just a few months away from winning his first Oscar for best director.

I would never get around to reading about that, thanks to the other article,

and that was the first time I saw her.

Rebecca Demarco.

Perhaps you’ve heard of her.

I was fifteen at the time, nestled in the small space between the bed and my desk. Many miles from where I would eventually end up, but that’s the same as any other day. At the time, there was Verona, North Carolina. There was school, there was isolation. There were a handful of childhood friends who had yet to become childhood friends. Or childhood memories, the future wasn’t all that clear to me. Reliable parents, reliable income, and though my past had its fair share of twists and turns, I was positive this was my time. My time to lead a normal existence, to move forward without regard for the extraordinary. I was just another teenager. Olive skin, tangled nest of unkempt hair. The protruding grin of a donkey ‘round about feeding time. Wide, brown eyes behind glasses so thick they bordered on bullet-proof. Uneven thoughts, lips that had never come close to that first kiss everyone seemed to be talking about.

The inward urge to be entirely unexceptional.

One innocent flip of the page, and I was confronted with my polar opposite.

A full-page photograph highlighting the three-page story, but the article wasn’t important.

The article came later.

Before there was before, there was the photograph.

She was sitting on a toy chest. Dressed in an oversized trench coat that fell down past legs locked at the knees. Feet pointed inwards, pigeon-toed. White socks barely venturing past unseen ankles. Hands clasped in her lap. Modest pose. Toys and scattered marbles decorating the hardwood floor. Soft overhead light reflecting off her hair. Not her natural color, just something to blend with that portrait’s orange hues. Red plumes pulled back, held in place by bobby pins, accentuating her large forehead. Loose strands fell past an elfin, full-moon face. Button nose. Concise, neutral lips whose ends sloped downwards in an accustomed frown.

And eyes that caught my attention all at once.

A pair of deep-set gems with quiet semi-circles underneath. Tottering between the observant and the disinterested. Staring into what must have been a camera, but a good photograph always finds a way around its origins. Staring into a camera at one point, yes, but not now.

Staring right at me.

A reminder of the unexpected. All sensations sent flying, hundred and seventy miles through the windshield, spiraling against irriversable winds. An unmatched certainty that she must have been looking directly at me, time and space be dammed.

An unspoken dialogue with somewhere.

Something in there that should have been a warning.

Because it was only one instant.

All over for me before it even got started, and I must have known that at the time.

Emergency sirens, insisting.

And the time, I listened.

Gave myself a moment with those eyes. Felt the posters in my room stare down with strained anticipation, breath held as the glossy threatened to pull me into an 8” x 11” paradise. No one else around to witness the preview of things to come and

I snapped the magazine shut.

Pressed front and back together, effectively trapping the strange ecstasy of my thoughts within those pages.

Tossed it aside, onto a pile of previous issues.

Shrugged off all previous thoughts.

Just the facts, Jack.

There was Verona, North Carolina.

There was my room.

And I was just Lucky Saurelius.

Uncertain and insignificant as I highlighted the limits of my own little world.

But like all promises made in the abstract, there was no chance it would ever last.

***

And then it was two years later.

What a difference when it’s just a little over one-eighth of your entire life. Not to say I had that kind of perspective at the time. Can’t afford that kind of capital at seventeen years old. The price is generally too high. If you have the means, I strongly recommend not paying.

And if you already have, do yourself a solid and keep the receipt.

As for two years later, seventeen had me walking down Old Chapel Road. High-top Converse flapping against sidewalk cracks. Sweet, summertime heat sparkling off the concrete with every step. Hands swinging at my side. Hardly breaking a sweat under my white tee and blue jeans. Hair cut just short of my eyes. Growth spurt in full effect, and at my current height, the weather was just peachy. No shuffle to my stroll. Contact lenses as much a part of me as the world they witnessed. Though what they witnessed had little to do with the world. Doubts taking a back seat to certainty. Feet leading me to a job I loved. Summer before my senior year, and I was arm in arm with an a.m. sun that shone with all the assurance of a calendar girl.

June first of 1995.

Didn’t even remember what two years ago meant.

I was walkin’.

Yes indeed, I was talkin’.

Positive that I was born exactly as I had awoken that morning. Gone were the days of hesitation, second guessing. Paralytic hesitation now little more than a dream. Up from the ashes to the steadfast conviction that I was a master of my own destiny.

I cruised into Video Express, hardly a second thought about how I ended up working there. Knew a guy named Sebastian who knew a guy who knew how much I loved movies. Asked me if I’d like a job deciphering the jumble left by others.

Cutting tape?

Couldn’t have been a better fit.

Granted, graduation videos and bat mitzvahs were a far cry from silver screen Eden. But even the sorriest debutante ball had its own wish for fulfillment. Everything in its proper place. Each event laid out in logical sequence, even when jumping back and forth through scattered moments. Start to finish.

Making sense of the chaos.

A tidy present wrapped in a half-inch bow.

I came in through the back, greeted by Bruce and Dan. Co-owners by fate, twins by merit of mass. Unashamed by their gravitational pull, the two of them had always rejoiced in their matching weight… to the three-hundred and twenty-fifth pound.

My four bosses.

Each one battling for supremacy, neither one listening.

Both turning to me for arbitration.

Bruce swiveled in his captain’s chair, a painstaking replica of Han Solo’s. “Would you tell Dan that the Morgan wedding doesn’t need flashbacks for the speeches? Could you please tell him?”

“They want us to use this Paleolithic footage of their bride and groom growing up.” Dan rewound and fast forwarded, sepia toned sixteen millimeter bumped up to half-inch. Pudgy fingers handling the knobs with a surprising dexterity. Freeze framed on an overexposed shot of the bride, as a child, on a pony. “I’m not happy about it, but if we’re going to use this garbage, we got the best man and father of the bride, talking about their childhoods. You got a better idea?”

“Beating you senseless comes to mind.”

“I’ll kick your ass, Bruce.”

“I’ll kick your face.”

“I’ll kick you in your stupid shins.”

“Every week.” I squeezed between them, fiddling at the controls, searching. “Every day, some days, it feels like.”

Dan crossed his legs at the ankles. “You don’t think I could kick his ass?”

“Not suggesting you’d have any trouble finding it. Just think you’d be better off layering the speeches with spectators on track two. Their reactions are what you want, how they’re feeling about it. Cheat with some footage of them watching something else if you have to.”

“You don’t think they’ll remember that all cameras were on the speakers during the speeches?”

“No, I don’t think they’ll remember.”

“How you figure?”

“Because they were there…” I pressed Play, rolled over footage of the newlyweds sharing their first dance. “Intersperse the childhood footage with this dance here. It sends a very clear message, it says: Everything’s been leading up to this moment. Two lives, now as one…”

Bruce and Dan stared at the couple dancing.

Miserable footage, poorly shot.

But then again, that’s what people came to us for.

“Truce?” I asked, backing off. “Or do I take your ball away, and neither of you gets to play with it?”

“Decent,” Bruce managed.

“Acceptable.” Dan popped some b-roll into the VCR. “Lunch is on us.”

Bruce tossed me a coffee mug. “Lunch is on us, Lucky.”

“We doing The Dog House again?”

“I was thinking Alma’s.” Bruce gave his stomach a pat. “Working on a diet.”

“How you figure?”

“I don’t get it.”

“You eat different food, you come from different families, one of you somehow even rides a bike to work every day. How the hell do you manage to always weigh exactly the same as one another?”

“Morphic fields.”

“A term coined by British biologist, Rupert Sheldrake…” Dan clarified. Adjusted his glasses and absently rewound, footage splayed out over seven different monitors. “He ran an experiment where several groups were asked to do the same crossword puzzle. Each person in each group had to try to complete the puzzle in under an hour.”

“Great.” I cracked open a box of Beta tapes. “That explains everything. Thank you.”

“Hold on…” Bruce scooted his chair over to a rack of half-inch, searching. “What he did was administer the same crossword to different groups every day of the week. So one group tried their hand on Monday. Same crossword on Tuesday, different group. Same with Wednesday, and so on… Want to know what happened as the days went by?”

“I imagine it was consistently one day later.”

“Even better…” Dan pressed preview and watched a seamless cut between the newlyweds and drunk karaoke. “With every day that passed, people who had never laid eyes on the crossword were finishing it faster. By the time Friday rolled around, the group was filling answers off the cuff, practically without thinking.”

Bruce held up his finger: “Seeking to prove that perhaps our world, possibly even our universe has a kind of collective, acquired knowledge. Something that we unknowingly access and shapes the way we look, live, even the decisions we make –”

“The universe doesn’t decide,” I informed them. “We make our own decisions. We’re responsible for our own fate. We make our own luck.”

Bruce shrugged. “Let none decide on his good fortune –

“What’s this?” I asked, holding up what appeared to be another blank.

“Your mom,” Bruce replied, arms crossed over an ample bosom.

“Trailers!” Dan announced. “Got an advanced copy from a guy I know who works at Entertainment Weekly.”

“Go nuts, baby…” I tossed him the tape and went about sorting orders and appointments. Going through shot lists, logged entries. Labeling tapes set for the chopping block. I overheard my employers discussing the latest blockbusters, who would be starring, which ones were doomed for box office Armageddon. Played the previews, each one blending in predictable overstatement…

This summer…”

In a world where love was forbidden…”

This Independence Day…”

In a land forgotten by time…”

This Summer…”

In a world where hope was subject to none…”

This June…”

If you thought there was no such thing as ghosts…”

Bruce and Dan’s analysis began to merge with the voiceovers…

“Is it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Wasn’t she in 1313 Mockingbird Lane?

“Does she even have a name?”

“Hey Lucky!”

I sealed up a box with some duct tape and popped a Sharpie top. “What’s up?”

“Some family flick called Ghost Girl,” Dan called out. “Is this the same chick from 1313 Mockingbird Lane?

I turned, unprepared for what I saw…

At least I think I was unprepared. It would be nice to chalk it up to shock. That the jump in my pulse had nothing to do with her face, splayed out over every screen, good as a photograph from the pages of a magazine. Surprise would have been a more welcoming explanation for the shallow breathing, invisible flush beneath my skin.

But it certainly wasn’t enough.

Because there she was. Same mouth, perhaps a bit wider. Hair a darker shade, maybe. Bit of the baby-face gone from her round features and large forehead. But there was no way around those very same eyes. Hazel that bordered on emerald, wide and unblinking in the freeze frame, and that old familiar feeling came rushing back. The disorienting notion that I was good as back in my room, staring through a pair of magnifying lenses held in place by imprisoning plastic frames.

All at once very aware that two years ago had left a forwarding address.

“That’s Rebecca Demarco…” I managed. Took a second to clear my throat before adding, “Perhaps you’ve heard of her…”

 

 

In the Now.

February 11, 2003.

8:45 pm.

 

Less than half an hour, before Lucky breaks narrative ranks and turns to his new companion.

Anything you feel like contributing, James?”

The joint is starting to fill, slow and steady. A handful of regulars are gathered at the end of the bar, hailing from Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba. Dominican Republic. Select college students who’ve found Zephyr’s generosity preferable to scoring a three-figure fake dot the tables in small groups. Two-man band setting up in the corner. Drinks flowing with gained regularity, smoke thickening along with the atmosphere, and James has to lean closer.

Soda in hand as he asks Lucky to repeat himself.

Don’t you think it’s time you shared a little?”

James does a yeoman’s job of pretending he doesn’t get it, but Lucky is a little too familiar with the acoustics of Creole Nights.

You’re a cool customer, James,” Lucky says, extending an olive branch. “But cool’s got a price, and you don’t get to play stupid. Play nice, let’s be equals for a bit here.”

James hesitates.

Lucky waits.

Chloe always thought this was an obsession,” James says, trying to make it sound epic. That seismic revelation TV detectives pull from out their hat in the final act. “Run of the mill, dangerous, pathetic obsession ̵̶ that’s what she told me.”

Lucky’s eyes weaken.

James returns the gaze, though he suspects it’s not him Lucky’s looking at. Looking through would be more appropriate. Looking backward, and James has the strangest sensation that he is watching Lucky fade away.

And she didn’t begin with the magazine,” James says. “The picture you saw, the preview, any of that.”

Lucky’s curiosity draws him back into present times, shields at full power. “Where did Chloe begin?”

With the contest.”

Interesting,” Lucky seems pleased to have a different premise to chew on. “How’d she sell it?”

The way she tells it is Gemini Pictures teamed up with Summerset Cruises for a promotional competition. Searching for young, pre-college filmmakers to submit a short movie about summertime, what it means to them, all that flimflam. Thirty-second spot, like a videotaped second-grade homework assignment. On a whim, you put a little something together, edited it at Video Squared, and sent it off. And you won. All-expense-paid cruise for two from Miami to the Bahamas and back. And according to her, if you hadn’t gone on that cruise, none of it would have happened.”

And you and I wouldn’t be sitting here,” Lucky concludes.

There’s no eventuality without events.”

Lucky thinks about it, waves a cloud of smoke from his face.

Zephyr mistakes it as a cue for more drinks, and a fresh round appears.

Lucky doesn’t complain. He shifts in his seat, facing the bar. Picks up his drink and has a sip, not appearing any the drunker for it. He lights a cigarette and asks, “What did you feel the first time you saw her, James?”

James follows Lucky’s lead, turning in his seat, staring straight ahead. Arms crossed on the bar, refusing to buckle under hot lights. So determined to keep quiet, he stumbles into the contrary.

It wasn’t any one thing,” James says. Searching for words. As though this is the first time he’s actually thought about it, because this is certainly the first time anyone has bothered to ask. “It was like that story you keep hearing a million times over. You know the one, from a million different couples. A crowded party, and someone looks across the room. Sees this girl. And looking back, they tell you it was as if the crowd had chosen that one moment to part, offering a clear and present view. Like a perfect little present. I remember looking at Rebecca Demarco. Dark hair. Those impossibly giant eyes, smile frozen in time. Wearing a shiny silver kind of dress that fit her form… nicely. Elegant shoulders. Spaghetti straps, I think, are what they call those kind of dresses. Or those kind of straps, really.” His lips twitch, baby-stepping his way through the memory of that moment. “She was beautiful, sure, but… you and I both know that. So do thousands of other secret admirers. What I think, though… what I think is that it was more than just beauty. My heartbeat got all fast, insides turned upside down, and there was a sudden… awareness of my skin, you know?”

Lucky nods, keeping watch over the mirror behind the bar.

But all of that was just…” James struggles, swallows, uncertain. Gives it one last push. “I felt as though, at that moment, there was nothing more important than her. Something in my… not head, not even heart, but all over, telling me that something was happening that couldn’t be ignored. A question that needed an answer. Answer that needed a question is how the counter cliché goes, or maybe ̵̶ I don’t know… Neither one, maybe. Maybe just…”

Disembodied question mark,” Lucky says, stealing thunder, and finding it in himself to laugh. “Have I got it?”

Yeah,” James replies, muscles tensing. Faintly mortified at how far he has just stripped down. “Whatever, I guess I thought it was important.”

It’s all right,” Lucky says, taking a mammoth swallow of his drink. A couple of drops come spilling from the corners, down his chin. He reaches for a napkin and dabs. “How long ago was that, James? How long has it been since the first time you saw her?”

Two years,” James murmurs. He shakes his head, “What’s the point? What does this matter anyway?”

I know you want me to get to the cruise. I know you want to hear about what happened, the action, the events. But you need to realize that first and foremost, before any of it, there was Rebecca Demarco. There was the same, empty confusion pulling at me, same as there was the first time you saw her. You’ve got one chance to hear this story, and it’s got to be done right…”

The overhead music cuts off.

James absently brings a thumb to his lips. Jaw line shifting as he nibbles lightly at the nail.

Did Chloe have anything nice to say about me?” Lucky asks.

No.”

Where’d you find her?”

Beloit.”

What the hell were you doing in Minnesota?”

Looking at colleges.” James removes his thumb momentarily. “She’s engaged now, by the way. Some doctor, moving on up, so I’m pretty much sure she’s over you, if that’s what you were wondering.”

Lucky takes a moment to let the news sink in, puts his face into neutral. His foot taps against the bar in light, arrhythmic beats. Then, straightening his shoulders he returns to his drink… “Well, I guess we’re not here to talk about what you know, are we?”

No, we’re not.”

Over in the corner, the regular Monday night duo plug in their guitars into a pair of worn amplifiers, start tuning. Surrounding movements start to pick up steam, and Lucky takes it all in. Peers through the cigarette smoke. Tasting something in the air, in his drink, sensing change with every movement he makes.

Confident that everyone is in it for the long haul tonight.

***

There’s some solace to be had that, at first, Chloe thought it was a joke.

A joke, or at the very least, some kind of guilty pleasure. That’s what she thought at the time. And the time was inching towards three in the afternoon when I graced her with my signature will call.

Rapped my knuckles against her bedroom window, and waited. The fifteen-minute walk from my house to Chloe’s was hardly the Boston Marathon, but down South, the most pleasant days still had a way of making things moist. I looked up, squinting against the afternoon light.

Caught a squirrel staring down from the roof.

I heard something scraping. Leaned close, straining to look past my reflection. A pale face floated from inside. Flat blond hair dropping just below the shoulders. Plump, asymmetrical lips, in a slanted smile that never reached her chestnut eyes unless she actually meant it. Her right arm was wrestling with the window, while the left, wrapped up to the elbow in a fresh plaster cast, tapped uselessly against the glass.

This amused me, and I returned Chloe’s request for assistance with a selfish grin.

Her eyes narrowed. Angry slits shooting poison darts.

I relented, planting both hands against the window. Scooting upwards in small, screeching increments.

“A little sympathy, maybe?” Chloe asked, pointing to the cast.

“When did that happen?”

“Two days ago. I tripped over my cat.”

“Not familiar with that expression.”

“Nobody is. I tripped over my cat.”

I hoisted myself through the window. Seamlessly, familiar with every foothold. My feet touched down on the gray carpet, right in the corner between her bed and small wooden desk. Family photos, childhood art projects, and second-print posters decorating the walls. Not a media personality to be found anywhere.

“You should have called,” I told her.

Chloe stood in the middle of the room, jeans and a tie-dye V-neck, loose around her body. “You talking about the arm?”

“Yes.”

She shrugged. “Like me and hospitals are any kind of news flash.”

I gave her a cautious hug. Rested my head on her shoulder, nestled into her neck. “You know how adults say you’d lose your head if it wasn’t attached?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s not normal.” I landed a quick kiss on her forehead. “Didn’t you break your wrist two years ago?”

Chloe trudged over to the bed and plopped down on the patchwork quilt. “One year ago.”

“It’s not normal.”

“I see you’ve come to cheer me up.”

“You want to go to the movies with me?” I asked. Moved to the desk for no reason. “Might be good for you. They’ve got handicapped ramps and everything.”

“What movie?”

I was figuring a way to sell it when the whirring of battery-powered wheels came to us from the hallway.

“Hey, Lucky.” Chloe’s father nodded from the doorway, stately in his wheelchair. Bright blue Hawaiian shirt tucked evenly into tan corduroys. Hair combed to the side, just a few weeks overdue for a trim. He scratched at his graying beard, eyes playful. “I overheard the words handicapped ramps, and wouldn’t you know, my ears simply burned.”

I shrugged. “Sorry. Is it differently-abled?”

“That was last year.”

“And now?”

“Handy-capable.”

“Will the Nineties never end?”

“When they do, I’ll be the first to kick their ass out the door.”

“Handy-capable it is.”

“OK, stop it,” Chloe ordered. “Both of you. Dad?”

“Your mother and I are going to the clinic.” Soft rational tone, typical for such occasions. “You need anything?”

“From the clinic?”

“Another arm, maybe? I’m buying.”

“Dad?” Chloe’s perpetually glistening eyes changed shape. Went deep. Voice kicked up half an octave, “Want to let me in?”

“Physical therapy. Also shots.”

“What day is it?”

“Seventh. June, if you were also wondering.”

Her good hand went to an unwinding stomach. “I forgot it was the seventh.”

“Summer’s quite a time to be young.” He maneuvered his chair from the threshold, moved on with a slight wave. “Adios, amoebas.”

I waited for the electric hum to fade away. “Everything’s cool, Chloe.”

“What movie?”

“Huh?”

“What movie, Lucky?”

“Oh…” I took a moment to think about it. More than a moment. It was a familiar feeling, though long abandoned. Uneasy in my own skin. A rabbit in a cage that won’t stop shaking. Inexplicably falling back into default, because, maybe, somewhere, I sensed there would be no stopping once I spoke.

Then again, perhaps it had more to do with an intensely stupid title.

Ghost Girl,” I told her.

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Ha, ha. Ha. Ha, ha.”

I made a popping sound with my lips and shrugged.

“You’re joking.”

“Nope.”

“This is a joke.”

“Fine, then it’s a joke.”

“Why the hell –”

“Rebecca Demarco.” The name was puked out with involuntary weight.

“Who the hell is Rebecca Demarco?”

“Remember when they made a movie out of that television show? The Oddballs?”

1313 Mockingbird Lane?”

“Yeah, well, she played…” I balked. “Girl Oddball, I guess.”

“Girl Oddball? You can’t even remember the character’s name?”

“Seemed like a stupid movie, so I didn’t see it.”

“But now we’ve got plans to see Ghost Girl.”

“Rebecca Demarco’s in it.”

“You just said she was in 1313 Mockingbird Lane!”

“Yeah, but back then it was different!

And this time, I think Chloe did hear it. She looked up from the bed, confused. That awkward stare after letting a secret slip, lashing out with an insult that hit just a little too far below the belt. I glanced down, arms folded. Watching my toes wriggle inside size nines.

“Well, all right,” Chloe relented. “What time?”

It was as if nothing had happened, and I smiled. “There’s a three-forty-five over by MLK.”

“I want popcorn.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Large soda and Twizzlers.”

“Let’s go.”

We stepped out into a story-book afternoon. The temperature was cruising at seventy-five, low humidity and a patchwork of sunlight shining through lazy treetops. Not a shred of evidence that summer would ever end. Time at a perfect standstill. Not the slightest breeze hinting at things to come as I took the wheel of Chloe’s dusty navy blue Volvo.

“You do realize,” Chloe informed me, sliding in and struggling with her seat belt, “that once you see Ghost Girl, that’s it for you. You will have been that seventeen-year-old rising senior who has seen Ghost Girl, and nothing you do will ever change that.”

“Said the lady who tripped over her cat.”

“Yeah, but someday, my arm is going to heal.”

I reached over, pulled Chloe’s safety belt, and latched it into place for her. “Well, until it does…”

“Gummy bears?”

“We’ll see.” I adjusted the rearview mirror.

Slipped the keys into ignition, and started the whole thing up.

***

“Two for Ghost Girl…”

I didn’t miss the ticket agent’s look, even through the glass. Didn’t miss Chloe’s embarrassed shuffling as she tried to distance herself from my side, stuck with admission. Didn’t miss the smirk on the usher’s face as he tore our tickets and sent us down the hall, last theater on the left. Hard not to notice that we were the only teenagers in a theater full of third graders and obliging parents. Every last adult eyeing us with tickled interest, certain that we must have bought our tickets and forgotten to sneak into the erotic thriller next door.

None of it escaped me.

None of it mattered.

Hard to say just where the gratuitous self-assurance came from. Perhaps it was some by-product of seeing Rebecca Demarco’s face arisen from two years past. Something to do with the day, promise of summer, or simply the thrill I had always felt while waiting for the lights to dim. Movies had guided, escorted me through those awkward years. A caring, benevolent force that never judged, extraordinary worlds resolving all that ailed us in two-hour blocks, offering hope in place of the everyday. Redemption. Faith. Clarity. Any number of four-letter words that had picked up extra riders along the way.

And the pleasant shivers created by such escapism were hard to let go, so, yes

maybe this was more of the same.

But even at the time, I think there was more to this escalation.

Ribs begging me to make room. Right foot tapping against the floor. Clammy hands, uninvited warmth crashing the air conditioning. A nervous excitement that bordered on precognition. Something beyond reason. No beginning, middle, end, or explanation.

It was almost too easy to overlook how awful the movie was.

Rebecca Demarco had grown. Details of that one photograph sprung from its prison, shifting; dancing around my head, wrapped around this moving, talking apparition. Wasn’t much difference between the two, but for a burgeoning maturity and a body well-past-burgeoned. Wasn’t able to look away. With every second she spent on screen, I could feel my eyes open. Widen, as though trying to take in all that the forty-foot screen would consent to. Every movement. Every half smile, slight roll of the eyes. Every expression from shock, to doubt, to heartfelt sadness. Every feature, every time undersized fingers reached up to sweep hair from her face, tuck it safely behind her ear. Sounds without words, nothing but the movement of her mouth echoing through my eyes and across my thoughts.

Not much of a difference between now and then, no, but enough

to bring about the strangest of thoughts.

The hushed understanding that, all these years, Rebecca Demarco had always been out there.

It accompanied me throughout the movie, gently pushed all surrounding details to the sidelines. High-octave babble of easily amused children, forced laughter of their parents. An entire audience swimming in pallid flickers of light. My seatback, the armrests, melting away along with the sound of candy wrappers and nails scrapping the bottom of popcorn buckets. Even Chloe, glancing sideways along with Rebecca Demarco’s first appearance, gauging my reaction.

She must have done it several more times during the hour and a half spent in that cavern.

But all I caught was that first time.

First time seeing her on the big screen.

And Chloe was left behind as my lungs filled with something other than air.

Sent me packing for a world reserved exclusively for me and Rebecca Demarco.

Somewhere among the distant stars.

***

Cover to Cover was an independently owned bookstore. One of the few time-tested establishments of Verona’s dying downtown, empty storefronts and government offices. Origin myths had it that the careless and sloppy nature of the road design had originally been conceived as a way to discourage outsiders from settling down. Cover to Cover seemed to adhere to this spirit, happily sacrificing its front door for a back-alley entrance, the only way to access Verona’s best-kept secret. There was hardly an afternoon that wouldn’t find me sitting at one of the ten or so tables. Menu of 35 different sandwiches, free refills on coffee. It was my own little sanctuary from the malls and morbidity. A remote island, wall-to-wall with used books, free for dine-in, under three bucks a copy for carry out.

Chloe and I stepped in, screen door slamming shut behind us.

Thick columns of daylight poured in through the five or so skylights. Refracted off the mellow haze of cigarette smoke. A few middle-aged, grizzled eccentrics glanced from their dog-eared literature, notebooks, and epic chess battles. The rest remained locked in clandestine conversations, voices on low.

We stepped to the counter.

Carla greeted us with her mainstay smile, full red lips like wax novelties against Scandinavian pale. Wiped a long serrated knife against an apron that did little to cover her substantial curves, and made for the coffee pot. Auburn and gray traces hanging down her back in a massive braid.

Two stools down, a sleeping Malamute melded contentedly with dusty wooden floors.

It had been a full week since we’d seen Ghost Girl, seen each other. Chloe was full timing at a local diner, and I had Video Squared.

Along with a few other preoccupying thoughts.

“So, I have a problem,” I told Chloe.

“Is it my problem, too?”

“I’d like it to be.”

“Three cheers, then.”

“If you knew for certain that you could write a letter…” I reached for the sugar, watching my words. “If you knew, shadow of a doubt and all that, that you could write a letter. Write a letter to a celebrity and actually have it handed to them. Personally say, by some kind of conduit –”

“Conduit?”

“A go-between,” Carla volunteered, spiking the conversation with her Georgia accent and a pair of mugs. “A conduit’s a kind of go-between.”

“I know what it means.” Chloe said, snatching the sugar from me and pouring a steady stream into her coffee. “So if you had some kind of conduit who could deliver your letter to Rebecca Demarco –”

“Well, I was getting to that.”

“Didn’t want my coffee to get cold.”

“Looks like it could use some cream.”

“I’m lactose intolerant.”

“What’s say we prove it?”

“Anyway.”

I snatched the sugar. Poured. Stirred and took a sip. “So you’ve got a chance to write a letter to a celebrity, any celebrity, and you want this letter to guarantee a personal response… how would you open?”

Carla was leaning against the counter. Arms crossed. Operatic breasts resting.

Gave Chloe an emphatic nod.

“All right, I’ll bite.” Chloe took a sip. “What’s your problem?”

I reached for a silver dispenser, ripped out a napkin. Requisitioned the pen from behind Carla’s ear and scribbled out a burst of left-handed letters.

Two words.

Slid them across the counter.

Chloe picked up the napkin, let Carla peer over her shoulder.

Dear Rebecca,” Carla read out loud.

Chloe looked up, unimpressed. “So?”

“So that doesn’t work,” I said. “Rebecca. Dear Rebecca. Rebecca, I can’t really address her as Rebecca, can I?”

“I do believe that is her name, Lucky.”

“To her parents, yes. To her agent, yes. To anyone fortunate enough to know her, sure. But this is us. The rest of us, we refer to her as Rebecca Demarco, don’t we? It’s like a title, in some respects. We haven’t earned the right to call her Rebecca.”

“Yes,” Chloe said. “How dare the peasantry rise up against the Romanovs?”

“He’s got a point,” Carla said. “When was the last time you referred to Robert Wagner as Robert?”

“Actually, don’t think I’ve every referred to Robert Wagner at all.”

“I’m a child of the sixties, no less than the stars.”

“And whose side are you on anyway?”

“Truth, liberty…” Carla flashed a grin, ambled down to an awaiting customer.

Chloe and I took the opportunity to claim a corner booth.

“So, what to do?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Chloe said, digging beneath the plaster. “Add the last name.”

Dear Rebecca Demarco?”

“Yes.”

“See, I thought of that.” Handed Chloe a straw to handle the itch. “But that’s just too formal. Remember, this is getting directly to her –”

“Oh, obviously.”

“ – and if I use her full name, it puts us on different levels.”

“You are on different levels.”

“She doesn’t know that.”

“She’s famous, she knows everything.”

I leaned back, picked up my coffee. “Does she know more than you?”

Chloe stuck her tongue out. “Culprit could be the D-word. Might be the standard for most letters, but most letters aren’t sent to people you don’t know. Dear makes it too familiar. Same way that her last name makes it too formal. Take them both out and see what you have.”

“I have Rebecca.”

“Problem?”

“So she’ll think it’s a death threat and call the FBI.”

“Turns out she knows exactly as much as me,” Chloe said. “What are we doing here, Lucky?”

I let my eyes float across the room. Bookshelves and posters out of focus.

“Lucky…” Chloe squeezed her eyes shut against the smoky air and shook her head. “Remember back when you couldn’t get a girlfriend to save your life?”

I shifted in my seat. “You must have me confused with someone else.”

“And I told you that unrequited love isn’t a fault? No fault of anyone’s, isn’t that what I told you? No such thing as a friend zone? You don’t get to choose, things are what they are?”

“That’s just something losers tell each other.”

“Thanks. I’ll stick to thinking of them as facts. And the facts are, everyone’s had a crush on celebrity at one point or another. It’s in the millions for this country, billions when you take it worldwide. And out of those billions, has anyone ever pulled it off? Ever?”

“Plenty of people meet celebrities –”

“Then go park your sorry ass outside of some premier. Stand on the sidelines, wave your little piece of paper and beg for recognition. With any luck, she’ll flash you a smile and leave you with an autograph. You can say you’ve met Rebecca Demarco, and that’s all she wrote. Right?”

I didn’t argue.

Didn’t have a single argument to begin with, so I scooped up our coffee mugs, muttered something about refills, and made my way to the counter. Head buzzing with the caffeinated bite of Chloe’s words. Trying to find loopholes in her logic. Unwilling to admit the common thread.

I placed the empties on the counter and waited for Carla to swing on by.

From across the room, one of the chess players muttered check mate. Someone struck a match, stirred their coffee. A few scattered coughs, Jonny Cash drifting through the air. I heard a wheezing sigh, and glanced down to find the graying husky stirring from its nap.

Chloe appeared at my side. “What’s the special today?”

“BLT. I’ll order us a couple, how’s that sound?”

Chloe held up a napkin between two fingers. “What do you think of this opening?”

I took the peace offering, straightened out the wrinkles, and read: “Dear Rebecca.”

Chloe raised her eyebrows.

“Can I sign your cast?” I asked.

“Absolutely not.”

“Let’s get to work.”

We ordered our sandwiches, and five hours later we had our first draft.

 

 

In the Now.

February 11th, 2003.

9:55 pm.

 

Lucky seems to have momentarily given in to the music.

Turned halfway in his seat, watching Jean and Lionel groove their way through a Bob Marley cover. Nothing in particular distinguishing it from the original, melodies kept simple. Lionel with his head hung, dreadlocks like willow branches as he cradles his bass guitar. Jean’s eyes closed tightly throughout. Chin up, voice easing softly from cracked lips, to microphone, to amplifier, out to all ears, whether they want it or not.

A tabby pads across the floor, thinking feline thoughts.

Hey there, Moses,” Lucky murmurs, then glances over.

James has removed his jacket. Tie loosened, top button undone, he remains the very image of misinterpreted adulthood. Unconsciously bobs his head to the music and reaches for a cup of tea, brewed fresh at Lucky’s request.

So here’s something you might have heard,” James says.

Lucky raises his eyebrows.

James mimics him, then continues, “After you left the theater, I have no doubt that Rebecca Demarco was the only thing on your mind. I’ve got this image in my head of your eyes adjusting, even though the sun must have been setting at that point. All disoriented, the evening crowd already lining up.”

Lucky nods with an estimated caution.

But I have heard…” James pauses, dredging up someone else’s memories now. “I’ve heard from others that you fell right into step with the rest of them. There’s people who say you went right back into that theater, came back out at nine-fifteen and did it all again. Even the midnight showing wasn’t safe from Lucky’s hungry eyes, that’s what some have said.”

That’s one version, yes.”

One of many.”

One of many that eventually took on a life of its own.” Lucky can’t help but look a little pleased, though it’s no better than having a friend loan you money for the rent. “Some say I took in Ghost Girl twenty times that week. Some say thirty, some go as high as fifty. I say those are all kind of iffy, even for an urban myth. Truth be told, round numbers are rarely fact. Just a little to exact to really be how it all happened.”

And the truth?”

None too spectacular.” Lucky sees someone waving from across the room, raises his glass. “On that first night, I did a little digging. Got back home from the Cineplex and went straight up to the attic. Methodically searching through stacks of magazines past, until finding exactly what I was looking for.”

The original sin.”

“Entertainment Weekly. December fifth, 1993. Trent Easter on the cover. I flipped back to her picture, saw that face from two years ago. Just as I had left it, that first knock on the door, served up with a two-page article; only this time it was under the grimy glow of a thirty-five watt bulb. Up there in the attic, where we store the past for just such occasions.”

Lucky pulls out a cigarette, lights up. “And this time I went through with it. Read the article, then began poking around current industry magazines, first steps in the lengthy process of getting to know her. Sent my mind wandering, and eventually got me to thinking about the letter.”

James nods, thinking. Absently dipping a finger into his tea with prim little jabs. He touches the wet tip down on the unfinished bar and writes out invisible letters in precise, sweeping motions. He looks up, sees Lucky watching, and abruptly wipes his finger on a napkin, crumples it.

Why the letter?” James asks. “It’s not like you had anyone to give it to at the time.”

Why does anyone write a fan letter?”

James goes back to his invisible manuscript, looking dour. “I wouldn’t know.”

You’ve never written a fan letter?”

No.”

Never sent one to Rebecca Demarco?”

No.”

Why not?”

Because why bother?” James snaps, growing moody as he talks. “Celebrities back in Hollywood receive bags of mail every day. It’s like writing to Santa Claus. Do these nobodies think they have an actual chance at making a connection? Do they think celebrities don’t get enough praise on their own, they actually need more? People write letters. They start fan clubs. Launch fan pages, collect clippings and pictures –”

They write letters.” Lucky agrees, absently. “They write letters in an understandable vacuum of hope because, when it comes to celebrities, it’s all a person can do.”

And then, of course, there was you.”

Lucky looks up from his drink and stares him down. Non-confrontational, and James has to step back from the fight he was expecting. Catches a glimpse of an oblique wonder in Lucky’s features. Some careful deliberation locked behind maximum security. Nothing final, though. Only a sense that it’s just barely ten o’ clock, and there are still so many unanswered questions. Mute sentiments awaiting in the promise of oncoming hours.

Well,” Lucky resigns himself to an ugly fact, still gliding on previous words. “I guess I thought I was special.”

And what happened on the cruise? Did that pretty much cement your status as Destiny’s chosen one?”

Lucky blinks. Glances around. Applause filling the room as Jean and Lionel announce their first break of the evening. The house speakers switch on and once again, festive Caribbean music sets the tone.

Zephyr glides by, sets a couple of tequila shots in front of them.

James glances down at the twin barrels, back to Lucky.

Looks like someone’s buying for us,” Lucky says. Once more, another wave from down the bar. He takes the shots and draws them into his orbit. “I’ll take care of these, you just keep having what you’re having.” In a single swift, well-rehearsed motion, Lucky knocks back one of the slugs. Smacks his lips and sets the glass down. No training wheels required. “So Chloe told you about the cruise?”

Well, kind of,” James eyes Lucky’s extra shot. “But the first person to actually tell me about it was Genevieve Goldman.”

Lucky takes a small leap back in time.

Returns with presents for everyone. “I’m surprised you managed at get at her.”

You know a thing or two about chance.”

What’d she have to say?”

Not much. Same as Chloe… She’s not wild about you.”

Did you talk to her husband at all?”

James frowns. “No. Why?”

Do you know who her husband is?”

No… Why?”

Lucky laughs and picks up the remaining shot. “Yeah, maybe it’s time we got to the cruise.”

James watches as Lucky sends this prelude down the hatch.

The band starts up again and the red glow of the Budweiser clock slowly crawls past ten o’ five.

***

So, come July fourth, Chloe and I found ourselves in Miami, ascending a wide set of metal stairs. Anonymous in a line of wandering, overfed ants. The starboard side greeted us like a large, eager grin. A massive ball of Florida sunshine hung directly above, renegade Christmas ornament. Chloe and I glanced back, trying to gauge the distance. All we got was the concrete dock, searing reflection in our eyes, unfazed by my wraparounds. Chloe wasn’t wearing shades, blinding light that sent her off balance, just as I managed to grab hold of her good arm.

“Unh-uh…” I anchored her with another arm around her waist. “No accidents. Not this week. We’ve earned this, Chloe.”

“Speak for yourself.” She snatched my shades and threw them into the water. “I feel like an enemy spy.”

I let go. Kept walking.

Months of preparation, OK’s from our parents, waivers and legal fine print, had finally landed us on board. Drunk off Fortune’s smile, and all the amenities that came with it. Five dining rooms. Four game rooms. Three pools. Two nightclubs, miniature golf, shuffle board and a fully furnished gym. A high-end Twelve Days of Christmas, and I stepped right onto the expansive weather-treated deck as though I were the guest of honor.

“Lucky Saurelius, Chloe Bloom?”

Standing before us was a man with the all the angular features of a trapezoid, underlined by a carefully manufactured goatee. Eyes straining against the sunlight, even through his Ray Bans. Pallid skin that shone with an unforgiving glare beneath a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, price tags hanging like a pair of bar-coded business cards.

“My name is Cyrus Sparks,” he told us. One hand remained behind his back, while the other did what it could to add grace and grandeur to a rehearsed welcome. “I am the Production Assistant of the Deputy Public Relations Coordinator under the President of Gemini Pictures. Gemini Pictures congratulates you and is thrilled to have you aboard. As you know, Gemini Pictures chose your submission from a very long list of contestants, and Gemini Pictures knows…” He paused, as though realizing there was no correct path for third-person-plural-present… “We are as pleased to have you aboard as we know you are to be here, in compliance with the regulations set by the Gemini Pictures/Summerset Cruise First Timer Contest.”

We had been warned of something resembling this person. Don’t know why I had been hoping for anyone above sixth or seventh tier. An executive dropping everything to babysit a pair of kids was a clearly absurd expectation.

And yet, clearly, it was hard to imagine anything more absurd than Cyrus Sparks.

I glanced over, saw Chloe copying off my thoughts.

I summoned all the charm I could, and smiled with him, not at him: “Lead the way, Mr. Sparks.”

We followed Cyrus across the deck and down below. He guided us though a series of hallways reeking of bleached sanitation. “Your parents have signed the forms, the paperwork is done. From here on out, we can only pray for smooth sailing.” He let out a small whimper. Combined it with a cough. “A presentation will be held for you in the main dining hall tomorrow night, after we’ve officially set sail for the Bahamas, into the ocean…” Paused in mid-stride, his body wracked with violent shudders before continuing, voice stretching in pitch. “After we’ve officially set sail for the Bahamas. We have provided you with a high-eight camera, videotape –” Cyrus removed the black leather bag from around his shoulder, and handed it over, “– best of which we thought would represent the Summerset Cruise Promotion, pending, of course, as you remember, the final editorial approval of Gemini Pictures and the Board of –”

He came to an abrupt halt.

Cyrus shot out his arm.

Pointed to a door on the left: “Your room, Lucky.”

His other arm shot to the right: “Chloe this is you. Ordinarily, this is where the assigned chaperone would stay. However, as stipulated by the Community Morals clause of the documents you signed, involving two minors of different engenderings, we can’t have you two sharing a room, so I’ll be bunking with Lucky.” He stared intently, giving the impression he had forgotten which one of us was which. “Don’t worry, Lucky, I bought a sleeping bag before coming aboard. Hope you don’t mind snoring!”

Cyrus’s cackle came as its own surprise, and he gave a startled hop. Glassy rabbit eyes. Glanced around, as though hearing whispers from the walls. Soothing voices reassuring him that everything was all right, and he slowly relaxed.

The steam whistle let out a deafening blast.

Cyrus screamed. “GODDAMIT!”

Chloe and I clenched.

No chance to react before Cyrus charged ahead with his concluding statements. “But above all else, try to have fun, you two…” He grabbed a handful of his own Hawaiian and wrung his hands free of sweat. “You’ve earned it. Bon voyage.”

Cyrus excused himself with a limp salute and hurried down the corridor.

Arms held out all the way, open palms planted against whatever surface they could find.

Legs fluctuating, ‘round the corner.

Two more successives from the whistle, before Chloe turned to me with a raised eyebrow. “You are about to enter a dimension beyond sight and sound…”

I scratched my head.“So what kind of pull do you suppose an Assistant-whatever-he-is has?”

“What kind of pull, what?”

“Never mind. I’m going to change into something else.”

“A werewolf?”

“No, I mean my swimming –”

But Chloe was always ready to have the last word, door to her room already closing behind her.

***

I closed my own door, found my mythology dampened once again.

Greeted by a single bed, night table, and sparsely decorated walls. Too many movies, I suppose, and a couple of decades removed from the days of the RMS Queen Mary. I didn’t bother to unpack. Changed into a pair of purple bathing shorts, sat on the bed and busted out the high-eight. Unwrapped a Sony cassette, snapped it into place with the satisfying click of a fully loaded clip.

The door opened just as my thumb found the Record button, and I swung around, catching Chloe in the viewfinder.

“Any opening remarks?” I asked.

Chloe leaned against the wall. An oversized white T-shirt brushing at her thighs, black shorts barely peeking from beneath.

“So, here we are,” she said, avoiding the autofocus.

“A real kick in the butt.” I stood to get a better shot. “You got a bathing suit under all that?”

“None of your business.”

“Just, I mean, if we’re going swimming –”

Chloe raised her plaster cast, now a roadmap of jagged signatures.

I kept quiet.

“We’re going to have a good time,” she said, framed within a rectangle of grays and gritty blues. Left leg behind her right, as though trying to hide the both of them. “We’re going to have a good time, I know we are. I really have been looking forward to this. But there’s not going to be sunbathing or swimming for me, so don’t be disappointed about that…” She glanced up, eyes trained on a teal watercolor hanging beside her.

I lowered the camera, opened my left eye with a few sluggish blinks. “You all right, Chloe?”

“Can’t help feeling like any moment, a pair of 1920s constables with those bullet-shaped hats are going to come bursting in, blowing silver whistles and just…”

“Throw you in the brig? Like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or something?”

She rolled her eyes: yeah, I know.

“Well, you belong here, whether you like it or not.”

“Why?”

“I don’t get the question… Was that a question?”

Chloe walked over to one of three windows. Rounded rectangles looking over an ultraviolet ocean. She squinted, drew the blind.

I shut off the camera. Tucked it back into its black padded carrier. Slid onto the bed, propping my back against the wall. “Remember back when you transferred to Pleasant Evergreen, the first time we met?”

“I met you six months before you even knew who I was…” Chloe walked over to the bed and sat down. Legs folded. Propped up on her functioning arm. “That whole semester, I remember hearing about you from your friends. All that chatter. Always wondering. You were never supposed to come back from Chile. Lucky Saurelius, ghost in the machine. When they told me you would be returning after all, even I started counting the days.”

“You never said anything about that.”

“Not the kind of thing you tell someone right off the bat. Hi, my name is Chloe, and by the way, first day after winter break, I was waiting outside the main entrance. Saw the school bus pull up to a group of eight or nine kids, all waiting. Saw them gather around you like one giant, amorphous blob. And right in the center…” Chloe glanced over. Eyes teasing. “With your mop of hair, glasses, and, God help us all, sweat pants. And that goofy-ass grin. I thought maybe you’d lost your upper lip in some kind of industrial accident.”

“Great, glad we finally had this conversation.”

“Not to say that my braces, bug eyes, and flat chest put me all that much ahead of the herd.”

“That’s a little harsh, there.”

“But then my schedule got screwed up, and I ended up in the wrong science class –”

I nodded. “My lab partner, Kawasaki disease –”

“Mine got scarlet fever –”

“Nobody gets Kawasaki disease.”

“Nobody gets scarlet fever.”

“Much less in the same class.”

“What are the odds?” I asked, not expecting her to lay any. “A clerical mishap, two improbable diagnoses, you and I meet, the rest is history… and that’s why you’re here with me now.”

“Because everything is out of our control?”

“Nothing is beyond our control. You’re here because you’re my best friend.”

Chloe thought about it. Fingers flat on the bedspread, where sailboats took to cotton seas. “And the rest is history?”

“History in the making.”

Chloe glanced up, eyes flecked with indigo. “I like that better.”

“Don’t ever tell yourself you don’t belong right where you are.” I reached out, put my hand on hers. “I been there, and I’m done with that. I go where I want. So do we all. And so should you.”

Chloe smiled. It was nice to see her mean it.

She opened her mouth to speak, paused.

Three raps on the door, loud and fast.

“Looks like it’s the brig for us after all,” I said, jumped off the bed and made for the door. “I call top bunk.”

“Yeah.” Chloe rearranged herself into a proper, seated position. “Just as I was starting to believe all your bullshit.”

Turn of the knob, expecting to find Cyrus Sparks.

Instead, I got what must have been his polar opposite.

First order of business was her black bikini. Eyes resting topside long enough to conclude that Cyrus had probably not developed breasts in the past fifteen minutes, I snapped to, greeted by inquiring eyes. Juniper green, flanked by Maybelline lashes. Auburn hair fell over half her face in an intended veil of mystery, every strand under strict orders to keep ranks. Unblemished skin topped with lips that belonged on a dessert tray.

“Hello,” I managed, missing debonair by half a mile.

“Hi.” The mystery girl flashed a scripted grin. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, perfect pearls singing eternal praise to her orthodontist. “I’m sorry, but I was wondering if you’d found a pager in your room? Two-way?”

“Haven’t really been looking for one…”

The words were hardly out of my mouth, when she casually popped her head past the threshold. Caught Chloe, seated on the edge of the bed. “Oh my God!” She covered her eyes with an embellished play at shame. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. Am I interrupting?”

“No.”

“Nope,” Chloe said, lips popping on the last consonant.

“Phew…” With a pert little laugh, Teen USA cat-walked to the center of the room. Dropped her gym bag to the floor. Turned, hair doing a little swish-bounce. “I’m Genevieve. Genevieve Goldman.”

I held up my hand in an motionless wave. “Lucky.”

“For real?”

“It’s a nickname.”

“That’s a dangerous nickname, there… Lucky.”

“His real name is Francoise,” Chloe volunteered flatly.

Genevieve blinked. “Huh?”

“Just kidding. I’m Chloe. Something about a pager?”

“Yeah, two-way,” Genevieve corrected. Knelt by the bedside table and began to search the drawers. “So this guy, some cruise guy, led me down to this room. Must’ve been dyslexic or something, because I’m all sitting there waiting for my parents to stop by with my little brother, who I’m stuck rooming with. Ugh…” She got on all fours, began poking beneath the bed.

Chloe shot me a look.

I raised my eyebrows.

Chloe rolled her eyes.

“So it turns out he got the wrong room…” Genevieve popped up, searched the dresser. “So I have to find my room on my own, I finally get there, parents, little brother and all. I change, getting ready to go, when my father’s all, Where’s your beeper, young lady?”

“Try the wastebasket,” Chloe suggested.

Bingo.

Genevieve got to her feet, presenting the sleek, charcoal-gray Motorola. “Thanks, Lucky.”

“You’re welcome,” Chloe and I replied.

“It’s funny, you know…” Genevieve strode to her gym bag. Tucked the pager into a side pocket, lifted and shouldered. “I was already so over this cruise. Don’t think I’ve seen anybody my age hanging around; mostly kids and couples. Then one room mix-up, a lost pager and… Surprise! I run into you two.”

“Yeah.” Chloe glanced up at me. “Don’t ever tell yourself you don’t belong right where you are.”

And clearly, that million-dollar smile wasn’t going anywhere. Though its owner was certainly heading for the exit. “Time to tan!” she announced. Stepped out, head hanging in for one final moment. “Hope to see you on top.”

The door closed with an impish click.

The room had taken on the distinct scent of suntan oil.

I sniffed. “That was weird.”

“My Testosterone-to-English dictionary has that translated as She was hot.”

“Yeah,” I headed over to my bags and threw on a shirt. “Hot as the sun and twice as certain the world revolves around her.”

“You say those things as though you mean them…” Chloe walked over to the door. Hips swishing in perfect homage. She turned, voice deepening well past any acceptable octave. “Hope to see you on top.”

“You say those things as though you mean them.”

Chloe winked.

She closed the door, and I was once again alone.

Alone in a room, on a cruise liner, just off the shores Miami Beach. July fourth of 1995, and in other news, Chloe seemed to be making room for some genuine enjoyment.

Which only left Cyrus. I picked up my bookbag. Dug through toiletries, my wallet, dog-eared literature, a couple of magazines. Found an aging copy of Entertainment Weekly. Opened that milestone issue, flipped to the picture.

Protected by those worn pages, there rested a letter.

Sealed shut. No stamp in the top right.

A familiar name printed on the cover

No address to match.

But there was an entire week awaiting for a chance to fill in the blanks.

So I merrily tucked my letter into the camera bag, and slung it over my shoulder.

Helped myself to a deep breath.

Suntan oil.

I smiled and left the room, feeling very pleased with myself.

***

Halfway down the hallway, we crossed paths with Cyrus Sparks. Sporting a Burton backpack and carting a pair of industrial sized designer duffle bags. He pointed at my camera case and dropped his bags. Slung his carry-on around to the front, struggled with the zippers. Looking a little green beneath his shades, Cyrus finally managed to extract an overstuffed manila folder. He brandished it just beneath my nose, muttered a scattershot tirade involving waivers, signatures, full disclosure, and something about the maelstrom.

Chloe relieved him of the folder, offering a baffled thank you.

Cyrus responded with a hurried, thank you later, picked up his bags and scuttled away.

Chloe and I emerged on deck to find the ship drifting along the coastline, now a rugged sliver in the distance. I unsheathed my camera, and the two of us set about getting to know our new home. It was Chloe’s idea to lead with location shots. No pretense required; the sooner we knocked out principal photography, sooner we could wrap. Necessity is the mother of invention, and I certainly didn’t plan to spend the entire week with a camera plastered to my face.

Two hours, we systematically hit every corner of the massive ship. From dining rooms, to the gym, business center to the dance floors. No real master plan, just the certainty that everything would eventually make sense in the confines of an editing room. Along the way, I hit up most everyone I could for a sound bite. Even managed to make good with several crew and service staff. Candid shots of them going about their business, kids frolicking on deck, healthy newlyweds jogging the four-hundred-yard circumference.

Cyrus’s mystery folder turned out a stack of printed waivers. Standard read-and-signs that gave us permission to use whoever’s image for whatever purpose we wanted. Never really thought twice how there were so many willing to lease themselves for a half second of media exposure.

I was just sharing the dream, spreading the word.

Our tour concluded by the port side swimming pool.

“It’s mad, mad world,” she said. Leaned against the snack bar, ordered a Sprite. Cheeseburgers and nacho cheese mingled with the aroma of tropical drinks. “Here we are, surrounded by water, and what am I looking at?”

“A swimming pool.”

“Let’s move to Iraq and build a sandbox, you want to?”

“Yeah, because it’s only one of the worst places on earth, and here we are stuck on a cruise ship.”

“Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“I think you’re being summoned.”

Down and across, stretched across a submissive chaise lounge, was Genevieve Goldman. Teeny bikini doing what it could to please the censors. Body glistening like wet sand, arm raised in a beckoning wave.

“It begins,” Chloe muttered, sandals smacking against the deck as we made our way over.

“I’m starting to think you don’t like her.”

“I’m starting to think you do.”

“Not my type.”

“Blood type, maybe.”

Genevieve went sunny side up. “Hi, Lucky.”

“I forgot my straw,” Chloe said, retreating back to the snack bar.

Genevieve looked after her, frowning. “She’s got a straw in her drink.”

“She likes two.”

“Whatever.” Genevieve motioned for me to sit in the chair next to her.

I did as I was told.

“I thought I gave you clear instructions to meet me up here,” she scolded.

“Had some things to take care of.”

“Family crap?”

“I’m not here with my parents.”

She shot up with an abrupt omigod. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“And no parents?”

“Chaperone.” As if on cue, I spotted Cyrus over by the snack bar. Florid digs, skirting the pool in a sideways crabwalk. Drink held close like a grenadine teddy bear. “Cyrus Sparks… right over there.”

“Oh, gross…” She laid back down. “Who’s your friend?”

“Chloe… You guys met earlier.”

“She your girlfriend?” Didn’t wait for me to answer. “Wait a sec…” She turned sideways. Adjusted her hair, wiped some sweat from her left breast. “What do you mean chaperone?”

“Summerset Cruises ran a contest. Submit a short video, winner gets –” I made an all-encompassing motion “ – all this. So now we’re here, making a promotional tape for the cruise line, a commercial that should –”

“Whoa!” She sat up straight, and I could see her pupils dilate against the afternoon sun. “You’re filming a commercial?”

“Yes. I mean, it’s still got to meet the approval of Gemini Pictures, and the board of something, not even sure Cyrus is even fully – ”

“You’re working for Gemini Pictures?”

“That’s not really how I would have –”

“Cool-wow!”

A grin crept across my face. “Cool-wow, yeah.” Grew wider. “I guess I am working for Gemini Pictures.”

A bright flash of pink streaked past as someone’s child sprinted towards the pool, went full cannonball.

I snatched the camera bag away, set it next to me, christened by wet shrapnel.

“Brat,” Genevieve hissed, reaching for her towel. Wiped herself off, motioning towards the bag. “That your camera?”

“On loan from Gemini Pictures.”

“Well…” Genevieve spread her trademark smile. “Why don’t you pull that thing out, then?”

My heart dropped into my swimsuit, strangled my testicles. “Huh?”

“Pull that camera out and let me have it already.”

I reached for the camera, glued the viewfinder to my face.

Turned it on as Genevieve laid back on her chair, posing.

“So tell us your name?” I asked, unable to do think of anything else.

“Genevieve Goldman,” she replied, briefly tugging at her lip.

“Age?”

“Eighteen.”

“Home state?”

“New Jersey.”

“Interests?”

“I am an aspiring actress.”

“Aspiring…” Had the feeling Genevieve was putting more stock in me than I had to offer, but I didn’t have it in me to call her out on it. “Why acting?”

“Why not?”

I shrugged. “Kind of hard to prove a negative.”

She laughed. “Is there something sinister about wanting to be famous?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Nothing is beyond our control, so…” She rearranged herself in yet another stylish pose. “Go on.”

I grabbed at the first thing that came to mind. “Most recent movie you’ve seen?”

Ghost Girl.”

The very mention sent an odd flurry though my stomach. “Wonders never cease.”

“Sure they do.”

“I mean, I saw that one myself recently.”

“Gross…” Genevieve stuck a finger down her throat. Broke character. “I had to take my little brother. And since he knows that Rebecca Demarco and I used to be best friends, he just kept asking and asking questions during the whole movie. Real loud too, like: What was she like? Where is she now? Does she have friends that are ghosts? I swear little kids are so gross…”

Genevieve trailed off.

Somewhere during this tirade, my jaw had dropped along with the camera. Still rolling. Found footage of my toes, framed in the upper-right corner, surrounded by an empty plane of white cement. I blinked, adjusting to a world beyond the video tape.

“What is it?” she asked, glancing down at the camera. Willing it to return home.

I cleared my throat. “You and Rebecca Demarco…”

“Used to be best friends,” Genevieve repeated. Unsure whether to play for status or put her foot in her mouth. “So?”

I didn’t answer.

Didn’t answer her, at any rate.

The world seemed to shrink.

Every last corner of this green earth condensed onto a ship whose size seemed just a little less impressive by comparison.

I breathed deep.

The ocean rewarded me with its vast indifference as I whispered, “What are the odds?”

“What are the odds of what?” Chloe asked, returning from her imaginary errand.

My thumb twitched inadvertently. Shut the camera off.

***

There it was that I found myself leaning against the railing. Iron rungs stretching across the length of this industrial whale. An endless horizon shone with silver shavings, illuminated by a pregnant moon. The rest of the ship’s denizens were gathered port side, awaiting a liberating display of fireworks. Waves stepped in to fill the night. Gulf stream winds made their rounds across my face and though my hair.

Shortly after Genevieve’s revelation, I had moved in with my own non-relationship with the actress.

Genevieve had given in to this considerable twist. Even Chloe had put her jibes on hold, uncharacteristically tongue-tied. If it wasn’t for the strange shape of our encounter, I might have noticed. Might have taken stock of Chloe’s silence. Protracted posture, even as I grilled Genevieve about this celebrity who had crept into my life not a few months ago.

A few years ago, to be more exact, but I wasn’t paying attention to the details.

Overall ramifications still settling at the bottom of the glass.

Night fell on the cruise liner, and through an unspoken agreement, Chloe and I had stealthily disengaged ourselves from Genevieve. I had gone back to my room, tucked the camera into my suitcase along with the permission forms. Replaced my bathing suit with a pair of jeans and a blue windbreaker. Chloe in her own jeans, and aquamarine fleece, left sleeve bulging with hidden signatures. The two of us side by side, my sentiments easily summarized.

“What are the odds?”

Chloe glanced down at the envelope in my hands, sealed shut. “Perhaps you should stop saying that.”

I traced my fingers around the edges. Contents anxious for a new lease on life. “I believe I’ve earned the right.”

Chloe brushed back at windswept blond. “I have all the right to wake up tomorrow morning and stick my face in an electric fan. All the same, guess what I won’t be doing tomorrow morning?”

“Sticking your face in an electric fan?”

Exactly not that.”

Something had changed. Different equation, a distant cousin of our time writing the letter. Only back then, there had been misgivings. Shame, underpinnings. The typical embarrassment of admitting anything other than a passing interest in Rebecca Demarco.

A sense of forcing my hand, branding myself with a tag or unfortunate label.

And now, there were no such reservations.

Like a struggling artist who’s just sold his first painting, a sense of validation.

It was weak. Possibly unwarranted.

And it was undeniable.“So what’s your problem?”

“I am impressed,” she said. Toes flexing, single sandal clapping against the her heel. “But hardly in awe. Coincidence happens.”

“Coincidence happens?”

“I believe that’s the very necessity of coincidence.”

“What about spectacular coincidence?”

“I think the term is meaningful coincidence.” Chloe looked up to the sky. “I think it’s interesting, very interesting, that you’ve run into someone who knew Rebecca Demarco. Not just knew her, but used to be her best friend. But you could make the argument that Rebecca Demarco is just another person. That she had to have lived somewhere. Had to have known quite a few people, as does anyone. And Genevieve happened to be someone from Montclair, New Jersey. Upper Montclair, specifically, so your population pool shrinks significantly if you’re actually looking at the odds. When you think about it, the odds of meeting anyone from Upper Montclair in a country of millions is actually no more staggering than meeting someone from Upper Montclair, a town of thousands, who happens to have known Rebecca Demarco –”

“Not just knew,” I insisted. “Best friends.”

Used to be. They were best friends, grew up together, went to the same school. They had a falling out, Rebecca Demarco moved to Manhattan sometime after that and there you have it. Genevieve is no more special than you or me.”

I felt my shoulders slump. “It still feels…”

“Feels what?”

“It still feels like it means something.”

Chloe didn’t argue, though her silence didn’t suggest assent. Dead air, along with an occasional creak or mechanical thump from within the labyrinthine ship.

I licked my lips, waiting. Tasted salt. Dry, sediment textures.

“Why did you bring the it?” Chloe asked.

I looked down at the envelope, turned it over a few times, a magician in the early stages of now you see it, now you don’t. Wind blowing in irregular patches, threatening to send the letter flying out into the Atlantic.

“Got to thinking about the contest…” I told her. “We were told there’d be a representative from Gemini Pictures along with us. Someone from the industry, and I just thought…”

“That was your conduit?” Chloe raised her eyebrows. “Cyrus Sparks?”

“Like anyone could have predicted Inspector Gadget in place of –”

“Gemini is one of the biggest motion picture companies in the world. I mean the whole world, Lucky. You really think they’d send top brass to babysit us?”

“I’m not saying he’s got the keys to the kingdom. He’s an Assistant Executive Production Coordinator under –”

“Which means, what, exactly?”

“It means… that he’s an Assistant Executive –”

“Yeah, you want to know what that sounds like to me?”

“Tell me what.”

“Sounds like when someone wants to get their little brother to do something. Like pick up all the branches in the yard, and you tell him, I’m making you my top stick man. Can you be my top stick man? King of the Sticks!

“King of the Sticks?”

Chloe put her available hand on my shoulder. “Say what you will about Genevieve, she was quick to say there was no connection left between her and Rebecca Demarco. Cyrus? I’m sure he already feels lame enough being stuck on a bullshit assignment like this. He’ll probably say, No problem, Lucky. No problem, head off to Hollywood, get wildly disoriented, then slip it in his dishwasher.”

I sighed. “Please exit to the left.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind.” I shook my head, stuffed the letter into my back pocket.

“So Genevieve’s not the Holy Grail.”

“Genevieve is not the Holy Grail.”

“And Cyrus Sparks can’t help you.”

“And Cyrus Sparks can’t help –”

From behind us, a timid voice called out: “Help you what?”

We turned to find the man of the hour. Tacky shirt swaddled in a North Face sweater. Dockers and Hush Puppies. Ten-hut against the wall, hands wrapped around his chest in a forced embrace. Eyes darting. Incisors chewing on his upper lip.

“What are you doing out here, Cyrus?” I asked. “Everyone else’s over on the other side.”

“Just thought I’d come over to this end. Balance out the ship.”

Chloe and I exchanged a quick glance.

“And to check in on you two,” Cyrus added, voice cracking. “Check in on you two. See how you were doing. That’s what the I’m here for is.”

“Thanks.”

“Sooo…” Cyrus rolled the vowel, dropped it low. “What can I do for you?”

Not a hell of a lot, I thought.

“Cyrus…” Chloe spoke up, dry and clinical. As though demonstrating a geometric proof. “Do you know Rebecca Demarco?”

It was the last thing I expected Chloe to say.

If the same went for Cyrus, he never let on. For a moment, he even relaxed. Mere mention of a celebrity landing him back where he belonged. “Rebecca Demarco…” A slow, boastful quality dripped into his otherwise anxious voice. “Yeah, sure. Of course I know her.”

“How well?” Chloe asked

Cyrus grinned. “Well.”

“Lucky’s got a letter he wants delivered to her. Well enough to deliver it personally?” She dug her elbow into my ribs: Check this out.

“Yeah, you bet,” Cyrus assured us. Sugar-frosted words. Snap, crackle, and pop of an identity crisis, doing what it could to be all things to all people. “I met her on the set of Jack Stewart’s show a couple of days ago. Gemini Pictures is releasing her next movie, and we got to be real good friends.”

Chloe shot me a castrating look: Yeah, knows her REAL WELL. Told you so.

“She even told me we should get together in Miami, but I told her I had this…” Cyrus took a step forward, then shrunk back, flat against the ship like a reluctant ninja. “I told her I had this…thing on a boat.”

“Miami?” I glanced down at Chloe. “Did he say Miami?” I turned back to Cyrus, took a few steps forward as the skies brought stars and planets just a little closer. “Did you say Miami, Cyrus?”

“I don’t know, she told me about the interview, but I…” Cyrus seemed to have sprung a leak, his ego deflating as he wrapped his arms back around his chest. “I mean, it’s not that I’m always on the set with celebrities, but don’t get me wrong, either. I don’t usually go out into the ocean –” His eyes widened. Even under the lullaby glow of the ship’s onboard lights, I could see his face turn a sickly, violent shade of green. “Did you guys just feel the boat scrape against something?”

“We’re not moving,” Chloe told him.

“We’re not moving.” I took a few more steps towards him. “What was that you said about Miami? An interview?”

Cyrus’s eyes grew, driven by a sudden panic. “I don’t know. I didn’t say interview, I just… Christ, I shouldn’t be here.”

“What about the interview? What about Miami, Cyrus?”

A small, choking sound bubbled from his throat.

“He’s afraid of water,” Chloe said.

“What?”

“Or the ocean.” Chloe joined me, face to face with Cyrus. She reached out and poked him in the chest. “That’s a safety vest under his sweater.”

“No!” Cyrus screamed.

And then, I had Cyrus pinned against the wall. Undoing the zipper, struggling to tear the purple shell from his body. He slid down, onto his ass. From some other dimension, I could hear Chloe yelling at me, a distant deterrent. Treasure hunt revealing an orange life jacket beneath. Cyrus began to thrash around wildly. Cockroach appendages, head swiveling like a bar stool as I struggled with the black plastic clasps.

It was nothing short of human sacrifice.

“What about the interview?” I demanded. Stripped the vest. “What about Miami?”

“Stop! This is against the rules of the Gemini/Summerset Cruise First Timer’s Contest –”

“Chloe…” I tossed the preserver at her feet. “Throw the seat cushion overboard.”

“I need that!” Cyrus screeched, unable to grasp that Chloe was actually on his side. “It’s my friend!

I got right up in Cyrus’s face. “Interview, Cyrus! Miami! What about it?”

“It’s an interview!” Cyrus broke down. Sweat poured from his brow faster than the breeze could cool it. Eyes plastered to his life jacket like a hypnotherapy patient. “Rebecca Demarco’s supposed to be meeting a reporter – Samantha Ray! Samantha Ray, she’s a reporter for Rolling Stone! They’re meeting at some place called Dempsey’s Café. Dempsey’s Cafe, in Miami!”

Chloe groaned. “Oh, shit.”

“When?” I focused my gaze on Cyrus one last time.

“Tomorrow!” Cyrus screamed, lungs splitting. “July fifth, the fifth of July, I remember how strange it sounded, fifth of July! I think… Eight, I think. At eight in the morning!”

Unbelievable.

I took a breath.

A pale air filled my body. Fuel for the fire, certain there must have been a reason for all this. Intuition actualized in yet another chance encounter involving a chance decision before any of this had ever happened.

The click of an orderly resolution solidifying in my mind.

Just enough time to mutter to myself: “What are the odds?”

I released Cyrus and took one last moment to take in my surroundings. One last chance to allow for logic, before all reason was soundly pinned to the mat by the overwhelming weight of coincidence.

I took heel, mind racing along with echoing footfalls.

Cyrus crying after me as the fireworks finally took flight, exposing the skies above us.

***

There was a certain mad joy to it all.

A clean, perfect acceleration of events as we raced portside. Resurrecting possibilities I had left for dead, thrown overboard into the briny deep. My feet slapped against the deck. Heart rate putting rabbits to shame as I reached the west end.

Chloe and Cyrus caught up with me, panting with a dozen half-constructed questions.

Their words blown to pieces by three searing blasts, ripping the very heavens into glittering shards.

Showtime.

No time for answers as I shoved headlong through the thicket of delighted tourists, mouths wide with infantile marvel.

Red, white, dazzling blue rained from the skies.

I remember feeling very alive.

And I remember feeling inexcusably significant.

Almost ran face first into Genevieve.

Eyes inches from mine. Lashes reaching for each other before I continued to push forward.

We burst from the drunken placenta. Up the steps to the business center. The entrance led down a corridor of balsam-paneled walls, carpet a neutral beige. Through another glass-plated door, and there we were.

Overhead lights with the night off. Ghostly screensavers gave shape to printers, phone terminals, and fax machines. Wooden coffee tables, thick set and low to the ground, joined forces with leather couches and armchairs. Cozy little board rooms for a modern business class that had no use for vacation.

Chloe leaned against the espresso bar, out of breath. Sleeves rolled up. “Something you can share with the whole class, Lucky?”

Colossal windows let in scattered flashes of American independence as I began to ransack the work stations. “Phonebook.”

“Yes. To think, all this time, it was just a matter of looking for her in the Yellow Pages.”

I glanced up, eyes adjusting. “Where’s Cyrus?”

Chloe pointed to a corner.

Our boy had fused himself to a plush armchair. Through unremitting bursts of light, I could see his fingers digging into the leather, looking to draw blood. Eyes locked on his knees. Bat-shit hermit in an empty log cabin.

From somewhere outside came the opening chords to Born in the U.S.A. Bright pops lit the room, revealing a pair of phonebooks, corner table. I rushed over, got to flipping. Through the windows, I could see the neon carnival of Miami Beach.

So damn close.

And yet…

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I pounded my fist against padded pages. Heard Cyrus crank a startled yelp. “There’s five different listings for Dempsey’s Café in Miami. No surprise, of course, knowing the overwhelming historical and cultural influence the Irish had on MIAMI, FLORIDA!” I pointed across the room. “Cyrus! You sure it was Dempsey’s café? Dempsey’s café, that’s where she’s meeting Samantha Ray?”

“Yes!” Cyrus shrieked, followed by a bout of rapid breathing.

“Well…” I took a few shallow breaths of my own. “Rebecca Demarco’s going to be stone’s throw away from here tomorrow morning, but apparently, she’s going to be in five different places at the same time –”

“Another victim of quantum mechanics,” Chloe mused.

“– yeah, just another useless event.”

From the shadows, she asked: “You want to tell me what some of the other useless events were?”

Each one of us, even Cyrus turned to the source.

Turned to see Genevieve step out into the half-light. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, jeans and a tight yellow long-sleeve. Arms crossed. Her face pooled in darkness, voice painting a perfect expression as she insisted:

“You want to tell me, Lucky? Tell me more about these useless events?”

I rested my ass on a nearby desk. “Look… Hey, look, Genevieve – ”

“Or maybe useless people, is what you meant to say, Lucky. Is that it?”

Festive bottle rockets and the Top Gun theme faded in the contagious vacuum. Found myself unable to stare across the room, even with no eyes to look directly into. The underlying whirrs and clicks of hard drives buzzed like pre-curtain wags.

Even Chloe had found a renewed interest in plaster cast signatures.

“How long have you been there?” I asked.

“A while.”

Genevieve crossed the room, face dipping in and out of shadows. Stood at the windows, several feet away. “It’s not my fault.” She said. “It’s not my fault I can’t help you, Lucky. It’s not my fault Rebecca and I aren’t friends anymore.”

Hearing her say that. Rebecca’s first name. No strings attached, calling her Rebecca and actually meaning it. Audacious posture replaced by an understudy. Even with the same familiar voice lingering beneath the memories.

“She’d been out of town for a while, filming 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Out in Hollywood. There were postcards for a while. Bit of a time delay between our letters, so I don’t know if it was just the post office, or if she gave me the wrong date, or if I got it wrong, but… she wasn’t going to be in town for my birthday, so I thought I just might as well not invite her. You know, why make her feel bad if she can’t make it anyway…?”

Genevieve waited for me to approve. Disapprove, react in some way.

“What does it matter?” Genevieve continued. “She made it into town early. Or on time, whatever you want to call it. And she found out I hadn’t invited her, my best friend, to the party, and we got into a fight. And that one fight just sort of got out of hand. We stopped speaking to each other, there was nothing for the next two years. And our next and last conversation was just a month or so ago. Last day of school. It really felt as though we were going to patch things up, maybe. And then, I heard she’d moved to New York to go study at the School for Young Professionals. And it turns out I didn’t get a forwarding address or phone-number…”

She handed me another pause.

I gave it right back, and she went on. “I mean, she’s getting there. Celebrity. That was the first step, I feel, when she left for New York. But I knew her when she was still Rebecca. To me, she’s still Rebecca, but to the rest of the world… And I’m just, honestly, so… sick of competing with her.”

The spite had crept back into her voice, eyes flashing along with firework reflections.

“Genevieve…” I heard Chloe testing the wind… “That’s wrong. That is just… incorrect. You are not competing with Rebecca Demarco.”

Genevieve laughed. “You just keep telling ourselves that, Chloe.”

I cleared my throat. “Look, Genevieve –”

“Why do you want to meet her?” she turned to face me. Genuinely curious. “Do you even know why?”

“Because…” I licked my lips. Took a few more ticks on the clock before I told her: “Because I believe I can.”

Genevieve nodded. “I think you can, too.”

And with that simple exoneration, the air rushed back into the room, along with something none of us were expecting.

“I know Samantha Ray.”

It was Chloe who finally spoke on our behalf: “What?”

“Samantha Ray is a friend of the family,” Genevieve said. “Used to live around the block from us. Like Rebecca. She moved to Manhattan ages ago, but my father’s in accounting, does a lot of business with her magazine, and as a result… It remains a small, tiny little world.”

“Genevieve?” My unspoken question was laced with cheap impurities.

Genevieve spared me the embarrassment and nodded. “I believe I can.”

“Tonight?”

“Just have to talk to my father. The rest is a couple of phone calls away.”

I could hear my voice tottering on the ocean’s edge. “You can make this happen?”

“Getting there is your own prerogative, Lucky…” She walked back through the room. Parked at the exit. Under the sheen of cyclops monitors, I saw her eyes shift from Chloe, to Cyrus, and finally rest on mine. For a moment I was inexplicably disoriented. Wondering at the dramatics, why this onslaught of coincidence seemed to be veering towards the shoulder…

And then it was gone, Genevieve’s promise sealed with, “I’ll come find you.”

She walked out. Glass door taking its sweet time closing.

“Ok…” Chloe sighed. “I know what you want to say, Lucky, so just go ahead.”

“What are the odds?”

“And I don’t want to rain on you parade, but – ”

“We’re out of here!” I proclaimed, bouncing off the desk.

From the corner of the room, Cyrus began to cry.

“Lucky!” Chloe waved her good arm in the air. “We are on a luxury cruise liner, miles from the nearest streetlight, let alone Dempsey’s Café. Generally not the sort of thing normal people consider to be a problem, but in your case it is. I don’t know how else to break the news, but you’re stuck on a ship that’s about to head for the Bahamas. After the fireworks, they raise the anchor, and that’s it.”

“NO!” Cyrus shrieked. Leapt from his seat and staggered into our circle. “Off! We’re getting off this goddamn ghost ship!”

“You see, he’s afraid of water,” I said.

“I’m afraid of him,” Chloe snapped. “I’m afraid of both of you, and there is no way off this boat.”

“Are!” Cyrus croaked. His fingers had stiffened into knotted talons. Eyes bulging. On the floor. Drilling an escape route. “The Summerset Cruise manifesto indicates in section fifteen, subsection seven, paragraph five, that in the event of a medical or personal emergency, passengers reserve the right to demand independent aid from any and all available shore-side facilities, pending signature of a waiver freeing Summerset Cruise Lines of all legal liability!”

Cyrus capped it all with a coarse, rattling gasp.

Chloe blinked. “Well, that certainly answers all my questions about section fifteen, subsection seven –”

“Cyrus…” I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure?”

“I’M AFRAID OF THE GODDAMN OCEAN!” Cyrus erupted, arms flailing as he moved to the computers. “YOU THINK I HAVEN’T MEMORIZED HOW TO GET OFF THIS GODDAMN BOAT BY NOW!?”

“Celebrity stalking hardly qualifies as an emergency,” Chloe said.

“I’m not a stalker –”

“And without an emergency, we stay right here.”

“Chloe, this could be my one chance –”

“Get used to the idea of no chance at all –”

“Chloe –”

“Christ, Lucky, give it up, why don’t you?”

“Lucky?”

The sound of Cyrus’s voice shut both of us up.

Centered. Easy, breezy, as though channeling an entirely different person. Standing just a few yards away. Eyes lucid, damn near enlightened. Knees bent in a batter’s stance, both hands holding onto what appeared to be a spare keyboard. Positioned behind his left shoulder with a quizzical, almost trusting look.

From the corner of my eye I saw Chloe’s mouth open.

All set to bring reason into this unfortunate endeavor, and I couldn’t have that.

I clenched my fists and nodded. “Do it, Cyrus.”

And so, Chloe’s reaction came just a little.

Too late.

Doing what she could to gather sufficient air for a scream that would never make it topside, even as Cyrus rushed towards me, keyboard already in full swing, preparing to create a little emergency of our own.

 

 

In the Now.

February 11, 2003.

10:30 pm.

 

The young James Joyce has surrendered to an unexpected grin. “So it was all Cyrus Sparks.”

To a point,” Lucky replies. Can’t seem to help sprouting a smile all his own. “He did send an IBM keyboard upside my head.”

James scrutinizes Lucky’s forehead. “I’m only seeing a scratch.”

Blood dripping down my face –”

Spewing, though?”

Blood all over my shirt –”

Droplets, maybe?”

All over my shirt.” Lucky illustrates by rubbing his hands along his torso. “I’m stumbling into the Captain’s lounge looking like something Jackson Pollack peeled off the floor.”

And I hear,” James insists, “that that the captain was adamant. Adamant that on-board assistance would have served you just fine.”

The captain was freaked out of his mind.”

All thanks to Cyrus Sparks bursting in with you, rattling off section after subsection of obscure cruise ship protocol which I doubt even the captain had read.”

Lucky turns back to his drink, rubs his head and mutters, “Rainy days, I still can’t think in anything but ones and zeros.”

Zephyr has been hovering nearby, rinsing glasses. Lets loose with a pleased laugh. “You are just plain fucking crazy, Lucky.”

Yeah,” Lucky and James agree in tandem.

And the bubble bursts.

James pokes at his teabag, lying spent on a coaster. Lucky dips his beak into the Jack Daniels, reaches for a cigarette. A blonde woman, waiting for her receipt in professional pinstripes, lights a match. Lucky accepts her offer. Fires up his cancer-stick. The two of them share a nod, blonde woman’s eyes glowing a bottled green before blowing out the flame.

Her slip arrives, and she calculates for tip. Signs, shoulders her bag. Heads for the exit.

Out of sight, though Lucky looks after her as though out of mind is going to take some work.

Seriously, though…” James kicks Lucky’s stool. “What were you thinking?”

Lucky sniffs. “About?”

The cruise.”

Let me ask you something… Just how many people have told you about the cruise?”

Chloe, Genevieve.” James shrugs. “Should be obvious.”

Reason I ask…” Lucky finishes his drink, taking all he can before setting the glass in Zephyr’s crosshairs, “is that neither one of them went with me to the Captain’s Lounge. Genevieve was hitting her father up for Samantha Ray’s phone number, and Chloe was looking for someone to bring our bags up from the room. So you seem a little… Well informed would be the term… Just plain old informed, I guess, about what happened.”

Chloe and Genevieve were the only ones I talked to who were there…” James clarifies, pleased with his serpentine moves. “But there’s some who say your wound was a nine-stitch kind of thing. Had this one guy I met in Palm Springs, heard that Lucky smashed his own head through a window. Just to gauge his reaction, I told the guy that Cyrus had actually bashed your brains in, explanation for your subsequent actions, the whole mental breakdown. And the guy told me he’d heard that one, too.”

Lucky sighs. “Well, I always told the story as best I could. Guess there’s no controlling an experiment like this, though. What people tell other people. Hell, you’re putting in quite an order trusting whatever I have to say. Must have told it a thousand times on the road to total self-destruction. Perhaps it was secretly my way of putting it out there. Message in a bottle. Hoping it might someday get around to Rebecca Demarco.”

James looks down at the floor. “Wishful thinking, Lucky.”

Lucky tilts his head to get a better look at James. “Seems to me it got around just fine.”

James looks up. “Oh, it got around, Lucky.”

And now I’m stuck with you.”

And I’m not going anywhere.”

Lucky shrugs, circumventing the obvious. “Scratch or gaping wound? All that matters is that, at the time, I was willing and ready for either one. I was ready to lose a limb, if that’s what it took. That’s the bedrock basement of the story, and it’s all that really matters, kid.”

James relents, signaling the end of yet another interlude.

Creole Nights continues to buzz with activity. Far left corner packed with underage drinkers. Nearby couple at the bar cornered by an overzealous businessman, his life’s story powered by a steady diet of apple martinis. Waitresses calling out Zephyr’s marching orders. Glasses filled with the musical clatter of ice cubes, harmonizing with steel drum melodies from yet another prerecorded mix.

A regular steps between Lucky and James.

Bucket full of dollar bills, Tips for the band, please.

James and Lucky dig into their pockets, trying to see what they can come up with.

Present argument done, and everything else far from settled.

***

The wind whipped at me with nine tails, drying the blood on my face.

Our evening had taken on a blast of acceleration. The clock remained, tic for tock, an unforgiving guard dog. Getting to the captain, convincing him to get us to shore. Trying to buy time as orders went out, waiting for Genevieve to find us. Hamming up my injury, dragging my feet. One arm around Chloe, who continually found new ways to slam her cast into my ribs. Drawing attention as we made our way across the deck. Whispers from passengers. Tubby fingers pointed, secret worries that this might force them all back to dry land.

So Chloe and I had achieved at least a small taste of celebrity.

And all Cyrus had to do was act naturally.

Still no sign of Genevieve as we approached the lifeboat.

I faked a dizzy spell. Knees buckling.

Almost sent Chloe overboard and Cyrus into the abyss.

Bought us less than ten seconds.

One foot in and one foot out, when Genevieve finally came running. Cutting through the rubbernecks. She drew close, truncated gasp escaping her lips as she saw the damage I had sustained.

I winked, softly.

All her concerns replaced by a radiant smile, lips brought in for a landing.

Whispering into my ear:

“Dempsey’s Café in Key West, Lucky. Not Miami…” She pushed a slip of paper into my palm. “Call if you have any problems… and tell Rebecca I say hello.”

They lowered our boat into the pitch. Sent us flying towards the shore, piloted by some fifth-in-command. Making waves as I watched city lights grow brighter. Outboard motor on a roar. No pain in this brain, lost to what glorious prospects awaited. Letting go and following breadcrumbs towards the candy.

Wasn’t until one minute from the shore that I was struck by flashes of red and white.

Fireworks no longer keeping with constellations, it took a sobering couple of seconds to pinpoint the source.

The familiar shape of a slithering snake.

Red cross against the white paint job of an awaiting ambulance.

Already backpedaling. Damage control, as we gathered our suitcases, ushered along the concrete dock by our skipper and an awaiting EMT. Chloe sticking to five stories at once, Cyrus clinging to her waist as I launched into unscripted clarifications.

“There’s really no need to bust out the defibrillator,” I told them. “Just a scratch, or tiny gash…”

“The chair absorbed most of the impact,” Chloe added.

“I thought it was a table corner!” our ferryman called out, ears still adjusting from the roar of the speed boat. “Table corner, you said!”

“Tripped on the chair,” Chloe managed, though our story was no longer the issue.

The ambulance doors were open wide, hungry for a midnight snack. Sterilized interior. Fluoride white, the proverbial light I’d always been warned never to step into.

“I’m sorry,” the ferryman shook his head. “But if you requested off-shore services, you’ve got to get yourself checked out, otherwise Summerset could be on the hook.”

“You’re going to have to come with us, son,” the EMT said.

I turned to Cyrus, who managed a weak, half-nod.

Chloe stared at me, waiting for the next move.

“Well, in that case…” I holstered my bookbag, motioned for the rest to follow suit. Waited for my nerves to catch up before shouting: “RUN!”

We charged across the dock. Feet flying, bags swinging, banging against our bodies as we made it onto the beach. Sand cramping our misdemeanor. Darted between inebriated college students, tourists and beach bums. Blind getaway. None of us too certain where we were headed. I caught sight of Cyrus breaking ranks, running his own race towards Miami traffic. Arms flailing, luggage trailing in the wind, screaming with a delirious joy as he disappeared into the night.

Vaguely certain I would never be seeing him again.

The promenade was packed, roads congested with cruising motorists.

“Hold it, enough…” I managed to catch my breath as we regressed to a brisk trot. “Just walking now, Chloe. Just walking.”

I glanced back to the beach.

Yet to tell if we were finally in the clear.

“You see them?” Chloe asked, readjusting the bag on her shoulder.

“Think we’ve got surprise on our side?”

“Good thinking. Good plan, Lucky. Honestly, I’d tip my hat if I thought it might kill you.”

“All we’ve got to do is get a bit of distance between us and the beach.”

“That doesn’t look like your duffle.”

I glanced down, realized that she had a point… “Huh.”

“That’s…” Chloe squinted at the airline tag… “Ah, there it is… Cyrus Sparks.”

No big deal. “Camera wasn’t mine, and I still got my bookbag… He can keep my toothbrush, if he wants it that bad.”

“You do realize we’ve committed a crime tonight,” Chloe said, fairly certain nobody within earshot cared that much… “I think we committed a crime.”

“Victimless crime.”

“Great…” Chloe ungracefully forced her way through the crowd. “All we have to do now is get out of Florida and never come back.”

“After we get to Key West.”

Key West?

A wasted frat boy stumbled towards her, red solo cup in one hand. “Hey, baby! Let me sign yer cast! Let me AUTOGRAPH it with my DICK!”

Chloe shoved him aside, sent him sprawling on the sidewalk. “Let’s just find a way to get there before one of us ends up dead.”

Easier said than done. Slender hand slipping past the midnight hour, and we were strangers in paradise. The streets of Miami had a shifting quality, puzzle box. A pink and aqua-blue vortex that promised one direction only to dump us seven blocks contrary to our projected target.

Same rules went for the bus depot. Long lines, commotion and contradictory signs even at two in the morning. By the time our Greyhound came lumbering to the gate, my adrenaline had faded. Replaced with a pulsating, alien vibration in my skull. Didn’t much improve as we found our seats, pulled out of the station. A brake pad squeal stabbing at my temple with every stop and gradual acceleration.

I staved the pain with furtive thoughts of Rebecca Demarco. Endorphin rush returning as I played and replayed the oncoming scenario in my head. Picturing the coffee shop, Rebecca Demarco seated at the next table. Sitting across from Samantha Ray, envisioned as a statuesque blonde, sharply dressed with accessorized urbanity. Scribbling away in her notebook, while Rebecca replied to inquiry with considerate, yet playful answers.

Not knowing very much about Rebecca Demarco, I was having trouble hearing her replies. Same rules went for my fantasy. Nothing beyond a limited filmography and one or two featured magazine pics, and I found myself substituting movie frames for reality. Cross cutting between different moments, trying to put together a feasible scenario.

Dreaming, as we traveled from Key to Key, bridge after bridge.

Each one bringing me closer to Rebecca Demarco.

There I was, stealing the table, right next to hers. Having her notice me halfway through the interview. Waiting for Samantha Ray to head for the ladies’. Turning to ask me for the sugar. Or cream, I wasn’t sure how she took her coffee. Cream, sure. Because then, I might notice those acidic clumps floating around in that tiny pitcher. Offer to get her a new one. Start up some small talk. Making her laugh a few times, that breathy, rapid-fire chuckle. Never letting on that I knew who she was. Letting her get back to her interview, the two of us stealing glances at each other. Samantha Ray asking What kind of guy is Rebecca Demarco interested in? She begins to describe me to a T, stirring her coffee in shy, velvety swirls. Dropping her spoon on the ground. Both us reaching at the same time, bending over in our seats as our heads collide. Letting an embarrassed laugh escape before our eyes meet. Really meet for the first time. And in that moment, as I pictured her expression right before the climactic first kiss in Ghost Girl

Chloe woke me up right about the time my imagination had sent in an army of ninjas, looking to take Rebecca Demarco hostage.

“What do it happen?” I mumbled incoherently, rubbing my eyes.

“I don’t know,” Chloe replied. “Green, I guess?”

I sniffed, noticed all remaining passengers edging off the bus.

Out into the morning light.

I shot up. “What time is it?”

“Seven-fifty.”

“Shit-balls!”

I leapt from my seat, ready for action.

Reduced to a slow shuffle, as the line gradually lead us towards the front.

We stepped out, into Key West humidity. Searched my pocket, wrangled the address. I asked the driver for directions, estimated distance.

“Ten minutes walking.”

So running seemed to be in order. Sprinting down unfamiliar streets, once again. Hardly a single thought as to how I had arrived at this point. No longer associating the past twenty-four hours, not to speak of the past two months. Hopes and daydreams propelling me around one last corner, brought to a screeching halt in front of Dempsey’s Café.

Chloe caught up seconds later. Stood behind me I stared at the glass door.

Its wooden frame was carved with intricate Celtic symbols, gateway to the promised land.

I swallowed. “Does anyone have any gum?”

“Lucky…” Chloe took hold of my chin. Licked her finger and gently rubbed a few overlooked patches of dried blood from my face. She carefully examined her work, before nodding… “OK.”

“OK…” I wiped my palms along my ass. One more breath of salty air before saying: “OK. Just follow my lead.”

“That’ll be an interesting change.”

I opened the door and stepped inside.

It was just as I had imagined. A contained, comfortable setting, home to no more than ten tables. Old-world photographs decorated the dark oaken walls. At one end, a raven-haired waitress wiped down the brassy surface of a compact coffee bar. Overhead fans. No need for light bulbs. The daylight poured in free of charge, an isolated sunbeam resting on a corner table.

Corner table, home to an older version of an imagined Samantha Ray. This real-world model was drifting into middle age, streaks of silver in a conservative, blonde bob. Seated by herself, legs crossed. Pen trapped evenly between her middle and index finger, she absently tapped the both ends against an expansive day planner.

Steam rising from her cappuccino, foamy surface untouched.

Freshly made.

I moved in, took a seat next to Samantha’s table.

Chloe joined me, and the two of us tried to surreptitiously slip our bags under the empty chairs.

We sat. Staring at each other with a forced, casual poise. Hands politely folded in our laps, achieving a stillness generally reserved for interplanetary spies. Our mute ripples of discomfort warping the atmosphere of an otherwise pleasant café.

“Well,” I coughed. Tenor somewhere between insurance salesman and CIA spook. “The Miami Herald said this was a good place for coffee. Best in the state. Rated twelve beans out of fifteen.”

Chloe just stared, horrified.

The waitress came over and I went with the Herald’s advice.

By our first sip of java, Chloe and I had managed to put together a fairly believable conversation. I did my best to act interested. Even found ways to insert an occasional smart-ass remark. But with every jingle of the doorway, my heart would lay down a drum line. Body stiffening. Knees together before discovering yet another random customer in place of Rebecca Demarco. I’d order a refill, and try to reengage. Pick up where we had left off.

This went on for what seemed like an hour.

Then it went on for an actual hour.

Samantha Ray ordered lunch. Eggs Florentine, with a side of cinnamon baked apple slices. Switched to decaf, and lit a cigarette. Never once glancing at the door. Not out the window, not even at her watch. Calm as candlelight.

I took another look at Genevieve’s contact information aboard the cruise line.

Stared down, remembering her radiant smile as she had whispered in my ear:

Tell Rebecca I say hello.

I felt my stomach turn, Italian roast gurgling.

“Excuse me…” I got Samantha’s attention. Didn’t bother with offhand, as I already knew the answer… “You’re name’s not Samantha Ray, is it?”

The stranger blinked. “No.”

“Damn it!” I stood, chair hitting the wall.

Didn’t bother to catch the public reaction. Stormed towards the back, payphone by the bathrooms. I slung the receiver over my shoulder, plugged in a calling card number. My fingers were bashing the buttons by the time I’d finished off her digits.

“Genevieve?”

Through the thin connection, I heard her voice: “Is that you , Lucky?”

I had to grit my teeth. “So I suppose you know where I’m calling from.”

A sing-song melody peppered her words: “How’s Dempsey’s Café treating you?”

“I suppose that depends which one you’re talking about.”

“There’s more than one?”

I closed my eyes, brought my head to rest against the wall. “You never spoke to Samantha Ray, did you?”

“No.”

“Never even met Samantha Ray, have you?”

“No.”

“And I’m here in Key West, aren’t I?”

“You should’ve stuck with me, Lucky.” Genevieve’s voice dropped several degrees below zero. “You should’ve stuck around and seen just how useful I could have been.”

“Is that it?”

“She’s not that great, Lucky.”

“Thanks for the opportunity to find out for myself.”

“It’s not the end of the world.”

“It’s the end of this conversation.”

I hung up.

Wandered into the bathroom to wash my face.

Caught a glimpse of my battle scar for the first time. Nice little stripe of dried blood alongside my left temple. Almost black, an extension of my eyebrow. Then I noticed the blood on my shirt. Streaks and dotted splatters along my white tee, forming a near perfect letter R.

I tapped on the mirror a few times, just to make sure we were talking about the same thing.

“Real funny, Chloe,” I muttered.

Punched the button, blow-dried my hands.

My return brought a fair share of apprehensive stares from the customers.

Chloe waved me over “Hey, Lucky –”

“You wipe the blood off my face, but forget my shirt?” I asked.

“Perfect ice breaker, yeah?”

“Doesn’t matter. Genevieve sent us on a snipe hunt. We should’ve stayed in Miami.”

“We should’ve stayed on the cruise ship, but yeah. Doesn’t matter…” Chloe gestured to the blonde woman. “Lucky, this is Adrian Lane.”

“Hey there,” Adrian nodded, amused wrinkles around glittering blues.

“Adrian’s an actress,” Chloe added.

I sighed. “Seems to be the case with everyone these days.”

“Ms. Lane… Care to tell Lucky what movie you starred in, back in 1991?”

Looking For a Live One,” Adrian replied. Cocked her head to gauge my reaction.

“Wait.” I paused, weaving this latest thread into the tapestry… “Also, hold on. You’re the Adrian Lane?”

“I’m surprised you’ve even heard of me, honey. A kid your age.”

“I just saw Looking For a Live One. On video, couple months ago, it’s just that –”

“That you didn’t quite recognize me, because you spent the whole movie on the lookout for a certain Rebecca Demarco?” She winked, a sly sort of peace offering. “Your girlfriend told me all about it while you were in the can.”

Neither one of us bothered with the corrections.

“That’s quite a story you got there,” Adrian said. “Quite a story.”

“Getting more quite all the time.”

“I know. What are the odds?”

“Sentiment du jour.” I slid into my seat, cautiously. “It’s been a bit of a ride.”

“All those coincidences,” Adrian mused. Unassuming for a professional with over a hundred film and television appearances under her belt. Her eyes filled the room with a knowing gaze. Pure presence; the fabled silver bullet that separated working gigs from actual careers. A palpable reminder of my place in this world.

Something I didn’t care to think about. “You must think I’m certifiable.”

“Maybe…” Adrian took a sip of her coffee. “But it’s the crazy ones who notice things. Or summon things, if you want to look at it that way. Which do you think it is, Chloe?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“There’s some people got a million stories to tell. Others, you wonder if they even know the difference between living and existing. Does the only difference between the two come down to observation? Is it Seek and ye shall find? Or is it that some people are just lightning rods for the exceptional events in life?”

“Like destiny?” Chloe rolled her eyes. “Sorry. Don’t subscribe to the concept.”

“Lucky? What do you think?”

I chose not to fake my way through this particular exam. “Guess I’ve never really thought about it.”

“There might come a time that you’re going to have to.” Adrian regarded me with a thoughtful gaze. “Winning the Summerset contest, that’s already something in and of itself. And on that very cruise, you meet Rebecca’s childhood friend. Coincidence, or destiny? This girl can’t help you, but then it turns out that this Cyrus character also knows her. In fact, he comes to you with knowledge of her immediate whereabouts. A gift from above, or just a freak accident? Who knows? Then again, this all began long before today, years ago. You glimpsed into a magazine and felt an inexplicable pull, sensed something about Rebecca Demarco. Inherent meaning, or just a tacked-on conclusion?”

“What about Genevieve claiming to know Samantha Ray?” I asked sullenly. “Smoke and mirrors. Tacked onto nothing.”

“Except that she sent you down here to me. So even though this Genevieve girl may have succeeded in deterring you from Rebecca, here you are. Sitting next to yet another person who knows the very actress you’ve been looking for.” Adrian raised a sun-bleached eyebrow. Her features dramatically free of all implication, forcing my hand. “So what do you call that?”

“Another coincidence… Though I get the feeling you wouldn’t be so forthcoming if it were actually more than that, this time around.”

“Sorry, kiddo…” She reached over, tapped my hand, fingers heavy with assorted brass rings and birthstones. “I’m a about a thousand years old, honey. My connections are good, but Rebecca’s new blood. I couldn’t possibly pull those kind of strings for just a fan. No matter how much I wanted to…”

Chloe cleared her throat, found a far-off corner to stare into.

I nodded, stiff upper lip. Head reeling from multiple defeats, and a possible skull fracture. “Fits nicely, though, doesn’t it?”

“Everything happens for a reason, Lucky.”

“You think so?”

“I do.”

“Then I’m almost afraid to ask what comes next.”

“Poor kid. It was never my intention to spook you.” She leaned back in her seat. “I promise, I’m just an innocent professional who’s in Miami on business. I woke up early this morning, and thought I’d drive on down to Key West to clear my head. Met some crazy kid with stars in his eyes and no place to turn… I suppose I should, at the very least, offer you two a place to crash.”

Chloe set her own cup down, joining us in the grassy expanse of left field. “Excuse me?”

“A place to crash.” Adrian closed her date book and wiped the slate clean. “Unless you’ve somehow concluded you have any control over what happens next…”

I exchanged glances with Chloe, as Adrian Lane, the Adrian Lane, signaled for our checks.

Together, not separate.

***

Chloe had a history of backseat carsickness, and so I let her take shotgun. It wasn’t an entirely magnanimous gesture; the lurching pursuit of Rebecca Demarco had left me with my own brand of motion sickness. Touch and go. Red light, green light. Stuck on a penny sent spinning through the air.

And now this coin’s dramatic arc had come to an inauspicious end. Slipping right though fate’s clumsy little fingers, bouncing merrily into the mouth of a dank sewer drain.

I sat quietly in the back seat of Adrian Lane’s rented Saturn as we skipped from Key to Key, speeding across a hundred and twenty miles of bridges and tourist attractions. Blinding light littered the water, as though the sun itself had fallen, shattered against the rippling surface. The hum of tires interrupted every so often with the thumping interchange from flyspeck island to rainbow bridge, to flyspeck island. With every mile closer to the mainland, I felt my thoughts turning milky. Losing definition, reflections in a humid rear window. The chase had ended, left me clinging to what details I could, interrupted dream, desperate to make sense of it all.

Bringing us right back to Miami, perfect U-turn.

Although the Crown Plaza Hotel was certainly a far cry from the depot.

Welcomed by an unforgivably lavish lobby. We traversed the gleaming marble floors with tentative steps, as Adrian guided us with the accustomed stride of those who belong, pointing up to a banner reading: PROUD HOST OF THE 1995 MIAMI FILM FESTIVAL.

“I’m looking to hit the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August,” she told us, sliding up to the front desk and procuring a couple of bellhops to help us with our luggage. Two and a half for every item. The five of us stepped into one of the six elevators. No need to bother with the buttons, efforts outsourced to our helpers.

They exchanged a quick bout of Spanish.

Didn’t figure I was fluent.

Didn’t much like Adrian, or Chloe. Or me.

Number forty-two lit up, and the doors closed on cue, no time delay. Catapulted at an ear-popping five floors per second, technology salvaged from some failed hyperspace experiment.

A wormhole of reinforced steel that landed us in the land of milk and honey.

Adrian’s room was a deluxe suite. Mini mansion of sprawling rooms. Each room was an exercise in extravagant amenities; fully stocked bar, three separate 40-inch screens, personal foot massagers, and bathrooms littered with a variety of exotic lotions and scented soap.

The bellhops dropped our bags in one of the walk-in closets, some dozen miles from the living room.

Chloe and I approached the floor-to-ceiling window, transfixed by a freshly peeled sun.

Through the panorama of spotless glass, white sands and Atlantic blue spread for miles in every direction, home to sand-flea sunbathers and yachts like seafaring bottle caps. The allure was almost frightening. For a few unsettling seconds, I actually felt one of my feet scoot forward, positive that it was just a matter of stepping over the threshold into the watercolor utopia.

Then, from behind, I heard the snap of a lighter. “Not a bad view, right?”

Chloe turned, took me with her. “So this is the lap of luxury.”

“That’s right, Chloe.” Adrian reached down to the glass coffee table and rotated a white plate of delicately arranged kiwi, pineapple, melon slices, and pomegranate seeds. “And in case you haven’t noticed, luxury is a big ‘ol son of a bitch.”

Chloe gratefully accepted the bounty, helping herself to a little bit of everything. It had been twenty-four hours since our last meal, but I wasn’t particularly compelled to join her. Still stuck in that hazy netherworld between dreams and solid ground.

Adrian perched herself on a white suede ottoman and leaned forward, cigarette in hand: “So here’s the deal: I’m in town as part of a scene-by-scene series for the Miami Film Festival. Just finished directing my first feature, Madam Moira, and I’m presenting this afternoon.”

“Congratulations,” Chloe told her, a polite hand over her mouth.

“Thank you. Time being, I’ve got publicity matters to attend to. Shoulder clapping. A tech run-through. You kids feel free to get some rest, help yourself to room service. Have a few drinks if you like, it’s all paid for… On the condition, of course, that you make an appearance at the screening this evening. Grace me with your presence. Wouldn’t even have to leave the hotel, mine’s one of the handful taking place in the convention halls.”

Chloe nodded, along with profuse thanks.

I nodded, echoed Chloe’s sentiments.

“Good…” Adrian snubbed her cigarette, donning a professional persona. “Tickets are sold out, but I’ll arrange for a pair of all-access passes. Simply put, the world is your oyster. See you this evening.”

And that being that, she left us to our lonesome.

“So here we are,” Chloe concluded.

I nodded, absently.

Chloe stood, stretched, chest puffing out. “I, for one, could use a little more than just fruit.”

No signs of sleep deprivation, she bounded towards the mahogany desk. Picked up a thick, leather-bound menu. She presented it to me with the flair of a spokesmodel. Hip jutting out, mouth open in a vacant grin. “Ta-da.”

I didn’t react.

Chloe dropped the festivities. “What?”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Yeah…” She opened the menu and added: “Ridiculous like a club sandwich with applewood smoked bacon, Vermont cheddar, and honest-to-Goddamn avocado slices.”

“You’re lactose intolerant.”

“Yes, but not an idiot.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about a club sandwich with applewood smoked bacon –”

“I feel stupid.”

“You are stupid.”

“The ride gave me time to think…”

A seagull flew past the window.

Chloe’s lips puckered briefly… “Lucky –”

“And here I am, still holding onto, still stuck with this same letter. I meet Rebecca Demarco’s best friend, and she can’t help. Then Cyrus tells us –”

“Still? Still thinking about that. Really?”

“Aren’t you?”

Chloe strode towards the couch. “I am thinking of the epic battle between a club sandwich and an eighteen dollar Kobe beef burger with sautéed mushrooms, barbecue sauce, and garlic fries.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Actually, now that I have said it, I feel a little ridiculous myself.”

“Chloe –”

“No, this is idiotic.” She laid out on the couch, kicked her feet up, and continued to peruse. “We lost out on the cruise, and here we are. A couple of runaway nobodies with a second chance at living. In fact, this may turn out to be better than Summerset. No camera, no Cyrus Sparks. No Genevieve. No Rebecca Demarco, and the fact that you’re standing there moping like a lovesick hippy –”

“The fact that I readily admit to my stupidity should be proof that I agree with you.”

Chloe peeked over the menu. Eyes unconvinced. “Are you saying I should order both the club and the burger?”

“I’m saying that as much as I wanted to think…” I crammed my hands into my pockets and plopped down next to Chloe. “As much as I thought I could be… Well, I’ve followed the yellow brick road this far, and it’s time to face the man behind the curtain.”

“Meaning?”

“Absolutely nothing… Dead end.”

“Yeah, well…” She sat up and put her good arm around my neck… “Far as dead ends go, this isn’t so bad.”

“Yeah.” I turned to her, smiling weakly. “This luxury thing could have its advantages.”

“Let’s order room service, then make out in one of these bedrooms.”

I blinked.

So did Chloe.

Perhaps sleep deprivation wasn’t so far behind as I had thought.

The door to the suite opened, along with a startled scream.

Chloe and I screamed in return, jumping out of our shoes and five feet from the floor.

We landed somewhere close to the window.

The door snapped shut behind the twenty-some blonde. Folder stuffed with papers, scattered around black four-inch heels. Black stockings, skirt, and gray pinstripe. One hand held against her mouth. The other holding a leather executive briefcase to her chest.

Ignoring all context, she was the very model of how I had pictured Samantha Ray.

Voice a scratchier shade, maybe: “How did you get in here?”

Chloe began to fumble with her cast… “We were let in.”

“Are you Samantha Ray?” I asked.

Rolling Stone?” She let out a suspicious laugh. “You kids took a wrong turn somewhere, this is not Samantha’s room.”

“She’s staying here?”

“Didn’t I just tell you this isn’t her room –”

“I mean hotel. Samantha Ray is staying in this hotel?”

“Ok , see, now we’re going to start over…” The blonde was done with shock, on the offensive. “Who the hell are you?”

“We’re here with Adrian Lane,” Chloe said. “It’s complicated, but we met her in Key West, and she invited us to stay here.”

The blonde gave Chloe a contemptuous look.

“Ok, maybe even more complicated than that,” Chloe continued. “But she just left, and if she had mentioned that a friend, or girlfriend were staying here, I promise we wouldn’t have been so quick –”

“Look…” I began to move towards her. “This actually is kind of about Samantha Ray –”

“Hold it,” the blonde ordered, whipping out a compact white canister. Simultaneously reached into her bag and produced a bulky cell phone. “Let’s just hold it right there, handsome.”

I shot my hands up. “You really think that’s necessary–”

“Hey –”

“Seventeen years old, ok?”

“So what?”

“So we’re seventeen and have three working arms between the two of us.”

“Nice shirt,” the blonde said, jiggling the mace and hitting speed dial.

I remembered the bloodstains.

Saw Chloe motioning for me to back off.

We retreated to the couch as the blonde caught action on the line: “Yeah, I’ve got a couple of kids here broke into our room… Yeah…? Must’ve been on the way up…” The blonde sheathed her mace. Bent low to collect her papers. “Yeah, all right… Sure, I think we can do that… That’s two, all access… I’ll keep it under my hat… Right, half an hour…” She let the phone drop into her bag and straightened up. “I’m Cassidy. Adrian Lane’s assistant. Her own personal calendar.”

I nodded. “Judging from our introduction, Adrian must be your own personal leap year.”

“Adrian is crazy, yes, but I love her. And Adrian loves crazy people.” She gave me an inquisitive once-over. “Are you crazy, Lucky?”

“Which one of me are you talking to?”

“Cute…” Cassidy walked into an adjoining room.

Chloe turned to me, whispered, “What was that crap you were slinging about Samantha Ray?”

“Just a thought,” I assured her. “Just a thought, and nothing more.”

Cassidy walked back in and leaned against the threshold, arms crossed. “Do one of you feel like sharing, funny man?” She pointed to a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table. I tossed it over. She circled the coffee table, sat on the ottoman across from us and held the cigarette between her lips, waiting. I scooped Adrian’s lighter and did the honors.

“So, Lucky…” Cassidy took a drag, leaning forward. Elbows on her thighs, knees pressed together. “Adrian says you’ve got a bit of a story for me.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Chloe lean back on the couch and reopen her room service hymnal to the book of Entrees.

 

 

In the Now.

February 11, 2003.

11:05 pm.

 

Some poor soul’s had his coat stolen. A real nice one from the sound of it; black, button-up leather jacket, fingertip length. Left to hang on brass hooks by the entrance. There one second, gone the next, and waitresses are making their rounds. Searching for a material witness.

Zephyr goes stool to stool.

Doesn’t stop the music, though.

Have you ever wanted to be famous?” Lucky asks, lighting a cigarette.

James dips his finger into the candle, watches the wax harden into a warped record. “Everyone wants to be famous.”

Have you?”

No.”

Do you?”

No.”

You don’t write fan letters, you don’t want to be famous. What is it’s got you all inoculated?”

You live in Los Angeles, times are, you build up an immunity.”

Ah….” Lucky points a satisfied finger. “So that’s where you’ve come crawling from.”

Yeah, congratulations, Miss Marple.” James bats away at Lucky’s index. “You dragged it out of me.”

Zephyr rolls on up, dark features cool to the late-night rush. Not a drop of sweat on his brow. He sets a polymer soda cup on the bar, fills it with ice. Brandishes four bottles of liquor, double fisting, and pours them all with accustomed grace. “Guy got his coat stolen.”

Didn’t see a thing,” Lucky says.

No shit.” Zephyr reaches behind him, plucks out the Curacao. “Who the hell is going to notice a anyone taking a coat off a coat hook?” He adds a dash of Sprite, topping off his vibrant blue masterpiece. “You want anything, Lucky?”

I’m fine,” James tells him.

I’m good for now,” Lucky concurs.

Zephyr floats back to the end of the bar.

You ever wanted to be famous, Lucky?” James asks.

Everybody wants to be famous.”

Have you?”

Lucky grimaces. He takes a reserved sip of his drink and thinks. Draws his conclusion, then goes for an obtuse swallow. “Upon careful consideration, the seeds were planted right there in Miami’s Crown Plaza.”

How’s that?”

You could wake up tomorrow and find yourself having breakfast with Rebecca Demarco,” Lucky postulates. “Though that’s probably not going to happen just because you live on the same planet as her. Though it might be more likely if you lived on the same block as her. And if you were at the same party, your odds would be through the roof, comparatively speaking.”

Comparatively speaking.”

Lucky’s eyes narrow. “Yes, comparatively speaking.”

And I what makes you think we’d ever be invited to that kind of party?”

We wouldn’t. At least, I never thought I would be. The point is, when I began talking to Adrian Lane’s assistant, her gatekeeper… I could feel myself understanding something. Or maybe something tugging at me. Not the promise of fame. Not yet, but… The sense that if a nobody like myself, some aimless little creep from North Carolina had even managed to grace the outer limits of fame, catch a mere glimpse of such a horizon…”

Lucky trails off. Replaying past reflections, blind hopes and nascent ambitions.

Someone borrows the band’s microphone to make an announcement about the stolen coat.

The booming, distorted PSA bypasses James, who clears his throat. “So the point is…”

The point is,” Lucky continues. “If you’re not invited to the party, your best way in is to get to know the bouncers. And if that doesn’t get you in, maybe someday you can be a bouncer yourself. And if you can make it to bouncer…”

Adrian’s assistant,” James volunteers. “Cassidy.”

You might recognize her as Cassidy Clark.”

“The Cassidy Clark?”

That’s right…” Lucky nods. “Started off as Adrian Lane’s assistant. Started off as a bouncer, and now she’s got three Golden Globes. And I’ll bet you Gracie Mansion that Cassidy Clark can have breakfast with Rebecca Demarco anytime she damn well pleases.”

If that’s the case…” James glances around, taking in tables strewn with drinks and cigarette ash, drunken revelers laughing and swearing, anyone of them a potential friend or thief. “If Cassidy Clark is out in Hollywood having breakfast with Rebecca Demarco, how come you’re down here having drinks with absolutely nobody?”

Lucky shrugs. “I got distracted.”

You were in the same room as Cassidy Clark,” James sputters.

That’s right.”

You were personally invited by Adrian Lane to the presentation of her film.”

Took my eye off the ball.”

After you knocked it out of the park?” James opens his mouth, appalled tribute to a grin. “All you had to do was go from the room to the theater. You could’ve walked there backwards, with your eyes closed. A brain-damaged clam could’ve made the trek without blowing it. How could you have even –”

I saw something I shouldn’t have.”

The next words out of your mouth better be Elvis Presley –”

Rebecca Demarco.”

James stops short, his own index finger now frozen in mid air.

Rebecca Demarco, actually,” Lucky repeats. He puts out his cigarette, picks up the pack. Pauses, puts it back down, before scratching his head and adding: “I guess.”

The entertainers reclaim their corner. Shouldering their instruments, Jean and Lionel announce that this will be their last set of the evening. They pluck a few strings. Getting the groove back into calloused fingers.

You know something, James?” Lucky asks, staring down at his hands.

What’s that?”

I can be real stupid sometimes…”

The music starts up again, and Lucky reaches for his cigarettes. Follows it up with a light. Fresh drink served up through a cloud of smoke, as he turns to James and silently asks for permission to continue.

James slips the tie from around his neck and hangs it on the back of his chair.

He nods.

***

It was five in the afternoon, and we were navigating a cavernous, gridlocked hallway. Festival patrons were filing in and out of doors, rat’s nest crowding the burgundy carpet. Tenuous mix of wealthy art-house bohemians and star-map tourists flipping through festival brochures as Chloe and I shuffled in a caterpillar crawl. Clutching our passes like gold tickets, on our way to Adrian Lane’s scene by scene, and that’s when I saw Rebecca Demarco in the crowd.

“Are you sure it was her?” Chloe asked. Same old skepticism, even after a shower and fresh change of clothes. “For all the chandeliers, this lighting kind of stinks.”

“It was her,” I insisted, tunneling through the masses. “It was her.”

“It’s not like Rebecca Demarco’s the only person in the world who looks like Rebecca Demarco.”

My knees locked. Mouth dry as I caught another glimpse. Her face burned into my eyes for a half second, then turned away. Disappearing. “There she went, in there.” I pointed to a set of double doors some fifty feet further down. Ordered my shoes to get moving.

Chloe grabbed hold of my shirt. “Maybe you got your contacts in backwards.”

“It was her.”

We elbowed our way to a pair of brass posts. Two volunteers were busying themselves with tearing tickets, no doubt looking to make their own inroads with the festival elites. Next to them, a glossy marquee proudly alerted the crowd to what lay beyond those doors:

FROM STORY TO SCREEN: A CONVERSATION WITH HEX RAITLIFFE.

“Who the hell is Hex Raitliffe?” I asked the sign.

“And why would Rebecca Demarco be interested in a conversation with him?”

“I’m going in.”

“Hold it.” Chloe collared me, blocked the path. “Cassidy gave us these passes on good faith.”

“Cassidy and Adrian are on my side. Maybe they didn’t mean for this to happen – ”

“They didn’t.”

“ – but, did or didn’t, the pass they gave me is getting me into that room.”

“What happened to feeling stupid? Ridiculous? Like an idiot, moron, fucking lunatic?”

“I don’t think those last three were anything I actually said –”

“Hey, guys?” A grungy beanpole in formal wear began kicking the doorstops and putting up the ropes. “You coming, or not? Nobody in or out these doors once they close, not till the house lights come back up.”

No hesitations: “You go ahead, Chloe.”

“What? I’m not going in there –”

“Go see Adrian’s presentation. Better one than none.”

“Guys, today?” The usher motioned with an impatient grandeur. “How about it?”

“I’ll see you after the show,” I reassured Chloe, stumbled backwards into the crowded theater.

The doors closed on her dismayed face, plunging me into semi darkness. A rippling tide of muttering heads grew breathless with lavish excitement as a presenter took to the stage. I began to search, scanning wildly. Applause began to spread. Percussive hands smearing what clarity remained as the overheads extinguished.

“Hey, guy…” The usher tapped me with his flashlight. “You’re going to have to find a seat.”

“Yeah, sorry, I just –”

“We’ve got one or two up front for pass holders…” He guided me down the aisle with hurried steps.

I swiveled, left to right, performed a clumsy set of full axels.

The presenter’s voice boomed through the microphone.

“As with any story, the leap from page to final print comes with all the familiar characteristics of a good drama. But, as with any good drama, each adventure in adaptation has its own unique set of challenges and storytellers. Tonight, I’m very honored to present a writer who has agreed to share his experiences in taking his Booker Prize-winning novel, Ice Station 1973, to the unfamiliar and densely structured pages of the screenplay. Ladies and gentlemen – ”

I was dumped into my seat. More applause, and I gave it one last go. Neck craning. Full owl, one-eighty degrees. Nothing visible past the second row, just a gallery of bobbing grins.

I settled back between the armrests.

Opposite the host sat a man in his early thirties. Legs crossed. Worn denim jacket an unmistakable traveling companion. Thin and pale, shaved head a bright ninety-five watt bulb. Easygoing face, glasses with dark plastic frames. More of a video store clerk than a writer, and now I also had to wonder why Rebecca Demarco would be interested in a conversation with him.

Left with nothing to do but find out.

Hex Raitliffe knew how to play a room. Worth the ticket I had never bought, but with an entire auditorium at my back, the pressure continued to build. An airplane at lift off. Engines roaring, rattle at the base of my neck. Losing focus. Laughter coming at odd intervals, heavy turbulence. Words like bad Scrabble hands. Tiles coming together just in time to catch a question:

“How about you, sir?”

I had missed every topic leading to that moment. No way to tell why Hex Raitliffe had sent the spotlight in my direction, both him and the presenter staring down from their seats.

I cocked my head to the side. Finger to my chest.

“Yes, please join us on stage, sir…” Hex Raitliffe stood and let the audience turn to whispers. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our little experiment in constructive narrative.”

This answered none of my questions.

So, fine, I made my way to a set of wooden stairs, ascended with quick steps. All stage fright neutralized by a rapt collection of listeners. Even managed a modest wave as a chair was rushed, just to the left of Hex Raitliffe.

He handed me a bottle of water.

I downed in the time it took for the applause to die.

The first question was easy enough to answer.

“Lucky Saurelius,” I replied. “I’m from Verona, North Carolina.”

“Alright, Lucky…” Hex threw me an authentic wink. “Thanks for taking some of the heat off me…”

I smiled, secretly sizing up the audience.

Hunting.

“What I guess we’re going to try here,” Hex continued, “is a spontaneous adaptation. You tell a story, an event. Personal anecdote. And as your collaborator, I’ll see if I can’t put it into a rough scene-by-scene format. My subsequent failure should give everyone a pretty good idea of how difficult this can be.”

More tittering, and I gave the audience another run with my eyes.

“So to make this easier on you…” Hex leaned forward with his elbows on his knees… “How about we make this the story of how you got here?”

I paused. Realized I was going to have to fulfill the unsigned bargain, and cleared my throat. “On stage, with you?”

“I doubt you thought you’d be here when you woke up this morning.”

“I doubt I’ll think I was here when I wake up tomorrow morning, but…”

The audience seemed to dig it, though their laughter was conditional. Not a soul among them was there to see me. More than a fair share searching for the first signs of opportunism. Community among the aspiring is mythology. Artists resent artists. Patrons resent patrons. Didn’t matter that I was neither of these. And while their approval was hardly an afterthought, there was a certain someone out there, in the shadows, watching everything.

Watching me.

“Well, an opening can often be the greatest challenge…” Hex said. “From five minutes ago, to five hours ago. Five years ago, if you like… the question is, where did your journey begin?”

“You really want to know?” I asked.

“I guess we’ll find out in a few minutes.”

“It was December. December, 1993.”

“Oh, shit.” Hex rolled his eyes. Still willing, despite an audible groan from the audience.

But now or never tends to come along never more than now, and it was time to push all in. No second guessing. No time for modesty. I plunged ahead with the story thus far. Shameless. Cherry-picking details with brazen deliberation. Naming names without apology. Preaching to a hostile crowd, but as the story took shape, the tides begrudgingly turned in my favor.

Because if Hex wasn’t enjoying himself, he was at the very least ready to indulge. Observing each twist with a solemn remark or understated laughter. Taking pivotal moments to play the crowd – flip events on their head, reshuffle ideas, introduce characters before and after their actual appearance. We gathered momentum, feeding off each other. Collaborating in perfect harmony. Taking the audience along for the ride. Taking no prisoners.

Didn’t even realize ours was the first step towards what would become the story of my life.

Tagged it all with my entrance.

Asserting that I had, without a doubt, followed Rebecca Demarco into that very theater.

Drawing room murmurs from the masses.

Heads twisting and turning, just as mine had, searching for the elusive actress.

“Yes, well…” The announcer stood, glad to have finally recouped his throne. “Would the real Rebecca Demarco please stand up, then?”

I refused to overplay my hand. Remained seated, awaiting my final scene with a casual slouch. Crane shot of Rebecca Demarco running down the aisle, leaping to the stage, possibly into my arms with all the overcharged fanfare of a Hollywood ending.

My adolescent heart was granted another minute of or so timeless arrogance. Bated breath. Silence stretching into muddled disappointment. Crushing defeat held in check by honest confusion as I tried to reconcile why nobody had managed to find Rebecca Demarco.

“Well, I’m sorry, Lucky,” the announcer lamented. Took control of the bridge. “Looks like another close call, doesn’t it?”

I tried to shrug it off, prepared to find what dignity I could in a moral victory.

The announcer beat me to the punch: “Hex, we’ve had a comprehensive look here – more than most of us imagined we’d be getting – of what goes into adaptation. What occurs when there is, in fact, no ending to be had. Can something like that be created free of natural progression?”

Oh, gross, I thought, unconsciously channeling Genevieve Goldman.

“Well…” Hex gave the audience one last try. “What I would tell Lucky…” Hex gave up and turned back to me, leaving the announcer to fume politely in his seat. “Lucky, endings have to be earned. Most of us rarely get to decide why events conspire in our everyday lives. But as far as the story goes, it is the author’s responsibility to designate reason to the random.”

I nodded. Determined to see my fifteen seconds through to the end: “Oh, look. An author. Sitting right here next to me, no less.”

“Only if you’d allow me the honor…”

“We are in this together.”

Deus ex machina…” Hex said. “From the Latin, usually translated as God from the machine. Within the context of storytelling, it’s usually ascribed to events or encounters that appear without cause or origin. Their creation is brought about simply to move the story forward. Most often to rescue a character held captive by inescapable circumstances… Generally a device to be studiously avoided….

“Your case is, without a doubt, a different story. Deus ex machina is your pitfall. Your windowless room with no way out…” Hex took a sip of water. “It would appear, at first sight, as though you’re trapped: Every time you conclude that it’s time to pack it in, that you are being jerked around, along comes another unforeseeable. Even when the next lead results in devastating misdirection, it turns into something new. And while you can certainly look at all the failures, and label it a curse, there is also the other side… And it’s the basis of all storytelling.”

“Which is?” I asked in unison with the host.

“A reason to keep going…” Hex told me. “After all, walking the path isn’t always linear. You need direction, a reason to continue, but above all else… you need a constant reminder of what is waiting at the end. In essence, none of this is truly deus ex machina. For while they appear to be bolts from the blue, each event has an underlying connection to the previous one. You simply need to see Lucky as a lightning rod. Someone who must be reminded of where the story must ultimately lead. Because if Lucky loses interest… How will he ever meet Rebecca Demarco?”

The audience soaked it in. Philosophical sponge bath for the masses.

I let the advice find its place, nestle into its incubator…

“Thank you,” I said.

“And thank you all,” the host replied, standing and gesturing. “Hex Raitliffe, everyone, thank you so much for joining us!”

The audience erupted into a standing ovation.

Hex shook my hand through roaring gale of appreciation.

The host ushered me back to my seat with a less-than-stealthy glare.

Something suggesting his own manuscript he’d been hoping to pitch to Mr. Hex Raitliffe.

The doors to the hall had opened, and I spied Chloe heading down the aisle. Searching the seats, a familiar reenactment. I met her halfway, surrounded by waves and a double dose of approving thumbs…

“Chloe.” I paused to send a wave towards somebody or other. “You won’t believe what just happened.”

“Did you meet Rebecca Demarco?” Chloe asked, unnatural exuberance topping ambient sounds.

“Well… No, but there was this thing that I did –”

“But you saw her come in here!” Chloe brayed.

“Well, I know –”

“Oh, I know.”

“Chloe –”

“I know you didn’t meet Rebecca Demarco, you preschool dropout!” she yelled. “I know you didn’t even see her come in here! You want to know how I know, you tiny, imbecilic, sea anemone of a –”

Chloe cut herself off. Sunk her talons into my arm and dragged me from the room.

Death grip.

Didn’t let up, right up until we made it into the lobby.

Cassidy was waiting.

For me.

Arms crossed.

Professional cool had fallen to the wayside… “Lucky, where did you go?”

“I thought I saw Rebecca – ”

“I know that, Lucky. I know she wasn’t there. Chloe knows she wasn’t there. You want to know how we know she wasn’t there?”

“Did you come for the end of my story?” I asked cautiously.

“Lucky,” Cassidy cupped my face in her hands. “You were supposed to come to Adrian’s scene-by-scene. You were supposed to sit. Sit, watch. Enjoy, laugh, and applaud when you were supposed to. Maybe even ask a question or two. And after that, Lucky, do you know where you were supposed to be?”

I searched for the answer. Felt my stately surroundings turn to an ancient ruin. “Where?”

“You were supposed to go backstage, with me. With Chloe, all of us, and meet Rebecca Demarco. That’s what you were supposed to do.”

Not again.

Cassidy dropped her hands.

Chloe let go of my arm, leaving me unmoored.

“When I went looking for you…” Cassidy sighed, cut to it. “Well, Adrian feels a little betrayed, here.”

I was back in first grade, caught shoplifting. “Oh.”

“I mean, taking you in. Helping you out… Believing in you.”

Yes, caught shoplifting. Stealing pennies from the collection plate, and I could hardly manage the necessary syllables. Got hold of them as they floated pathetically around the lobby. “Can I tell her I’m sorry?”

“She doesn’t really want to –”

“Yeah…” I know how it all looked. Knew how it all was. “Can I tell you I’m sorry?”

“I’m right here in front of you, Lucky.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know… And I’m sorry, too, Lucky. For serious. But I think that might be the ball game as far as she’s concerned. Rebecca’s gone, too. Had a flight to catch.”

“Did Rebecca say where she was – ”

“Lucky, come on.”

“Right.” I let out breath through bulging cheeks. “Right, wow. So I was about to ask you that.”

Chloe had migrated to a safe distance. Milling about in her own lonely crowd. There wasn’t much left to say, and I thought that would be it, but –

“Look,” Cassidy reached into her bag and pulled out a notepad… “Why don’t you give me your contact information. It’ll probably be, you know, never used, but still. Still, you never know.”

I rattled off my return address. Watched her jot it down in disappointed longhand, positive it was destined to shelter a wad of flavorless gum. She flipped the notebook closed. Stuck it in her bag. Clicked her pen and then: “Sorry it had to be this way, Lucky… I’ll have someone bring your bags down.”

Cassidy turned her back and left us standing in the lobby.

Chloe joined me, put an arm on my shoulder. No longer angry. No interest in administering. A couple of kids, lost in Miami with no direction home. I took a look around. Once more without a clue, waiting for the next sign.

“Yo, Lucky!”

I turned to find Hex Raitliffe headed our way. Small entourage of festival VIP’s trailing him, a sycophantic bridal gown. A few of them did what they could to nudge him towards the bar.

I summoned my best smile, no more thrill to our vaudeville. “Hey, Hex.”

“Hey, man…” He put a hand on my shoulder, as was apparently the custom in those parts. “What happened to you?”

What indeed?

“Hex…” I reached out and gave my own try at this shoulder business. “You want to hear a funny story?”

 

 

In the Now.

February 11, 2003.

11:20 pm.

 

James spies Lucky walking back from the bathroom. Step by step. Keeping time. Side-winding amongst seasoned drunks, laughter, and arguments that always seem on the verge of turning violent. Gliding along with an alcoholic shuffle that borders on macabre grace, a necessary adaptation from Lucky’s many years underground, under the influence.

As if to stress the point, Zephyr awaits his return with a pair of shots.

And what do we have here?” Lucky asks. Slides into his seat with frightening ease. He sees Zephyr’s devilish grin, crow’s feet just a bit too pronounced… “Uh-oh.”

That’s right.”

Lucky lowers his head.

Sniffs.

Straightens right the hell up. Eyes of a five-year old, pony outside his bedroom window. “Cointreau.”

Flaming Cointreau!” Zephyr announces with a delirious giggle.

At the end of the bar Jean, Lionel, and a full roster of Lucky’s drinking buddies point and laugh along. Back slapping and hands clapping. Shushing each other just as abruptly, watching and waiting.

Zephyr reveals book of matches.

Lucky tilts his head, ear meeting his shoulder with an audible crack. “Let’s do this.”

James has no way of explaining it, but somehow the bar has been drawn into the drain. Most of them clueless as him. Unable to put their finger on what has them abandoning conversations, drinks, sloppy lips for the sake of a grinning bartender and a bent paper clip in a worn leather jacket.

Zephyr strikes a match and lowers the tip to Lucky’s drink.

A corona of blue flame sprouts from the pale liquor, miniature pyramids oscillating.

James picks up the pungent aroma of burnt citrus, as though someone had hurled an orange directly into the mouth of an angry kiln.

Zephyr lights his own shot, tosses the match.

Their faces turn serious. Each one raises their hand directly above the funeral pyres.

Make a wish,” Zephyr orders.

Lucky nods, and the two of them send their palms down onto respective glasses. The flames are instantly suffocated, bringing a collective gasp from the crowd. Lucky and Zephyr raise their palms, and the drinks rise along with them. The extinguished flames have created a vacuum, but the science hardly matters. A couple of low, amused murmurs escape childish lips. Catch on, anticipation of a Sunday service miracle.

James stares as Lucky brings the drink close to his face.

Takes hold of the glass with his free hand, lifts his palm and inhales the fumes.

Zephyr does a mirror-mirror on the wall, and they knock back their shots in one violent, ecstatic moment.

Slam,

glasses on the counter to a room filled with giddy applause.

Flaming Cointreau!” Zephyr announces. He then points to Lucky. “Mr. Lucky Saurelius! The greatest writer in the entire fucking world!”

COUNT IT!” Lucky laughs defiantly in the face of his ad-hoc fans and reaches for his cigarettes.

Zephyr collects the glasses and goes back to work.

The rest of the bar goes back to neutral. So abruptly that James can hardly say whether any of it actually happened.

Domino, motherfucker,” Lucky mutters, lighting a cigarette.

James doesn’t bother with that one. “So you’re some kind of writer?”

Lucky exhales a mixture of carbon monoxide and incinerated orange. “Some kind, sure.”

But you’re actually getting a book published.”

Doesn’t make me a writer.”

James rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”

Lucky wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Resumes his usual pose, shaking his head from the wretched after-effects of a flaming Cointreau. “It’s weird, James.”

What’s weird?”

A little unsettling.”

Well, what?”

There’s times I look at you, and you’re rooting for me. You can deny it up and down, but I know the look. Seen it on a few faces in my time, and I think you know, I’ve told this story quite a few times. And on occasion, I can see you’re right there with me. Hoping I’ll meet Rebecca Demarco just around the next corner…”

James wishes he had his own Jack Daniels to stare into. Give Lucky a taste of his own moody medicine.

Yeah, and then there’s times like now,” Lucky says. “There’s times like now, where I see you, all quiet in your seat, just seething. Like you can’t hardly wait for the next twist of fate to wind itself around my neck and just –” Lucky snaps his fingers.

Whatever.” James waves a dismissive hand. “So you were telling me how Hex gave you and Chloe bus fare for the ride back to North Carolina –”

Yeah, but right now, we’re going to talk about this,” Lucky tells him.

Oh, yeah?”

You bet, oh yeah.”

May I remind you…” James repositions himself in his seat. “Just a PSA that I have a message for you. And it’s something you’re going to want to hear, so – ”

Don’t assume what I do and don’t want to hear, James. I’ve heard a lot in my limited existence, and frankly, I could do with a lot less.”

You don’t fool me for a second. I know your story –”

Not enough of it, though –”

I know enough.”

Not enough, because you’ve come this far, haven’t you?” Lucky’s words come in from all angles, searching for a weakness. “Hell, I just went through a scene-by-scene with Hex Raitliffe about my own particular story. You know there’s what happened, what’s been made up. What people say is real and what is. What I say is real and what is… You’re not in control of this story, James. Now why don’t you tell me about all the people you’ve met?”

I have.”

Tell me more.”

“Everywhere I go!” James rails, damned if he’s going to let some drunk tell him what he’s all about. “I wander into a diner, I meet Genevieve. I go up for a college visit in Minnesota, I meet Chloe. I’m in North Carolina on the same kind of business, I meet your old bosses, Bruce and Dan.”

Starts to get kind of frightening, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it does.”

And once you get the feeling that there’s something going on, some sneaky force at work –”

You know as well as I do, you can’t just let it go.”

So you come looking for Lucky.”

Just like you went looking for Rebecca.”

And now you’ve found me.”

Yes.”

Lucky smirks, looking to land an uppercut. “So, mission accomplished.”

Not yet!” James yells, slamming his hand against the bar.

Zephyr looks over, along with a waitress. She shoots her boss a look through stiff bangs, wondering if James shouldn’t be cut off. Zephyr shrugs; boy hasn’t had a drop. Lucky shoots them both an invisible sign of reassurance. He turns to James, leans in close.

It’s the waiting that’s a real bitch, isn’t it?” Lucky presses. “The in between. Waiting for the next guest to make her appearance. Stuck all alone with your thoughts, trying to figure out how it all fits together. The straight why of it all… It’s the waiting that gets us, doesn’t it?”

Tell me about it.”

Well, shit, Mr. James Joyce…” Lucky smirks, squeezing the shoulder of his unlikely protégé. “What makes you think I ain’t about to do just that?”

Christ,” James mutters.

He can’t help you down here…”

James looks over his shoulder, and sees a thirty-some man standing nearby, features hinting at Japanese ancestry. Expensive suit clashing with his distraught features as he occupies the sympathetic ears of a corner table. Stuck in a bar no larger than his master bedroom, yet still laboring under the impression that if he tells enough people about his stolen jacket, then perhaps he might still recover something which is now long gone.

***

I don’t know why I thought Miami would have ended any other way. It was my own overreach that had cost me the brass ring. Rebecca Demarco reduced to an inexplicable specter. No practical way to pin this wild overreach on the fair-weather nature of fate. It hadn’t been bad luck. Wasn’t an act of nature, star-crossed misfortune. Four aces against an inside straight-flush. I had blown the call something awful, and yet

I wasn’t prepared to let this be the end.

The conversation with Hex was only just taking root in my mental narrative. The unexpected around every corner. Planets aligning to send me another lifeline. Deus ex machina, and I was desperately looking for some reinforcement from the man himself…

But Hex was on a schedule. Two minutes into our conversation, the organizers hustled him off to sign books. In place of prognostication, I got an emphatic but hurried Godspeed. Instead a second chance, he offered us the generous gift of practicality: two tickets on the first Carolina-bound Greyhound.

Our escapade through the Sunshine State had come to an abrupt and undignified end. Shut down with all the bravado of an evaporated puddle. Chloe and I had gone from contest winners, to Film Festival VIPs, to a pair of busted kids on a twenty-hour bus ride back to Verona.

Unable to comprehend how any of it had even come to pass. Plunging into glacial waters, the initial shock quickly ceding to acceptance of my surroundings. Body and mind adjusting to the temperature, just floating along with the current. It’s not until you get out of the water that you start to shiver and shake. Blue lips trembling, teeth chattering in a losing effort to combat the cold.

But I wasn’t there yet.

I watched the scenery rotate all through the night and well into the next day. Left Florida behind. Up through Georgia and South Carolina like a lost, metallic teardrop. I let the rumble of the engine bring me closer to home, absently putting my arm around Chloe when she dozed, damp mouth pressed into my shirt. Plaster cast scraping rhythmically against my hip bone. Blond hair tickling my nose. I couldn’t bother to brush the strands away. Even sneezing never occurred to me.

Afterthoughts meant for another day.

And this frigid shock didn’t fade with our arrival in downtown Verona.

That is to say, I stepped off the bus without stepping out of the water.

Turns out, we had some explaining to do.

Our first stop was Chloe’s, where her parents greeted us with open arms and baffled grins. It was my first time telling the story to anyone back home. Startling, even to me, even then, how the reckless details of my quest were eclipsed by their genuine interest the elusive actress. They laughed, groaned, shook their heads. Poked gentle fun. But above all else, they honestly seemed to believe in this whole, unimaginable mess. Chloe could hardly believe it herself. Her disapproval softened. Left room for as smile or two. We were home. We were safe. We were finally shutting the books on Rebecca Demarco.

What started in Verona had now ended in Verona.

Case closed: file under pure sugar.

I left Chloe’s, happy to indulge in the short walk back to my house. Smiling beneath the humid afternoon skies. Bookbag straps digging into my shoulder; still impervious to the reversal of fortune. Content to stay in the water, even after replaying the story for my mother and father. They were big picture people, my parents. I was alive, out of jail, and nobody was pregnant. Deluding myself into chasing after Hollywood dream candy was small potatoes. And they had to admit, the story wasn’t half-bad.

But more importantly, what did I want for dinner?

And so, I slipped right back into the routines I’d left behind.

Back to Video Squared during the weekdays, where Bruce and Dan were eager to give me increased responsibilities, extra field work to cover for their ever-increasing waistlines. Back to afternoons spent in preliminary searches for the best colleges, troublesome business of setting an example for my future self. Back to evenings at Cover to Cover, sitting across from Chloe. Filling time with conversation and coffee-stained mugs, humdrum activities of all high school students with no interest in drugs, alcohol, or other like-minded hobbies.

I was back

Returned from on beyond, but there was no question I had smuggled something back.

Silent hints of an irreversible shift.

Summer’s end snuck up with soft steps.

Days shearing their minutes with every passing sunset.

And with every passing day, I gave more credence to the theory that all I had to do was wait. Hex Raitliffe had given me the schematics. Now it was time to start construction. Bit by bit, I built myself an indestructible tower; heavy stones fashioned from this confident foundation. Held in place by the certainty that, with destiny’s blessing, something new would surface. Another lead, another chance. Given enough time, this tower would eventually break through the surly skies.

Above and beyond, allowing me to touch the stars themselves.

The story of Lucky Saurelius and his improbable encounters with fame had gotten around. Any time a friend or randomite would come asking, I’d regale them with the details. Blow by blow, punching it up. An added jab or right hook here and there. A little seasoning for just the right flavor. And with every telling, my fabricated conclusion became gospel.

Expectations that gave the days permission to pass with such speed.

Falling asleep every night, a frivolous conviction radiating from my pillow. Dreams full of jokers, deuces wild, dealt from every possible direction. Paper skies and half-colored horizons. Rebecca Demarco’s face projected in neon lights over car parks of rusted roulette wheels. Always wondering. Every half-thought dedicated to possibility. Every last sight observed through the prism of what was waiting around the next corner. Or the next, or the next, or the next.

Or the next, and it wasn’t until late August that I awoke to a phone call.

Along with the strangest notion that four left turns, taken with enough breadth, equals a circle.

And too many equal a very familiar one.

I sent my hand out from beneath the covers, picked up.

“Is this Lucky?” Chloe’s voice oozed with an uncharacteristic delight.

I coughed, rubbed my face… “Chloe – ”

“Is this the Lucky Saurelius? World famous auteur and winner of the Summerset Cruise –”

“Chloe, stop… Just… stop being alive for a second. Can you do that for me?”

“Oh, I can do better…” It was strange to even hear Chloe smile. “Put on your boogie shoes and get your ass over to my place.”

She hung up with the world’s one and only endearing cackle.

Fifteen minutes later, I was experiencing it firsthand. Staring with clownish alarm at a videotaped commercial for Summerset Cruises, while Chloe clutched at her sides, laughter threatening to rend her body asunder. Pausing only to rewind. Playback after playback.

It was my commercial. What should have been my commercial, inexplicably chopped and playing on broadcast television. There was the b-roll I had shot, spliced with stock footage from previous Summerset promos. Quick cuts jumping between the various people I’d interviewed, culminating with a parting shot of Genevieve Goldman. Seductively mugging for the camera as she peeked over her sunglasses and saying: You make your own luck.

There weren’t enough padded cells in this world for Chloe’s hysterics.

When her father rolled in and asked for my autograph, tears were already streaming down Chloe’s face.

Twenty minutes later, those tears had finally dried. Last drop finding its way into a ceramic mug as we sat at Cover to Cover. Snug in our usual booth. Same old regulars, sitting at the same old tables. Cigarette smoke sticking to the same old books, same tired skylights.

Same as it ever was.

“That’s quite a commercial you got there, Lucky…” Chloe’s smile was on the wane, teeth still poised in slight overbite. “I’m still… no… yes, still amazed at the flawless transition between your shots of Genevieve and dolphins cavorting around the Bahamas –”

“Ok, easy as she goes,” I muttered, toying with an empty bottle of ketchup.

“Especially since you never once came close to the Bahamas. Tell me, Lucky Saurelius, winner of the Summerset Cruise/Gemini Pictures First Timer’s Contest, did you employ some sort of telegraphic lens to capture such lush and vibrant scenery?”

Telephoto lens,” I said, the only decent point I was destined to make. “Telephoto lens, and the use has nothing to do with lush or vibrant anything. It captures distant scenery while flattening perspective, and…. you know what, who gives a good shit what a telephoto lens does? Are you sure this is even legal?”

“Got the contract right here…” Chloe reached into her satchel. Pulled out a stack of Xeroxed pages, and plopped them on the table. Blew the contents of an ashtray into my face.

“What’s it say?”

“Well, I’m no Perry Mason… But my father, who’s got the wheelchair part down cold, says it’s pretty clear. Gemini Pictures funds the contest, which gives Summerset its publicity. As a result, Gemini films gets final cut, in accordance with Summerset – ”

I rubbed my eyes. “Which I’m sure must be a subsidiary of Boeing Incorporated –”

“Which, through government contracts, inherited its technology from World War II long rage bombers, and suddenly you’ve uncovered the conspiracy of the century, Special Agent Fox Mulder.”

“Enjoy this more. See if you can.”

“Face it, Lucky. Cyrus got a hold of your footage when you switched bags. I don’t know whether he got chastised or not for our great escape, but either way, it’s all in the fine print. I asked around a few chat rooms on AOL, and surprise – These contests have less to do with funding for the arts, as much as cross-promotional synergy. They reserve the right to cut the tape however they want. Hell, in your case, they’d want to do the very best they could, considering how you jumped ship.”

“And more is officially how much you are enjoying this.”

“You’ve got a nationally distributed commercial under your belt…” Her expression finally regressed back to its cynical default. Rosy lips no longer enjoying the bygone joke. “Gemini has to credit you with the work, just to remain credible themselves. It’s a Lucky Saurelius joint. Feather in your cap, so what’s your problem, already?”

“It’s just that…” I slung my arm over the back of the booth.

Searched my surroundings, a throwback to early summer.

Sitting with Chloe, working through the details of a letter that remained in the limbo.

Unable to shake the sense that time was slowing.

“It’s just that…” Repeating it made little difference

It’s just that… I kept it to myself. It’s just that seeing that footage. Seeing the footage I filmed, seeing Genevieve, those few random spectators I met on those few hours aboard that ship… seeing the story I’ve been telling. Seeing what has, up until now, been solely in my head, splayed on the screen, is making me wonder. Is making me wonder why nothing else has happened. A reminder that I woke up this morning, doubting for the first time

“Lucky?” Chloe tapped her mug against the table… “It’s just that, what?”

“It’s just that when you called this morning… I guess I was expecting something else.”

Chloe laughed. Dry, sardonic. Original recipe. “You expected, maybe, Rebecca Demarco’s best friend? Maybe she heard about you, and maybe she was intrigued? Just curious enough to track you down? A fresh take on the old stalker story?”

I frowned. Stared into my coffee… “Sure.”

Someone tapped my shoulder.

I turned to find Eric standing next to our table. Long white beard spilling down over a well-endowed belly. Gray shirt, khaki shorts. Cigarette in one hand, coffee clutched in the other as he smiled with unbridled cheer. A man worthy of his nickname, Father Christmas.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“Heard you had a story going on,” he replied. Prototypical NC drawl that few Hollywood players ever managed to fully capture. “Folks around here talking about you and that actress from Ghost Girl. Got a certain affinity for her, I hear.”

“Word gets around.”

“She’s cute,” He sighed, indulged in hard-won memories. “Back in the day, I had my own thing for Adrian Lane. Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of her. Bit before your time.”

I shook my head. Laughed with all the enthusiasm of a mime… “You go ahead on and play a game of chess, sir. And then I’ll tell you a little something that might interest you.”

“Don’t call me Sir. I was in the army four endless years, boy. Don’t need anyone to call me Sir. Don’t even need to hear the word Sir again in my life, not if I can help it.”

“Be with you before too long, Saint Nick.”

Eric gave Chloe a respectful nod and moved on. Stationed himself close to a local poet and an army surplus manager, both butting heads over a black-and-white battlefield of queens and pawns alike.

“Never mind,” I said, anticipating Chloe’s oncoming tirade. Never mind the weeks were growing shorter. Never mind the hours were somehow growing longer. Never mind the world around me. Never mind the fading hopes of meeting Rebecca Demarco. Never mind those who asked, expecting more than just an ongoing conclusion. Never mind that I was merely some seventeen year old in North Carolina, plummeting head first into his senior year of high school.

Never mind, never mind.

“It’s just that the days are starting to slow down,” I said.

Chloe stared over from her end. No longer content with making fun. She didn’t talk, and it was never easy, dealing with just her eyes. But I went head and finished my thought.

“It’s just that I think it’s going to be a long, cold winter…”

The two of us lapsed into silence.

Ella Fitzgerald on the loudspeakers. Conversation cool as my cup of coffee. Like someone who’s just stepped out of the water to find their lips blue, teeth chattering in a losing effort to combat the cold.

***

Something began to change as summer turned to fall, drawing me closer to the cusp of winter.

Trying to remember it day for day has become a conflicting, shapeless impossibility. Time passed, time stood still. The leaves changed color. Trees like wildfire, while Chloe and I acclimated ourselves to the schoolhouse rock. Come morning, she would swing by my place, our backpacks heavy with textbooks, binders and homework assignments. Calendar once again measured in weekdays and weekends. All things back on schedule.

Spare time became a constant search for that next step. Gray days taking place indoors. Studying for the SATs. Listing our extracurricular activities. Combing through course credits for fear we’d missed something, nightmare scenarios, just one class shy of graduation.

The air turned crisp. Gave shape to our breath and added extra layers as temperatures dropped.

Back-to-school sales begat Halloween decorations, begat Thanksgiving decorations.

I’m sure something involving sports also happened, but I didn’t really care that much.

Then again, indifference had slowly bled into every last aspect of my life.

I remained, as always, Lucky Saurelius. Kept on top of my studies, made it to class on time, all that was expected of the ordinary. Part time at Video Squared, pro tem. Bruce and Dan would ask how that college recommendation was going over, I’d remind them I didn’t know, and we’d discuss the latest movies, but even still…

Even still there was something of an ambivalence to the everyday. All that was expected of me falling several feet short of what I really wanted. The everyday world began to feel small, insignificant. I’d float through each moment, going through the motions while my thoughts found their bread and water in an unseen resolution. Even as I bounced around school, from clique to clique, person to person, it was always as though I was simply staring through the immediate. Never entirely in the now.

If anyone had stopped to ask, I might have told them how repulsed I was by how average things had become. I would have, perhaps, let loose with an unfair indictment of this nowhere town; streets too small, dreams constricted, keeping me under lock and key when there was an entire world waiting to be discovered. Or an entire world waiting to discover me. The dichotomy between what I had come so close to, so many times over, came crashing head first into who I really was. Verona was now a town where the impossible came to die, a graveyard for the miracles I had come to expect. I was on the inside, looking out. That’s what I might have said, if someone had stopped to ask.

But I never even stopped to ask myself, and so I was willing to let it go.

Willing to look past whatever I was looking past.

I was willing to look past how I casually dragged Chloe to see Rebecca Demarco’s next film, Always and Forever. Once again stuck in a theater full of children and preteens, all laughing along to the adventures of four girls coming of age in 1970, Rebecca starring with her real-life best friend, Gracie James. The same went for the following film, Treasure Box Champions, released one month later. A matinee this time, and apart from an elderly couple making out in the last row, we were the only ones in that darkened theater. And at the time, none of it bothered me. Ghost Girl all over again. The unsettling fact that it was now late October got buried beneath the seats, stuck to the candy wrappers and stifled under the echoes of Rebecca Demarco hunting for lost gold along the Appalachians.

And so I was willing to ignore, even embrace, how word about Rebecca Demarco spread from student to student like an epidemic. Curiosity abounded, and I was always ready for a fresh rendition; seated on the steps during lunch hours, sometimes garnering the attention of six or seven underclassmen at once. And while I always welcomed the attention, another chance to impress upon any Gods who might be tapping the wires, there was no denying the disillusionment. Drawing towards the end of an incomplete tale, stuck with a cliffhanger of my own design. No longer convinced of the theories I had concocted in place of resolution.

On and on, I was forced to merely shake my head with placid appreciation as people presented clippings from periodicals and gossip columns. Rebecca Demarco was proliferating in the media. The Entertainment Weekly article from two years back had sprouted numerous other pictures, tidbits, and information on the up-and-coming actress. And with each offering, my collection grew. I’d take the pictures, cut-outs, movie stills and place them in a folder. Still too self-aware to call it a shrine. More of a cold case file, anonymous tips coming in every other week or so. Got to the point where I would be approached by some sophomore with stars in her eyes, and a well-meaning snip from Tiger Beat… And I’d have to patiently inform her that yes, YES I already had THAT picture. And YES, I already knew that Rebecca Demarco had TWO BROTHERS and a SISTER, that her PARENTS were DIVORCED, that she GREW UP in MONTCLAIR, that she CURRENTLY lived in NEW YORK, that she SHARED A BIRTHDAY with ABRAHAM LINCOLN, that she LOVED the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS, that she CLAIMED to have never tried SMOKING POT, that she was first noticed by a TALENT SCOUT during a school Nativity play, leading to numerous COMMERCIALS and her eventual DEBUT in the film SIRENS.

It was a mountain of information to have about someone I didn’t know.

I made no apologies, though.

Because there was nothing to be sorry for.

I was just biding time, waiting for the inevitable to come knocking and send me on my way. No other means for the story to play itself out, and so…

I was willing to let it all slide.

I let the leaves change colors.

I let the temperature drop.

I let the seasons turn, until one day I woke up to find the thermometer reading somewhere around thirty. I woke up to find dead, brittle leaves packing the gutters and emaciated trees scraping winter skies. I awoke to find days cashing their paychecks at five in the afternoon, and afternoons that had long stopped trying.

And I awoke to find myself trudging from class to class.

I awoke to discover that I had somehow lost a good couple of months, eyes wide open during nighttime hours, Rebecca Demarco the only thing on my mind.

I awoke to find myself inwardly flailing about for any bit of rope I could hang onto, wandering in a world besieged with image after image of Rebecca Demarco.

I awoke to discover that time had passed slowly, and the months without mention.

I awoke to discover it was now mid-November, racing down the rabbit hole towards complete and irreversible obsession. Suddenly and thankfully very afraid of where this was going. And on the verge of realizing just how close I had come to the abyss, even as I told myself it was all over, even as I began to claw my way out in a blissful and necessary retreat, the phone rang with news that now seems laughably predictable, even if the cold light of day is only subject to the seasons.

Two days later, Chloe and I were in New York.

***

It was love at first sight.

Please forget for a moment Rebecca Demarco. Chloe, Genevieve, forget everything that had or would happen on the road to near annihilation. Forget the need for human contact, the romance, the lingering touch. Forget for a moment our very definition of infatuation. Forget that first dance, first kiss, first glance into the eyes of someone you swore you were meant to be with forever and ever, until death and all the rest…

I watched the jagged skyline draw close, closer. Another Greyhound, this one speeding along Interstate 78 towards a rectangular mountain range complete with peaks and slanting valleys. Big Apple outline like stock market spikes. The road had taken a sweeping curve, dipped between what looked like craggy, ancient cliffs, then sent us into the Holland Tunnel.

A hollow rush had engulfed the bus, teeming through half-open windows. The glow of the tunnel carried us along rows of florescent lights, whooshing past at a rhythmic clip. Steady and ready. Slave to a breathless wonder I hadn’t felt since I don’t know when.

Though had I tried, focused, bothered, I might have remembered Miami…

Chloe and I stepped through the revolving doors of Port Authority. Stepped out into the aggressive howl of daylight traffic. Cold sunshine obscured by storm clouds as horns blared, taxicabs, trucks and cars fought for superiority of the roads. Gray pathways and distant buildings jostling against a sky I had never seen before. Never smelled before, there was something in the air, even in those first steps. Cutting through the exhaust and noise, all elements coming together in a single, undeniable declaration.

I had arrived.

And I was in love.

I let Chloe take the first taxi. She had an appointment with Colombia’s Head of Psychology, and a scheduled tour of Barnard. She gave the wheel man an uptown address and closed the door.

My destination had me going in the opposite direction.

Hopped a yellow cab. Window rolled down, acceleration pressing against my face as the driver wove between cars and faded white lines that every New Yorker seemed bound by law to ignore. I watched the scenery with a rapturous glee. The crowds of anonymous faces, storefronts, sidewalks that overflowed with the kinetic sweat of cunning stories and endless hustle, heated molecules, stirring the pot, all movement set in motion by remote and hidden initial conditions. A pulsing pattern to the sounds, hidden giggles insisting that this, here, was where the answers lived.

The cab surged through the milieu, searching for a downtown current.

Caught it, and the sun was back in the sky, reflecting off buildings guiding us down Fifth Avenue. Didn’t matter that it was the Fifth Avenue. The Fifth Avenue in the Big Apple, home of the Empire State Building, the Central Park, the Cole Porter and the Algonquin Round Table. The city jumped, whirled around me like a dervish. New York was undiscovered country. The New World, a planet between Earth and Mars that had somehow been mistaken for just another city.

“What’ve you got going on in the Village?” the cabbie asked, thin braids whipping in the air.

“Got some business over at School of the Arts.”

“Very nice.” She smiled, casually gunning for a bike courier and missing. “Big meeting?”

“Dean of Film and Television called me two days ago. Looks like she wants me to join their program.”

“Double nice. How’d you swing that?”

Pinching myself yet again… “I guess you could say I just entered a contest.”

She dropped me off at Washington Square Park. Snow globe at the heart of Greenwich Village. Marble arch towering as I made my way to the closest public phone. Corner of Third and Sixth. Occupied by a large man in a blood feud with the Roman Calendar. Barely dressed in jean shorts and a white tank top. Broad, sunburned shoulders naked against the November wind. Screaming into the phone with a guttural, smoker’s screed:

“No, I just… I just put in my extra twenty-five cents… I just… don’t! DON’T!” He hung up. Really slammed it home. Turned around and shouted: “I HATE THIS FUCKING CITY!”

I watched him storm off.

Nice.

Perfect.

Unable to see the forest for the trees.

I picked up the phone and dialed an NC area code. Let my parents know I’d made it all right.

Called Chloe’s parents, told them the eagle had landed.

Dialed one last number, the offices of Amanda Bryce.

That taken care of, I hung up and let the concrete lead me east towards Broadway. Pinpoint streams of light trickling through the trees, lending crisp colors to playground sounds. Feeling the sidewalk under the snap of my Converse. Marching along and against the rest. Students, municipal workers tearing up the sidewalks, elderly strollers, book vendors, bike messengers, all crowding the crossroads, ducking in and out of doorways. Faces darting and fading. In and out of focus. Scattered profanity and the tumble of conversation, from aggravated arguments to plainspoken laughter, every last detail stirred up in one singular organism.

I rounded the corner, onto Broadway. Students milled outside the twelve-story structure, pack animals. Hands in complex balancing acts between cigarettes, textbooks and coffee cups.

Thought I heard my name somewhere over the loud blast of a downtown bus.

Amanda Bryce was of broad build, unassuming and quietly graceful. Dark skin with camouflaged freckles hiding in round, prominent cheeks. Brown hair a soft ruddy shade. Oval glasses with thin steel rims, and a purple double-breasted pants suit. I made my way with a smile, shook her hand.

“I’m Amanda Bryce,” she said. Then added, as a matter of habit, I assumed, “Dean of the Film and Television Department.”

“Lucky Saurelius.”

“Do you prefer Lucky?” She asked. “Some students see college as a fresh start, and many of them do everything they can to leave their nicknames behind.”

“Lucky’s fine.” I came through with quick, admission-based rational. “I see college as more of a continuum. Not looking for a fresh start, just the next step.”

“Well put. This is your first very big step. Franklin’s waiting at the restaurant. Why don’t we put business on hold until we get a chance to talk with him?”

I nodded. “Lead the way.”

Deep breath for what people back home had told me would be the most important moment of my life thus far.

Amanda escorted me to a Chino-Latino restaurant further down Broadway. Her pace was brisk, effortless walk-and-talk usually reserved for television execs and real estate brokers. No room for silence, pointing out any and all things salient to the university. Sentences and subjects blending. Kept it right on up as we entered the restaurant, up a set of stairs to the second floor: “…though most of our students usually have no problems registering for classes through our Firetone phone services, and here is Franklin Chambers, SOA president.”

She gestured to a tall, bespectacled man with a fastidiously maintained haircut, suit, tie. Mustache. He stood up from the table with a friendly smile, manner befitting a child psychologist rather than head of operations. A quick round of handshakes and pleasantries settled the situation…

Amanda was the one running the show.

We all sat, napkins in our laps as she set the stage.

“As you know, we were very impressed by the commercial you put together for the Gemini Pictures/ Summerset Cruise First Timer’s Contest. Impressed already. Right off the bat, to begin with, but… When we called Gemini Pictures…”

I took a sip of water. Held an ice cube in my mouth.

“It’s no secret to us that these contests are frequently more about cross-promotional parent companies doing what they do best: Advertising under the guise of human interest. We were pleasantly surprised when they informed us that they hardly had to tweak the final product. Practically perfect the way you made it.”

I bit down. Felt the ice crack against my fillings.

“Recruitment isn’t usually our MO. This film program draws from a trove of talent across the United States, the Americas. Even overseas. Our interest in you is atypical. Unique. It’s for real, Lucky.”

“Thank you,” I managed. Wondering what had prompted Gemini to cover for a winner who went AWOL Channeling my surprise into synthetic humility. “I mean, it is just a commercial, though –”

“Maybe, yes,” Franklin chimed in. “It certainly may not be the artistic outlet that younger artists are so eager to explore. But some of our finest graduates got their first breaks doing commercials. Commercials, music videos. Those are currently the major doorways to the movie industry.”

“But there is something to what you’re saying,” Amanda stepped in with quick, verbal strides. “This isn’t college hoops. Or rather, the wunderkind, fresh out of high school, who signs with the NBA. You don’t want to go from commercial to narrative or artistic aesthetic without a chance at shaping those instincts. Without proper training in the fundamentals, you won’t have anything in which to ground your future projects. Our program offers just such a chance. To find out who you are; your inner voice, if you will, from where creativity comes to light.”

I knew what she meant.

Wasn’t sure what she was saying.

But Amanda had a way of making sense.

Making the prospect a very attractive one.

“It’s not erasure, a clean slate, or a denial of your obvious skills as a filmmaker,” Amanda assured me. “We start everyone at the same level, in order to maintain that no steps are missed on the road to self-actualization as an artist. Because, Lucky, while you might be tempted to strike out on your own with a major commercial endeavor under your belt, take whatever shortcuts towards fame, it’s never really that simple.”

“I wasn’t really thinking –”

“It’s the connections you make during your time with us will be invaluable, and we’re not just talking about the industry insiders. When Jimmy Mars was a student here, his first move was to sign on as a teaching assistant in one of our largest freshmen classes. When he was told that was a position usually reserved for upper classmen, he insisted that he wanted to have a chance to view each newcomer in their fledgling year to spot those who would make the best addition to his crew, the people he’d grow to work with. In fact, Yang Lei, who went on to direct Noblemen’s Laughter, was the assistant director on Jimmy’s thesis film.”

Amanda waxed on, tantalizing pitch studded with tales of the most well-known, seminal directors in the world. Stirring the pot, a rolodex of names that flew past in projectile streaks. The implied promise of meteoritic ascendancy dangling from every tale. Thoughts of greatness infecting my bloodstream, already looking back to that meeting as one of inception. To be able to say, someday, That’s where it all started for me, Lucky Saurelius, acclaimed director, possibly actor and writer. Recipient of seven Academy and People’s Choice Awards. Cut my teeth on the Big Apple with a breakthrough thesis film starring Rebecca Demarco

Fantasy ducts were overloading.

By the time we ordered lunch, I was certain that a place in New York was nothing less than my destiny. The next step in a series of many that would eventually lead me any which way but down.

And by the time the check was paid, I had already included Gemini Pictures to my list of thank yous, on that inevitable day when no one in this world wouldn’t know the name of Lucky Saurelius.

***

My summit with the top brass had momentarily warped all sense of gravity.

After a private tour of the film department, Amanda and Franklin had said their goodbyes. We shook hands on the corner of Broadway and Waverly. Their smiles flashed in sync with an encoded pledge: There was nothing to stand between myself and their university other than the mere formalities it took to apply. I surreptitiously tipped them to my intentions, then made my way down the street.

The sidewalk began to loosen its hold. A thin cushion of air separating my soles from the impact of city streets. Late afternoon sunlight took shape in the surrounding air. University Place, stoplights instantly offering me safe passage across the street and into Washington Square Park. Every step seemed to illuminate another lamppost, orange bulbs on either side, a runway cleared for landing. I floated into the heart of the park, carried by sounds of the ordinary world; tourists, musicians, still-life artists, derelicts and dealers, jugglers, skateboarders and lifetime members of downtown lunacy.

In just one afternoon, everything I saw before me had transformed itself into my new home.

I found a seat at the center of it all. Parked myself on the stone rim surrounding the inactive fountain. Watched the world go by. Unconsciously searching for a glimpse of something familiar. A radiant face known to me only through the pages of popular culture. Never more certain that I was closing in on my quest for Rebecca Demarco. A small step in a city of millions, to be sure. But while this town was certainly big enough for the both of us, it was still, for every breathing moment within its limits, it was our town. Separate streets and subway lines calculated to connect. No getting around the unique brand of physics that governed this island, and my heart would stammer every time a fresh stream of nameless faces strolled past. Preparing myself, because

anywhere was a relative term.

And in just one afternoon, anywhere had become New York City.

***

It was almost dark by the time I caught sight of Chloe. Standalone doll, bundled in her green fleece jacket. hair peeking from beneath a wool cap. Even in the shadows, I could see her straining to single me out.

I whistled, waved.

She trotted over, glancing around. “Next time we say let’s meet in the park, we should probably be more specific. This place isn’t exactly home.”

“Well, this can be our place from now on. This spot. Lucky and Chloe’s special nowhere land. Let’s make it official.”

Chloe greeted my smile with rank and file suspicion. “How did your meeting go?”

“They said I’m pretty much in.” And saying it out loud had the effect of a magic spell. Incantation that made it all real. I was seized by a manic sense of pride. Feet tapping against the ground, powerless against an idiotic grin. “They pretty much told me that I’m in. All I have to do is apply, and…”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Chloe threw her arms around my neck.

Both of us almost sent backwards, down the basin steps.

I returned the favor. Listening to her laugh against my shoulder, rocking us back and forth.

“Yeah, Lucky!” Chloe pulled back, cheeks red as cold November. “Congratulations.”

“Congratulations us, lady. New York City, right?”

Chloe was never one to maintain a smile couldn’t put her name to.

I gave the rim a tiny pat. “You want to sit?”

“I don’t know.”

“Standing is fine,” I tiptoed cautiously. “We should start thinking in terms of dinner, anyway.”

“I mean, I don’t know about New York.”

Didn’t want my silence to speak for itself. “No hurry, right?”

Chloe nodded.

“How did your meeting with Colombia go?”

“Pretty much the same as yours.”

“That Summerset Cruise commercial has done some serious damage.”

Chloe didn’t reply.

I stood up, ignoring my left leg. Numb shriek from an overlong nap. “We came here to do what we had to do. Now that’s done. No matter what happens next, we’ve got an entire night in New York. New York City, you’ve got to love that.”

Chloe smiled. “Yeah.”

“So come on,” I said. “Let’s forget how we came to be here, and let’s go find out why.”

Chloe reached out, pulled me close for a stiff, winter hug. “You realize what you just said makes no sense at all, right?”

The park kept watch, and shortly thereafter, we were walking down MacDougal Street.

Heart of the Village. A wild stretch rife with bars, falafel nooks, and tattoo parlors. Sidewalks packed with early signs of intrepid carousing. Chloe and I weaved our way past club-hoppers and prematurely unbalanced drunks, looking for a place to eat under brownstone buildings and fractal fire escapes. Moving forward as best we could, taking full advantage of what few pockets we could find.

It was within one of these pockets that we were offered a choice. Jet stream interrupted by a tall Haitian man standing atop a set of descending steps. He gave us a welcoming nod, eyes sparkling behind his wire-rimmed glasses, dark mustache interrupted by a single streak of gray.

“Live jazz, everyone,” he proclaimed, motioning with a broad sweep. “We got free, live Jazz downstairs. You can come down and have a drink.”

“We weren’t really thinking drinks,” I said politely. Inexplicably amending with: “Not just yet, anyway.”

“You want to come down, have a look?”

I sensed a bait and switch. Imagined heading into the belly of a New York bar, before being carded and asked to leave in disgrace. But there was also the spirit of the city, the bizarre honesty of this man’s hustle. And without thinking, I took to the steps, down beneath the brightly lit sign reading Creole Nights.

Chloe followed, the two of us pushing through a door and into a foyer not much larger than a telephone booth. Confronted with one more door, pushing through and into the bar.

We took a look around the near-empty bar in one sweeping glance, taking in the details of this underground world. Cracks in the wall displayed what must have once been an eggshell white beneath the dulled tangerine paint job. Lit candles dotted the rickety tables, backed by the soft orange glow of scattered lamps built into the wall. Row after row of straw hats, stapled upside down against the ceiling. An immense mural had found its home along the entire length of the far wall, wild medley of colors depicting a Caribbean village. Across from those brushstrokes, empty stools nestled beneath the chipped, unfinished bar under the watchful eye of a thick-bodied bartender, his dark, bald head reflecting the glow of a Budweiser clock right behind him.

He put the finishing touches on a glass, and called out to us: “Come on in, sit wherever you like.”

“No thanks,” I managed. Caught the music coming in through speakers, a reggae cover of Tell Me Something Good. “We’re all right.”

“Don’t want a drink?”

“No, thank you,” I repeated. “I’m… we’re good, I think.”

“Just looking,” Chloe said. “Thank you, though.”

“Oh, just looking…” The bartender grinned, proprietor of a triple-x store.

“You got live jazz tonight?” I asked.

“We’ve got live jazz every night. Every night at nine o’clock.”

I nodded. “Maybe we’ll come back later.”

“Later is also fine,” the bartender agreed. “Come on down and have a drink.”

“Sounds good.”

“Yeah, sounds good,” Chloe echoed. “Thank you.”

We went back the way we came. Up the stairs and into the blustery night. The Haitian roper was busy chatting up a pair of girls. High school from the looks of it. One blonde, one brunette. Both merrily dressed in silver tube tops and matching miniskirts. The brunette flashed me a smile, teeth glistening along with full, glossy lips. I smiled right back, stationed myself on the other side of the barker and listened in on the pitch.

“Come on, ladies!” he pleaded. Mock desperation to his grin. “We got live jazz, two dollar Budweisers. And me.” He turned to us, laughing, as though Chloe and I were in on the joke. Brought it back to the girls, very much enjoying the charm and attention. “There is also me. I will be down there, having fun and enjoying life. Because that is what it is all about.” He turned to me. “Isn’t that right?”

I didn’t hesitate, proud to be part of this dog-and-pony show. “That’s all the way right.”

“We’ve got a party to go to,” the brunette said. Face all a frown. “Please don’t blame us.”

The blonde by her side went along with the theatrics. “It’s not our fault.”

“You want to come with us?” The brunette asked.

I continued to watch the hard sell, waiting to see how the man would tackle this twist. His silence coming as something of a surprise. Wasn’t until he looked over that I realized where the proposition had been directed. Last one to figure this out.

Even Chloe was staring, waiting. Arms crossed.

“Sure,” I replied. Motioned to Chloe. “We were kind of looking for a place to eat.”

“There’s going to be stuff to eat there,” the brunette said. “And drink.”

“What do you think?” I asked the man, keeping it casual.

“When a woman asks you to go, you go.” The man laughed. “Are you blind, man?”

I turned to Chloe. “See, Chloe, it’s pretty much out of my hands.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I can see that.”

The Haitian barker watched with amusement and fatherly pride as the girls introduced themselves. A brunette named Lisa and a strawberry blonde named Trina. I introduced Chloe, who gave an impassive nod, tending to mistrust anyone who applied glitter to any part of their body. I stepped to with my own introduction, as a police car let out two truncated whoops. Siren full blast and speeding off.

“I’m sorry?” The brunette pointed to her ear. “I missed your name.”

“Lucky… Lucky Saurelius.”

The girls brought their hands up to rest against freckled, sparkling tits. Mouths open in a bizarre piece of choreography. I dialed my smile, remembering a similar expression on the face of a random encounter aboard a cruise ship, some several million years ago.

“Oh, my God,” Trina managed.

“Oh, my God,” Lisa repeated, breaking their synchronization.

“That’s going to cost them points with the judge,” Chloe muttered.

“Everything all right?” I asked. “It’s just a nickname.”

You’re Lucky?” Lisa asked.

“You’re Genevieve’s Lucky?” Trina added.

I froze, as the pair of them turned to each other and began flapping their arms.

“It’s Lucky!”

“Oh my God!”

“Oh my God, it’s Genevieve’s Lucky!”

“Genevieve!”

“Genevieve!”

They turned away, sending their cries along the streets. Waving frantically. Finally garnering the attention of another girl, flirting with a bouncer two doors down. She gave his bicep an affectionate squeeze and began to walk towards us; a once auburn vision now dyed blonde, hips swishing in a manner far too theatrical.

And definitely far too familiar.

“Is this really happening?” I heard Chloe ask. Amazed. Despairing. “Is that really Genevieve Goldman?”

“Can’t be,” I whispered. Wheezed. “We already got one of those.”

And the Haitian barker took a step back, folded his arms and smiled knowingly.

“Why, hello, Lucky.” Genevieve joined her friends, infuriatingly unfazed to find me standing there. Bubblegum lips and a wicked grin, hands on the hips of her mini skirt. “Surprised to see me?”

“Not really. Where there’s smoke…”

“There’s fire?”

“I was thinking arsonists.”

Genevieve turned her attention. “Chloe, hi. You don’t look a bit different. Can’t tell you how reassuring that is.”

Chloe crossed her arms. “Reassuring, wow. There’s four syllables in that word, well done.”

Genevieve’s tossed her hair, shouldered her purse. “We’re going to a party, Lucky. Want to come?”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“I know you trust me just about as far as you can throw me –”

“Depends,” Chloe said. “If he threw you off a building, I imagine you’d travel pretty far –”

“Another funny one. But you two should come anyway. Especially you, Lucky. There’s some people I think you should meet…. If you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Why don’t you join us and find out?” She motioned for her friends to get the lead out. “We’re going to be grabbing a slice down the block, if you change your mind.”

And with that, the girls showered us with goodbyes.

On down the block, tiny purses hanging off exposed arms.

I turned to Chloe. Already giving me the look: Well, let’s get this over with, anyway.

“So I will see you two later,” the barker said, pushing on his glasses.

“That’s a nice place you have down there,” I told him, taking one last look into the depths. “Maybe we’ll be back later for a drink.”

“Sure,” the man replied. “Come back whenever you’re ready.”

“I’m Lucky.”

“Lucky…” He nodded with an abundance of understated respect. “I’m Zephyr.”

The two of us shook hands, a silent pact.

Chloe and I left Creole Nights behind, looking to catch up to Genevieve and her friends.

***

There are statisticians out there who would doubtless punch me in the face upon hearing this, but I stand by my own warped conjecture: you’re more likely to meet a person twice in a lifetime than only once. The facts may not support the truth, but the truth has an undeniable home court advantage. Encounters boiling down to little more than a string of cramped, poorly lit comedy clubs. You can choose to walk on by, but once you go in, there’s no negotiating with that two-drink minimum.

Chloe and I did our best to keep up with Genevieve and her bubbly friends. Hopping between side streets and conniving avenues. Treasures to be found around every corner, no doubt. But encountering Genevieve was borderline malicious. An unwarranted practical joke. The fine print that gets us all in the end, warning us through indecipherable back channels that what you get is what you see.

Genevieve led us to a high-rise on Adams Street. Thick walls of industrial gray spanning half the block. A genetic breakaway from its red-brick cousins near Washington Square. What towered before us now was more of a reinforced pillbox. Eleven-story nightmare nestled on the beaches of Normandy.

Someone buzzed us in, and we took the elevator up to number ten.

The hallways were flat and unremarkable. White-washed walls stole all sense of depth from the lengthy stretch of gray carpeting. Green apartment doors embedded into the wall at disconcertingly extended intervals. We moved on, towards the end of the hall, and finally, for the first time, I thought I heard the muffled bounce of heavy bass.

One turn of the knob, open door, and the music almost crushed me.

Genevieve’s entourage bounced right in, sending their sonar out into the crowd of well dressed, thoroughbred teenagers. Chloe and I trailed after them. Apartment wasn’t the word. This was a cavernous ballroom. Square footage best expressed in scientific notation. Walls stretching upwards. Track lighting on its lowest setting, tired robot eyes admiring expensive couches, squat, rectangular tables, and bizarrely shaped ergonomic chairs. It was the same kind of sprawling, elegant setting I’d seen in romantic comedies. Or sitcoms where plumbers, office temps, and struggling actors lived miraculously unshackled to rent or utilities.

Whoever was hosting, their parents were almost certainly dining somewhere along the French Riviera.

“What the hell are we doing here?” Chloe asked, practically screamed in my ear.

Genevieve had vanished into the fold. “Looking for food!”

Chloe pointed to a distant spread, covered in a white table cloth. The two of us made our way, ricocheting between khakis, polo shirts, and red solos. Voyage rewarded with the meager reality of a half-assed promise. At one end of the lengthy table, a bowl of Cool Ranch Doritos. At the other end, a bowl of orange puffy things. Sandwiched between those delicacies was a standing army of liquor bottles, mixers, magnums of red wine and a variety of three-liter bottles. Plastic coolers surrounded the table, gaping maws stuffed with ice and imported beer. Bottle caps littered the battlefield. Rum, vodka, bourbon, scotch, and tequila tops like spent ammunition, small hopes of ever seeing home again.

“So, what now?” Chloe asked. “Corn chip martinis?”

“Don’t even know if that’s not a thing,” I said. Realized for the first time how thirsty I was and reached for a pair of cups. Packed some ice, poured two cokes.

“My God,” Chloe said.

“What?”

“Is that a stairway?”

I strained my eyes past the sea of baseball caps and hundred-dollar haircuts.

Sure enough, far end of the room, a spiral staircase wound its way up to an unseen second floor. An apartment with a how-the-fuck-did-they-even second floor.

“Yeah,” I agreed. Drained my drink. “My God.”

Genevieve burst from the crowd. Plastic solo in one hand, her remaining arm snaked around the waist of a petite girl in modest jeans and blue sweater. Genevieve brandished her cup in my direction and bobbed her way over.

“Lucky!” she cried out. Swung forward. Pivoting, her face dangerously close to smashing against mine. I caught the hot, overripe blast of rum in her breath. “Lucky! I want you to meet Gina!”

Gina reached out her hand, uncertain.

I reached out in a similarly guarded manner.

“Gina!” Genevieve bumped against her hip. “Tell Lucky about you and Rebecca Demarco!”

It was so abrupt, so utterly free of nuance and subtlety, that I hardly had time to settle on an emotion.

Shock.

Ecstasy.

Apprehension.

Anticipation, lunacy…

…Sadly settling on a childish hope before Gina replied with sufficient hesitation: “Uh… well, there’s not a lot to tell, Lucky. My father works for Kalamazoo Studios, who I guess you must know released Ghost Girl.” Gina threw Genevieve a cursory glance before continuing. “Anyway, I was invited to the press release, and… Well, I met her, and… I guess that’s it?”

Before I could even comment, Genevieve cut in. “Do you think you can help Lucky meet her?”

Gina seemed to find comfort in my own bewildered expression. “What up, Lucky? You looking to meet Rebecca Demarco?”

“Does it matter? ”

“I’ll save you the trouble,” Gina said, with what appeared to be sincere empathy. “I mean, I met her, but I don’t know her. I don’t really have any connections, I’m just… A girl, you know.”

“It’s all right,” I told her. “So am I.”

“Yeah, well…” Gina gave me a polite wave, already melting into the crowd. “It was nice to meet you anyway.”

Genevieve was already at the table, filling her cup with Bacardi and diet. “What are you drinking, Lucky?”

“Coke,” I replied, still trying to keep up.

“Loser! How about you, Chloe?”

“The same.”

“Fine, be a couple of spoilsports…” Genevieve drank deep, wiped her mouth against her shoulder. “Come on. Follow me, kids!”

She dragged us to another end of the party, clarity sinking in.

One after another, Genevieve introduced me to people who had once met or known Rebecca Demarco. Her own personal tour of six-degrees, an all-you-can-eat of severed connections and useless leads. By the third introduction, my end of things became an afterthought. Genevieve would circumvent all conversation, throw herself into a winding monologue about how this particular person was connected to Rebecca Demarco, immediately followed up with why this brought me no closer to meeting the actress.

One after another, after another.

***

The final stop on this shame train took place on a large, decadent terrace. New York City stretched out north in an almost heartbreaking vista of luminous building blocks, lights dotting the landscape, miniature wishes. Remote planes cut across the sky as Genevieve capped off yet another drink, yet another link in the Demarco chain gang offering yet another hurried goodbye.

Vanished into the thicket.

“Too bad, Lucky,” Genevieve slurred, a gust of wind lifting her hair, falling into her mouth. She more or less managed to remove the strands of blonde from her grin. “Guess your luck hasn’t really much changed.”

“Yeah, we get it,” Chloe snapped. “Sending us off the ship and down to Key West wasn’t enough. You saw Lucky and thought you’d rub it in his face that you know so many people who know Rebecca Demarco.”

I put a spineless hand on Chloe’s shoulder. “It’s no big deal – ”

“You really think I’ve got some kind of beef with you, Lucky?” Genevieve smiled, teeth gleaming a horrible shade of pure confidence. “I came up here to thank you for that dopey little commercial you ended up ‘making’ for Summerset Cruises.”

“Dopey commercial?”

“Don’t take it wrong, Lucky –”

“No, I think I will.” My words popped to life in scattered bursts of freezing, crystallized breath. “I’ll have you know, Genevieve, that my dopey commercial just got me a slot at the film program here in New York. School of the Arts.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. OK? I’m personal friends now with Amanda and Franklin, dean of the film department and president of the –”

“That’s really great, Lucky. Really.”

“Yeah, again, really. So as a matter of fact, maybe someday, when I’m making a speech at the world premiere of my first feature, I’ll see if I can find the time to thank you for appearing in the dopey little commercial that started it all.”

“That’s sweet,” Genevieve mused. “I suppose I’ll have to do you the same when I’m making a speech at the debut of my first starring movie.”

“Lots of luck with that.”

“No need,” she replied, acid-tipped grin. “It’s slated to premiere in early 1997.”

I heard Chloe draw in a breath through clenched teeth. Harsh, sizzling sound. Pleased to say, I didn’t exhibit any such reaction. Just a confused, moronic look that must have thrilled Genevieve to the core.

“Oh, well, why do you think I wanted to thank you?” she asked. Bringing it. Absolutely loving it. “Someone over at Gemini Pictures just loved my fifteen seconds of fame and must have thought to themselves, Why not give a girl the full two hours? So, I got the call. You know, the contact information on the release form you made me sign. And before you can say doo-wah-diddy, I was cast in the lead of a MAJOR motion picture.”

I felt my pathetic inroads constrict with inevitable comparisons. Knocked flat by the overwhelming impossibility, unable to justify how this could have happened.

“Say, Genevieve…” Chloe stepped up alongside me. Took my arm in hers. “Congratulations on your movie. You’ve said what wanted to. Now why don’t you get just get out of my face and tell it to someone who gives a shit.”

“I’m sorry… Has Lucky not been paying enough attention to you on his mad race to find his real damsel?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, you don’t seem to want to attract attention. I mean, I think you like Lucky, but you don’t really seem interested in getting the job done.”

I swear, I could hear an incisor chip as Chloe ground her teeth together.

“You’re kind of in that friend category,” Genevieve continued, unrelenting. “And I understand that. I pity that, really I do. Believe it or not, women can end up in that place just like guys. Read it in Cosmo, actually. Girls with Guy Problems, I think was the article. You actually remind me a lot of those stories. I mean, Lucky’s an attractive guy. I mean, not Leonardo DiCaprio attractive, but he seems to know what he’s doing. What’s he doing hanging out with you?”

I finally managed to unsheathe my tongue. “Hold on –”

“Don’t you see?” Genevieve interrupted, put a patronizing hand on Chloe’s shoulder. “People evolve, you know. Become better, grow out of their shells. Like caterpillars and cocoons. He’s a butterfly, and you didn’t keep up –”

“Like you and Rebecca,” Chloe said, monotone voice. “You want to be an actress, maybe a model. Live in a magazine, do the whole movie thing. But it looks to me like Rebecca beat you to it, and it doesn’t matter that you’re going to be starring in your own movie come one minute from now. You’ll always be competing with Rebecca Demarco, and I don’t think you need three guesses which one of you Lucky is most interested in.”

“You just keep telling ourselves that, Chloe,” she said. Sealed the deal with a wicked smile, then skipped back into the apartment.

I shook my head. Sighed and put an arm around Chloe. “Thanks for sticking up for –”

“OK, first of all, it is a dopey commercial, you pussy…” Chloe fumed, turning on me. “And second, what the hell, Lucky?”

“Well… I think that first point was little easier to follow than your second –”

Franklin and Amanda say I’ve got a great future in the industry… I’m going to the same school as Blake Sonnefeld and Paul Cicero… I’ll remember you when I’m making a speech at the world premiere of my first feature… And now, I watch you getting into a dick-measuring contest with Genevieve over which one of you is closer to achieving stardom? Lucky, please, tell me. What’s going on with the crazy, what is with this sudden obsession with greatness, with fame, the whole Hollywood thing –”

“What crazy? I just want to make movies –”

“Since when?”

“Since always, I have always loved movies.”

“So do I. And yet, guess what I’ll be majoring in at Barnard? Psychology.”

I frowned. Let the news speak for itself.

Chloe sighed. Turned with it, looking out over the balcony. “I’m not sure. But it looks like I’m going to have to make a decision at some point… And I’d feel a lot better if I felt yours wasn’t based on Rebecca Demarco.”

I felt a slight skip on my record. “Rebecca Demarco who?”

“When you know her as well as I do, you just call her Rebecca Demarco.”

Directly to our left, I caught someone leaning against the balcony, eyeing us with a casual smile. Looked to be in his mid twenties. Dark hair some seven centimeters above a buzz. Skin a light tan, as though May Day had come to his body months in advance. Features so perfectly balanced they bordered on nonexistent.

Traveling though life incognito.

He folded his arms, a pair of toned roadmaps apparent even under his black suit. “So you must be that Lucky guy everyone around here is whispering about.”

I shrugged. “How’s anyone going to hear whispers with all that racket?”

All that racket?” The stranger laughed. “What do those damn kids think they’re doing on your lawn?”

“I wouldn’t bring age into this conversation, man, you don’t exactly fit the bill for hanging around all these underage girls.”

“I don’t like girls.” When he spoke, only the slightest trace of breath could be seen escaping his mouth. “And no, I’m not hitting on you.”

“Wasn’t what I was thinking.”

“What were you thinking?”

“That’s generally a hard question for him to answer,” Chloe said, extending her hand. “I’m Chloe.”

He reached out, gray eyes shimmering in the floodlights. “Germane Mercer.”

“This is Lucky,” Chloe added dismissively.

“Yeah…” He gave me a simple nod. “It’s my understanding, Lucky, that you have a bit a thing going on with Rebecca Demarco.”

“Let me guess, and you are…” I held a divining finger to my forehead. “Rebecca Demarco’s mother’s son’s sister.”

“Wouldn’t that just make me Rebecca Demarco?”

Chloe laughed, snorted.

“Why don’t we all save ourselves the trouble?” I said. “You knew Rebecca Demarco. You don’t anymore. And sorry as you are, there’s no feasible way for you to help me.”

“That’s incredible,” Germane said. Picked up a V8 and unscrewed the lid. “You are seven hundred percent wrong. Freezing. Alaska, is what you are.”

“Where’d you get the juice?” Chloe asked.

“Want some?”

“I’m prone to sickness. Wouldn’t want to give you anything.”

“Two bacterium walk into a bar. Bartender says, You don’t belong here. The bacterium say, What are you talking about? We’re staph.” Germane smiled, held out the bottle. “And don’t even worry about it. My body’s like Fort Knox.”

Chloe took three savage gulps.

“So, Germane,” I said. “Safe to say, then, that you never knew Rebecca Demarco.”

“And therefore still don’t. Which is ironic, considering your original conclusion was based on the exact opposite.”

“What conclusion did I draw?”

“No feasible way for me to help you. Your words, I believe.”

“My words, yes.”

“What if I were to tell you that I could grant you access to Rebecca Demarco?” Germaine took a tug from his bottle. “Phone number, email, contact information. Friends and family. Agent’s number, everything you might need to… put all this behind you.”

I opened my mouth to the cavernous echo of my own empty mind. “Thought you said you didn’t know –”

“Let me ask you something…” Germane had another sip of V8. “You ever gone online? Looking for Rebecca Demarco?”

“Chloe’s the one with an AOL account. I hardly understand what the world wide web even is.”

“So you’ve never happened across Oddball95?”

“No.”

“GhostGirl6703?”

“I don’t even know who she is.”

“Or he…” Germane took a hold of Chloe’s arm, led us to an isolated corner balcony. A tiny, potted evergreen stood at attention. “See, there’s a lot of red herrings crowding the asteroid belt. An army of weirdoes pretending to be Rebecca Demarco, or know Rebecca Demarco, not to speak of some of the twisted followers out there.”

“Stalkers?”

“Stalkers gone viral.” Germane lowered his voice. “Making the internet a commodity has opened a whole new dimension. Every last corner of the first world brought together at one wild junction. Yesterday’s stalkers are just the tip of the iceberg. A preview of things to come. You log into some of those online chat rooms, and you’re face to face with a legion of freaks who are either passively misogynistic in their admiration, or flat-out sexual predators. You won’t believe some of the things they say. Makes a tough guy tremble at the thought of what might happen if they ever got their hands on her. It’s insane what people become under the influence of anonymity.”

“Yeah? “

“And then…” Germane concluded, “there’s you, Lucky.”

I bristled, took a step back. Felt the edge of the balcony against my hips. “I’m not like those assholes.”

“You think they say the same about you?”

I glanced out towards the skyline. “Yes… Yes, I can tell you for a fact, without knowing for a fact, that they say the exact same thing about me.”

Chloe put an arm across my chest, as though keeping me from a fight. “What exactly is it that you do, Germane?”

He smiled. “I’m what the laymen might refer to as a hacker.”

Chloe lowered her arm. took the necessary steps to situate herself behind me.

Germane shrugged. “There you have it.”

“A computer hacker?” I croaked.

“Kind of pointless to crack an abacus.”

“You’re a hacker,” I repeated, hopes of creating some verbal life preserver. “A hacker, that’s how you make a living?”

“Hard to believe?”

“Always thought of hackers as wormy little nobodies, or morbidly obese blimps with outstanding vitamin D deficiencies.”

“You don’t look like one of those,” Chloe assured him.

“I’m not one of those, Chloe. And thanks for noticing.”

“If you don’t mind me saying…” I cracked my knuckles. “None of this tells me what you’re doing here. Doing here, talking to me.”

“As for what I’m doing here, it’s a simple matter of networking.” Germane cocked his head towards the crowd of teenagers, stuffed like sardines into a tin of drum and bass. “My usual line of work is infrastructure. Security. Men with lots of money on the line hire me to hack their systems. Find any weaknesses that a black hat might exploit. I’m essentially white hat. The money I make is the money I’m paid. But on occasion, I do go a little gray.”

I was touched with the wish for a bullet-proof vest. “Meaning?”

“Meaning small, harmless jobs really pay off, far as effort-to-compensation goes. A bank may pay me six figures to do a job for them. But it’s always a hell of a job. Some of these little rich white kids, and I have dealt with over half of them here… well, I convince them that changing their grades is like the Seven Labors of Hercules, and they’re willing to pay me two or three large for five minutes’ work.”

“Jesus,” Chloe whispered.

“Oh, yeah.”

I coughed. “Don’t know what else you might have heard about me, but I don’t got two thousand – ”

“I’ll do it for free.”

In the time it took for the words to sink in, Chloe took hold of my arm. “Lucky. Watch yourself, here. ”

“Chloe –”

“Let your girlfriend say what she has to say, little brother,” Germane advised. “This ain’t tiddlywinks.”

“Thanks for the offer, big brother, but when I said I’m not like those assholes, I meant I’m not like those assholes. I’m not a stalker. What you’re offering is the equivalent to lurking in shadowy doorways. And I won’t do it.”

“You know where most celebrity obsession stems from?” Germane asked, slipping his hands into his pockets and leaning back, out over the eight-story drop. He stared up at the sky, watching the planes crisscross. “Erotomania. It’s a psychological condition, not necessarily a modern one at that. The stalker is under the delusion that someone he’s never met is infatuated with him… It’s also known as de Clerambault’s syndrome, named after Gaetan Gatian de Clermbault. He was the first to publish any real, concrete findings on the subject, back in 1921… And I’m no stranger to it myself. Was once approached by a star-struck man who went on to make headlines.”

“Did you –”

“No.”

“Who –”

“I’m not going to answer that…” Germane scowled. “And it’s not like I’m introducing you two at a tea party. I’ll give whatever information you need, the rest is up to you. Now if you truly are, as you claim, better than the rest… Well, then what’s so wrong about what’s about to happen?”

I don’t know if I was convinced.

That is to say, I didn’t know if I had been convinced by him.

Oracle thoughts reminding me that there was very often, a very fine line

“Why?” I asked. “You don’t know me from Adam, and I can’t pay you shit. What’s in it for you?”

“Simple.” Germane grinned, and that smile was both beautiful and terrifying. “I cannot fucking stand Genevieve Goldman.”

“Let’s do it,” Chloe said.

“All right!” Germane clapped his hands, rubbed them together. Wiggled his fingers and led us towards the party. “Tell me where your ethical boundaries lie, and I’ll tell you if they’re living side by side with mine.”

The two of us walked along with him, side-stepping to keep up.

“Address and telephone number,” I told him.

“Done.”

“Email address.”

“I can get you direct access to her inbox, long as she doesn’t change her password overnight.”

“No thanks.”

“Good man. She got any siblings?”

“Let’s not drag them into this.”

“Chloe, what’s your email address?”

Chloe was quick to reply, caught up.

“All right.” Germane unbuttoned his jacket. “Now I just got to see a guy…”

The three of us stepped into the party like we owned it. Germane scanned the crowd, immune to the obnoxious din of mainstream R&B. Zeroed in on a preppie with freckled cheeks, red hair, and a letter jacket. Motioned for us to keep up, whispered something in the kid’s ear. The kid nodded, motioned for us to follow him.

“What are we doing?” Chloe asked.

“Just need to access to my computer!” he called out over his shoulder.

“I didn’t know this was your place!”

“It isn’t!”

I put my mouth close to his ear. “I thought you said you were going to access your computer!”

“Yeah, like I really need my computer to do that.”

The kid led us up the spiral staircase, down a hallway. Came to a closed door, and the kid pulled out a set of keys. Popped the lock and let Germane in.

Chloe and I began to follow, when the kid barred the entrance with his arm.

“Going to use his old man’s computer,” Germane called out. “You two go on down and enjoy the party… I’ll be done in five minutes.”

Caught a glimpse of him at a desk, switching on a PC.

Then the door was closed, and the kid led us back downstairs.

It was a wild scene. Chloe and me, the two of us sitting on a couch, surrounded by beer-soaked trusties.

I caught sight of Genevieve, going to town on a bottle of champagne.

“What do you think, Lucky?” Chloe asked, her lips to my ear.

“What do I think about what?”

“This is it!” she called out. “Say hello to Rebecca Demarco!”

“Hello to Rebecca Demaro!”

“You’re a fucking idiot, you know that –”

And before she could take the sweet talk any further, a panic began to spread across the room. I turned, over the shoulder, eyes narrowing.

Locusts, was the first thing that came to my mind.

The party erupted into high-pitched screams before anyone really knew what was happening. Sober as a clam, and I still couldn’t make room in my brain for the army of policemen, badges held high over their heads.

Well, not really policemen.

Some of them, were, certainly.

Some more like well-dressed lawyers, layered with a Kevlar coating.

Weapons drawn, deep voices barking out over the clamor.

I turned to Chloe, somehow still accepting the party of the first part. “Did they just say FBI?”

Chloe’s reaction was so brilliant, it bordered on sublime.

She leapt forward, flattening me against the couch. Covered me like a blanket, reaching for a nearby drink. Felt her elbow against my jaw, knee against my testicles, pinching my lips into a miserable grimace, as the riotous tromp of storm troopers thudded up through the floor like an awakening volcano.

She upended the solo, contents dumped all over us.

Lukewarm beer slathered my face, suds stinging my eyes. Puke stench crawling up my nostrils, as Chloe pressed down and practically stuck her tongue in my ear.

“We’re drunk,” she ordered. “Drunk and passed out, now go limp.”

Amazingly enough, I felt the makings of a smartass remark.

Something about going limp, but the information was blissfully distorted. An editor’s worst nightmare as I closed my eyes and became one with my antithesis. Another drunk teenager passed out on the couch with some domestic-soaked floozy lying unconscious beside me.

I kept my eyes shut, chaos ricocheting as the two of us stuck to our roles.

Only a world or so of confusion passing before we heard someone shouting: “Nobody move! NOBODY MOVE! We are taking this man into our custody, so don’t – WHAT DID I SAY!? WHAT DID I SAY!? DON’T FUCKING MOVE, WHITE BREAD!”

I risked a peek, and caught a canted shot of Germane Mercer, hauled across the apartment. Hands cuffed behind his back, complying with smug, admirable indifference as two agents shoved him between a parting sea of shell-shocked socialites.

My life flashed before my eyes.

Curtains drawn, ushers with semi-automatics clearing the aisles.

And when the smoke lifted after another night on earth, Germane Mercer was taken into federal custody.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

12:02 am.

 

I never get tired of hearing that part,” Zephyr tells them.

Lucky shakes his head, can’t help but smile. “I never get tired of being free.”

Zephyr sets up a couple of shot glasses. Looks questioningly over at James, sticking his tongue out at his own reflection.

Shit,” Lucky reasons. “If this is how the kid acts when he’s sober, why not let him feel the real?”

Zephyr makes it a trifecta, reaches for the Bacardi and pours.

James breaks away from his feud with the mirror. Stares into his shot like he’s just been handed a flaming sombrero.

Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up!” Zephyr cries.

James does as he is told, clumsy fingertips copping his first feel.

To freedom!” Zephyr proclaims.

To freedom!” Lucky echoes.

James squeaks in agreement, watches his older counterparts slaughter the aged sugarcane. In his desperation, he practically inhales the liquid. Sends himself into fit of possessed coughing. The fumes crawl out from his stomach, lungs, an acrid stench happily drifting from just below his nose, up through his sinuses.

Don’t you puke, now, James,” Lucky orders, handing him a glass of water.

Uh-oh!” Zephyr laughs. “I think he’s going to do it!”

Twenty bucks says no.”

James glances up from doubled over, reduced to a rooster in a cockfight. He tries to force out a diatribe of expletives, feels his gorge rising.

Twenty bucks!” Zephyr cries.

With one final grimace, James forces the bile back down his throat, taking little pleasure in the knowledge that he’s just earned Lucky a solid Jackson.

Easy now,” Lucky says, patting his partner on the back. “You tried for a shortcut. Ain’t no shame in taking the long way home.”

I hope you die,” James wheezes.

Like you’re the first to ever wish for that.”

James watches through watery eyes as Lucky claims his twenty.

Zephyr doesn’t seem to mind. “Win-win,” he says, and moves away.

James breaths in. Out, slowly coming back to the now. The bar. The orange lamps, tables, drunks and late-night lovers. Jean and Lionel packing it in for the night. With one final, shuddering sigh, he straightens.

Punches Lucky in the arm.

Ouch.” Lucky rubs his shoulder. “You all right there, sick-boy?”

Fine.” James reaches for a glass of water, hoping to wash away the aftertaste of his own stomach. He takes three large sips, sets the glass down. “Wish you’d gotten your ass thrown in jail along with that Germane guy.”

Have a bit of the bright side…” Lucky thumps him on the back. “At least you’ll never have to worry about meeting him. Probably rotting away in some federal prison right now.”

Is there anything you touch that doesn’t turn to shit?”

Well, I’ve never tried touching shit.”

James finds himself wracked by another bout of coughing.

Zephyr pokes his head around the supporting pillar in hopes of winning his bet.

Fuck off,” James says.

Zephyr laughs and leaves them be.

And to answer your question,” Lucky continues, straightening himself in his seat. “I can only assume Germane is in prison right now. Same as I’ll never know if all that talk about working for the banks was just bullshit, or why the FBI was looking for him. Same as I’ll never know just what the hell happened that night. How they managed to track him down so quickly to an unknown address… All based on one simple hack.”

Probably had the host’s IP address recorded,” James offers, slowly recovering.

I don’t know what that means.”

Who cares?” James takes a sip of water. “All that matters is what it means. Another lead, another bump in the road. Another dead end.”

Well, it’s never really about dead ends…” Lucky pulls out a fresh pack of cigarettes. Smacks it against the palm of his hand. Tears the cellophane and pops the top. “I mean, the real problem about an obsession is that there are no real dead ends.”

What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Do you even know why you’re down here?”

James laughs, shakes his head. “Nice try. If you think I’m going to spill the beans about the message I’ve got for you, then you’re not half as smart as you think you are.”

And if you haven’t figured out that I don’t give a damn about your message,” Lucky pops a cigarette in his mouth, “then you must be twice as dumb as that.” Lucky lights the Marlboro, tosses his Zippo onto the bar. “Now, I’m not saying you have to answer in detail, but I’ll repeat the question: Do you even know why you’re down here?”

James replies without a second thought. “Yes.”

You sure?”

James summons his most debilitating glare.

You’re getting better at that.” Lucky smiles. “And I’m just saying.”

Just saying what?”

Chloe and I were ushered out of that party by a couple of municipals… Her cover turned out to be excellent, and they didn’t give a good damn what happened to us after that. Sent us into the night with a gruff Grab a goddamn cab back home. Caught our goddamn bus back home, as it happened, and we were back in Verona the very next day… Now, you’d think I might have learned a little something from this last brush with fate.”

Fat chance.”

See, I’m fine admitting I had an Icarus complex…” Lucky picks up an ice cube from his glass, presses it against the back of his neck. Gets his leather wet, but that piece of armor’s been around. Seen worse days. “I flew just a little too close to the sun, and my wings have long since melted. But there’s any number of people in this world that constantly mistake plummeting for flying. Once decisions are made, they often stop being decisions.”

James spies a couple at the end of the bar, tongues intertwined.

Imagine if you hear a knock at your door…” Lucky glances over to said couple, now very much in each others’ laps. “No more than three solid raps: tap, tap, tap. And let’s say you weren’t expecting company, so you wander over, wondering who could this be? You open the door, just a crack. You see nothing. You open the door wider, a frown on your face as you take a few short paces into the outside world…”

Lucky lifts his glass. Replaces the coaster with a fresh one, and keeps on… “Now this is where most people stop. End of story. Just an empty street, and you figure you must have heard wrong, or whoever it was at the door must have not mattered, ‘cause otherwise they’d still be there… Another insignificant detour, and life returns to familiar ground, right?”

James gives him that much.

But what if you didn’t stop there…? What if your curiosity sent you those few extra steps down to the sidewalk? You look left, right, and you still don’t see anyone. But you can’t quite get those three solid raps out of your head. And what if you took it even further, thinking maybe there was something to be found at the end of the block? And of course, there’s not. But the mystery of that knock on the door takes you even further. In another direction, looking for the answer to what brought you there in the first place.”

How much wandering before you give up?”

Lucky nods… “Exactly. And how much time before you end up lost? Stuck wandering the streets, still searching and forever unsure of where it all began…”

James shrugs off the argument, a bit too readily. “So?”

So you ever hear of something called Hang Ten?”

No.”

It’s a time-delay program for emails. It allows you to send an email, have it float about in the netherworld of cyberspace, then it arrives in the recipient’s inbox at the exact time you want it to.”

Go on.”

It’s not like this kind of software existed back in the mid nineties,” Lucky says. “Soon enough, I’m sure, this will be a commonplace feature for anyone with a Yahoo! account. But a guy who was clever enough with computers could have easily written such a program. Probably wouldn’t have taken him more than a day. But like most programs, there’s times we leave our settings on without remembering to switch back to defaults.”

James waits for Lucky to continue.

I’m saying, as 1995 came to a close and the new year reared its ugly head, and I was so stuck on finding out who had first knocked on my door that… well, I suppose I was willing to do whatever it took. Truth be told, I’d almost forgotten that any of this had to do with Rebecca Demarco.” Lucky gives his cigarette its due, passes the favor along to his drink. “I’m saying, I hope you still remember what the hell you’re doing down here.”

James can’t argue. His head is still buzzing from a shot that never even made it down the hatch. Someday, he knows, he’ll figure out a proper comeback to what Lucky has laid before him. He’ll wonder how he managed to even set foot in the dark shadows of Creole Nights.

But until that day arrives, the loudspeakers are crying out redemption songs.

And James has an opportunity to hear how a casual walk might eventually end.

***

“Can it really be 1996?” I muttered to myself, staring out the window.

My feet were propped on Chloe’s desk, and I rocked backwards. Felt the chair tilt as far as physics would allow. Stretched my arms. Head towards the window. All I could see was a drab swath of gray, as though someone had forgotten to paint the sky that day. Branches bifurcating wildly against wind shorn January morning, petrified dendrites.

I focused. Thought I saw a couple of snowflakes float past the window.

From the next room, I heard the invasive whistle of a modem, followed by the garbled screech of internet static. Set my feet on the carpet. Brought the chair back to its full upright position. Checked in with the Far Side calendar on the night table. Date spelled out in bold caps, directly above a dog holding a bazooka.

JANUARY 4, 1996.

“Can’t argue with that,” I murmured.

Tilted back in the chair and forced all thoughts of Rebecca Demarco from my mind.

Most thoughts, anyway.

“Hey, Lucky.”

I hiccupped, arms pin wheeling for a few reps. Overcorrecting. My body slammed against the desk, hands planted firmly on its surface. Turned and found Chloe standing in the doorway. Sweatpants, navy blue Pantheon sweater. Thick white socks like hobbit feet. Steam rose from her mug of hot chocolate, into concerned eyeballs. “You’d better come have a look at this.”

“And if I say no?”

“It’s an email from Germane Mercer. Do you want to see it or not?”

I jumped out of my seat and rushed past her. Ran into the den, where the family Mac sat on a small table, awaiting orders. I stuck my nose close to the monitor, and blindly reached for the mouse.

“What the hell are you doing?” Chloe asked.

“Clicking print.”

“Have you even read – ”

“No.”

“Well,” I heard her sipping marshmallows as the printer came to life with a mechanical groan. “There’s really not much to look at. I’d actually kind of like to get rid of the thing, if I may. Like now.”

I stuck my hand in front of the printer, ready for the catch. “You sound a little worried there.”

“Then let me rephrase…” Chloe stalked up with an upside smack to my head.

Embarrassingly enough, I flinched. “Why did you do that?”

“Because you’re an idiot. Didn’t we both see Germane Mercer carried off by the Feds? Into custody? And you think it’s just business as usual when an email from him pops up randomly on my AOL account?”

“Yeah. Good point, actually.”

“Shit, they’re probably on their way right now.”

“No they aren’t.” I clicked once. Twice. “There, gone. All gone.”

“Yeah. You’re the fucking expert.”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit odd that Germane Mercer has only just shot you an email? If he’s casually contacting you now, then how much trouble could he have possibly been in? Doesn’t seem strange?”

“How’s this for strange?” Chloe tore at the printed email. She shoved it against my chest and retreated to the kitchen. “Have fun with that, Mr. Cryptologist.”

Outside the window snowflakes were turning into scattered flurries.

I took a look for myself, this long overlooked Easter egg.

 

Hey, Reecca…

Everything set on  for Ice  faxed you the deta and I’m terfere w the pickups f the opposite  also got the shooting schedule for the Ang film, ut Of Ca. You’ll be on location in Wilmington, N a from January 2 through to January 6 (th Wednesday to . Hope this  plans you might  year (skiing in Aspen, ?) Get back to on  get the chance.

 

Yore best,

 

one Tmmn.

 

My eyes cruised the message once, twice.

Wondering if it was a stretch, what there was to read between the corrupted lines.

You’ll be on location in Wilmington, North Carolina from January 2 through to January 6

Yes, at the time there was no accounting for the disparity between the date we met Germane and the arrival of his belated email. Yes, there was no explanation for the only message he managed to send, an intercepted communiqué. Yes, there was no reason to take this at face value. No solid ground upon which to stand, except for the fact that it seemed to have come at just the right time for me to put this compass to good use.

And yes, maybe, there was no justification for what I did next.

Ran into the kitchen. Streaked past Chloe. Reached for the nail, car keys hanging, in my hand. She called after me, voice buried beneath the grind of the garage door. I ran out into the driveway. Snowflakes pecking at my skin. Opened the door to the Volvo. Leapt in and turned the ignition. Let the engine warm up as the radio blasted some grungy piece of garbage.

Public radio must have been chattering off the hook, full alert about what the horizon had in store for us.

But by the time Chloe ran out of the house, sneakers untied in an ode to safety hazards, it was clear she was as clueless as I was.

“Lucky, what the hell are you doing?” she cried out.

Scattered flurries showing signs of organization.

I left the engine running, jumped out and pulled the crumpled letter out of my pocket. “That’s this week, Chloe. This week, she’s in Wilmington. Out of the limelight and less than three hours away. Even as we speak, can you feel it?”

“Feel what!?” Chloe stalked up and snatched the note from my hands. “It’s nonsense! Garbage! We don’t even know if it’s our Wilmington or not!”

“Looks like Carolina to me!”

“Sure, the word Carolina appears to appear. The film might take place in North Carolina: filmed on location in Delaware. They do have a Wilmington in Delaware, you know.”

“On location in Delaware, where? A Roy Rodger’s off I-95?” I snatched the note, good chunk of it remaining in Chloe’s fist. “She’s here. She’s in Wilmington for three more days, and I don’t care what it takes to track her down. This is North Carolina, this is my playground. Both at the same party now, and I’m not leaving until we’re introduced.”

The timer went off, garage door closing behind her.

“Lucky, what the hell do you think you can possibly do?”

“I’ve got fifty bucks for food and we can sleep in the car!” I called out, jumping into the driver’s seat, lowering the window and stretching to open the door to the passenger’s side. “We’ll call our parents once we get there! Now are you gonna stand there in the cold like some kind of iceweasel, or you coming along for the ride?”

“Hell yeah, I’m coming, that’s my goddamn car!” Chloe dove into the front seat as I shifted into reverse. Peeling out onto black asphalt, already coated with a thin layer of white frosting. Cruising past convenience stores, parking lots crammed with cars and panicked citizens, arms full of groceries, bottled water, cartons of Marlboros and Newports. The snow was coming down harder, even as we merged onto highway 70, changing lanes onto I-40 East, ignoring the early warnings of an emergency broadcast.

That is to say, I ignored all of it.

But that was the same as any other day.

I pushed Chloe’s car through the snow as though it were an actual plow, and one hour, fifteen minutes later, reality finally caught up to both of us.

***

Even as it transpired, a title was chosen for this particular tempest. There are occasions when people simply know history is in unfolding before them. And in this case, history came up with The Blizzard of 1996.

One hell of a storm, it turns out.

Philadelphia was hit with 30 inches of snow, an all-time greatest for the city of brotherly love.

New Jersey, nailed at a record setting 27.8 inches in Newark. Over two-thirds lambasted by two or more feet of snow, and the Garden State’s eponymous turnpike was shut down for the first time since its opening in 1952.

New York was left in a state of paralysis by 20.2 inches in Central Park, fourth largest snowfall in recorded history. Some boroughs reported depths of up to three feet, and schools closed their doors for the first time since 1978.

Verona was carpeted in a cataclysmic four inches.

Fairy dust in the scheme of what the greater Northeast suffered.

But consider the consequences. Power outages. Schools let out for nearly a week. Roads turned into frozen wastelands due to a history of, basically, being the South. Not nearly enough plows to clear the way. Not a single contingency in place to deal with the damages. They say that if it is a man’s destiny to drown, then drown he will, even in a tablespoon of water. And those four inches accumulated over the course of forty-five minutes. Just like that. From flurries to snowstorm, to impassible highways and byways.

So weather turned out to be a funny thing.

Distance, just as much a joke, though that’s always been the case.

Chloe and I did our best to get to Wilmington. A two-hour jaunt from Verona, and one hour in, our drive caved to the overwhelming reality of exterior forces. Windshield caked with a glaze of frost and snow. Eyes shielded from all that lay beyond the hood, when the tires simply gave up. Steering wheel locked as we careened off the road, ditched at a mild diagonal. It wasn’t the world’s most spectacular of accidents, but in those few seconds of hysterical uncertainty, it occurred to me that I had finally, truly gone too far.

One of the premier snow storms of the century.

Staking its claim on the very day that fate sent me towards the Carolina coast. Into the tempest. Off the road. Into a trench with little hope of rescue at any time in the next twenty-four hours. Forcing us to keep the engine running, rationing the heat, until the fuel gauge tipped its hand to the letter E. Stuck with no food, a half bottle of Dr. Pepper. Nothing but a blanket in the back seat to stave hypothermia as the snow kept on and on and on, it kept on.

Curled together for our survival,

and all I could think…

Yeah. All I could conjure for the occasion was,

What are the odds?

***

We were in the back seat.

I remember that blanket, wrapped around our bodies. Tie-dyed colors bleeding in the dark.

I remember the snow. No longer drifting, but coming down with enough force to hear every unique crystal, slamming against the car as the cold crept in. Through the windows, vents. Tailpipe, you name it. Sub-zeros corralling us under what little warmth there was to be had. Her leg between mine, arms drawing us close.

Contents of a time capsule. Staring at the ceiling, windows with no way out.

“What are the odds?”

Faced with the prospect of an early grave, Chloe was up for any argument that might stave off the inevitable. “The weather? Meteorological events conspiring at top levels against Mr. Lucky Saurelius?”

“Even you…” I shifted slightly. “Even you have to agree. This is a little disturbing.”

“Yes. That’s the disturbing part of this scenario.”

“It fits the pattern.”

Chloe muffled a sigh against my neck, breath warm against our frigid surroundings. “Your ego is showing.”

“Well, we gave chase. Tried. As always, and now, what are we doing here?”

“What are we doing here?”

“Exactly”

“No, Lucky. What are we doing here? What is it anyway?”

“What is what it anyway?”

“You’ve never given me a straight answer,” she said. Lips close to my ear, tickling. “You’ve never… never once, I mean… you’ve never bothered to really explain, why the hell, what is it about her?”

“I’m going to do something stupid and admit that it makes no sense.”

Chloe was suddenly wracked with shudders. I held her close, rubbed her shoulders. Did what I could to keep us warm. “No kind of sense…” I reached up, cupped her ear, icy cool against my palm. “But things get to a point. You have to ask yourself, why? And when the answers come back with nothing better than because… Well. Well, I feel if I could just meet her, then there would finally be, at least, a more satisfying answer. Hell, isn’t that what all of us are doing? Here on Earth. Just looking for answers?”

“It wasn’t about the bigger things until it was about the bigger things…” Chloe slid her hand up along my chest. “How many times, early on, did you tell me how thrilling it would be, how simply… amazing, if a nobody like you could pull off meeting a star like her? That’s not metaphysics, Lucky. It’s just… the claim to fame. Alexander the Great, manifest destiny.”

“And before all that, there was the picture. There was the feeling.”

“And you can’t even tell me what it means.”

“Why should I have to explain myself?”

“I’d like to know why we’re going to freeze to death in a Swedish four-door.”

“Nobody’s going to die.”

“Lots of people are going to die tonight, Lucky. And if you can’t explain why the weather’s content to kill them all just to keep you from Wilmington, then at least tell me why it’s going to kill us, just because of a feeling you once had –”

“If I had met Rebecca Demarco, apart from all this. Not even Rebecca Demarco, let’s send in an understudy. I meet her, I fall in love, and you wouldn’t be asking me what that feeling is. You might not like it. You might not like her. But you wouldn’t ask me to explain what love is. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy. That’s the funny thing, Chloe. After all that’s happened, I feel no different from anyone else on this planet who meets someone and falls in love. I just haven’t met her yet.”

Chloe closed her eyes, and I could feel her eyelashes flirting against my face. “You believe its love?”

“No. But do you believe in God?”

“I believe in something.”

“But in the absence of an appropriate expression –”

“Sure,” Chloe smiled. “I’ll say God help me…”

I smiled along. “Yes, God help us both right now.”

Her body convulsed against mine. “I don’t want to laugh.”

“We’re not trapped in a coal mine. Oxygen isn’t the issue. Frostbite, pneumonia, that’s what’s gonna kill us. So go ahead on and laugh.”

Chloe gave in, and now I felt it on my lips. “You’re an idiot, Lucky. Thanks for getting us killed for a girl off drinking cognac some million miles away.”

“One and a half hours away, as the exhaust flies.”

“Might as well be a million.”

Chloe’s whispers brushed against me and I remember responding with: “Distance couldn’t possibly mean that much. We’re all closer than we think.”

I’ll never remember whose mouth was on whose first. Or maybe nobody kissed anybody. Chloe’s choice. My choice. The world would always be left to wonder, if it ever even cared. At seventeen, there is only all at once. Sometimes there’s no first move. Even though Chloe thought I would have rather been kissing someone else. Even though that wasn’t the case, and who knows how these things happen, how affection turns the page after a casual lifetime of sharing everything else.

Kissing.

More kissing.

Our bodies clumsy and cramped as the radio played on. Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain, and it was like something out of a movie. And while that might have been a strike against us, or maybe the one thing that made it memorable, that’s what kisses always come down to. The barest need to bring distance to its knees.

Even as the storm raged on outside.

I remember that moment, even though I’m not sure whether I’ll ever be sure I want to.

I remember that kiss, our clothes slowly finding their way beneath the seats.

Unapologetic and without reason, the Blizzard of 1996.

***

“For the last time, it’s not a goddamn cold,” she told me, blowing into a tattered Kleenex. “Flu convalescence, not like it’s your average sniffle, and if it weren’t that you never seem to get sick, I’d gladly sneeze into your coffee –”

“It’s been half an hour since we stopped talking about that,” I interrupted. Poured sugar into my refill. “If you want to stay off subject, let’s maybe get a little more creative.”

“Yeah.” Chloe tugged at a tea bag, overdone motions that sent liquid spilling over the rim. “I’ve never been that good at this, have I?”

Ever since the blizzard, it was as though someone had flipped a switch.

Miraculously enough, an emergency vehicle had chanced upon us before midnight. Chloe was AAA, treated to a nice, long tow back to Verona. Skies clearing. Wilmington at our backs. Hardly a storybook ending, but one I was willing to accept for the comforts of my own bed.

In the week that followed, life gradually rotated right side up. On the mend, as municipal workers and volunteers took to the streets. Emergency vehicles dotting the scenery under the butterscotch flash of service lights, cherry pickers sent skyward. Raising high the telephone poles toppled by tumbling branches. Gathering the flaccid power lines from thawing gutters. Fallen trees subject to chainsaw autopsies beneath blue skies determined to rid themselves of all responsibility for their gray offensive.

A different kind of emergent, visible in the waking life around us. Everyone opening their doors. Out onto the streets with tentative steps. Eyes adjusting to nascent landscapes. Atmosphere wiped clean, almost purified. Sounds of nature, water dripping from all surfaces, branches and overhangs. Even those venturing out in their cars, pickups, and minivans seemed to be caught in lower gears. Humble under the simple fact of an aftermath.

Life on mute.

A welcomed alternative to entrapment.

I took it all in, let it happen.

Let it wash over me, as I waited for school to resume.

From breakfast to dinner. Noon till midnight, one moment to another, for a few blessed days it was as though there were no milestones. Instantaneous existence. Happy to be free from all action and reaction, and so it happened I was suddenly seated across from Chloe. Spell broken by the look on her face. Eyes suggesting she had experienced no such metamorphosis, and the earth was still her sad, mistrustful home.

She sneezed into a tissue, nose red from a cold brought on by our night buried under the snowfall.

“It’s not a cold,” she repeated, even though I hadn’t prompted her to argue anything of the sort.

“That’s not what we were talking about.”

“One last try, give me a break here…”

Cover to Cover was one of the few places that had managed to maintain their numbers after the storm. Enough regulars accustomed to their feet or bike pedals, but even the return of all those who were there before did little to obscure the change.

“You don’t know if you want to, or you don’t know what I –”

“I know what you mean,” Chloe said. “When somebody asks me to be their girlfriend, I pretty much get the–”

“And you don’t want to?”

“It’s a little…” Chloe let the string trip into her tea. She tried to fish for it, burned her fingers with a well placed expletive. I sent my spoon in for the extraction. Laid the teabag in the ashtray and motioned for her to continue. “It’s just a little hard to believe,” she said. Exhaled, got herself together with a shake of her blond hair, noticeably longer than it had been at the start of the summer. “I’m not sure I understand why. Why would you suddenly want to be with me, I mean… Why now. Is this because we…”

Well, not everybody can just come out and say it at seventeen.

“Well, we did,” I said. “We might as well say it. We had sex in the back of your crappy old Volvo. Classic fifties style. Except for the Volvo part, I guess.”

“And the crappy part,” Chloe said, glad to accept the tangent.

“Thank you.”

“I meant the car. My Volvo is gold.”

“See, when you say things like that, I just know the time is finally right.”

“It feels like getting a girl pregnant and proposing out of duty.”

Coffee went down the wrong pipe, drops of dark roast spewing across the booth.

“Oh, you don’t really think –” Chloe reached over to pat my back, then thought better of it. “We used protection, and it would be too early for me to tell anyway… Did you even pay attention in sex-ed?”

“Aced it,” I wheezed.

“You sure?”

“I’m not sure I like what the question implies.”

“Certainly not that, you insecure bastard.”

“Thank you.”

“First is worst, second is best.”

“Thank you?”

“Lucky, I just don’t know where this is coming from.”

“Coming from where?” I managed, lungs cleared of coffee. “What if this is what I want?”

“What about Rebecca Demarco?”

“How can you think she’s even –”

“You really think she isn’t?”

“I can tell you what she is,” I said. “She is a Hollywood actress living in New York City. She is miles divorced from our lives. And she ultimately has no effect on either of us as long as we don’t let her.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Maybe the writing was always on the wall. Maybe all those significant events were always stop signs. And I never saw them for what they were. And what I’m saying now is maybe it’s time for it to end.”

“That’s interesting…” Chloe glanced into her tea. Reading the leaves. “And what do you mean by it’s time for it to end?”

I folded my arms, leaned back. “From now on, no matter who steps up to help me with Rebecca Demarco, no matter how fantastic the opportunity, how certain the situation… I am simply going to have to look the other way.”

“You really think you could resist?”

“I control my own destiny, Chloe… Not the stars, not the gods. Not the lines in my palm. I decide where things begin and where they end. And I’m calling this the end.”

Chloe avoided my eyes, nibbled her thumb. “Just like that?”

“You don’t think I can.”

“You can do whatever you want…” Chloe continued to look any which way but mine. “But it’s like my mother always tells me about the people in AA. They can go into rehab, get cleaned up. They can go out to bars with their friends, order a ginger ale every time. But they aren’t cured, Lucky. They’re still alcoholics, and they always will be.”

“I don’t care for the comparison.”

“My mother’s a better person than either one of us will ever be, so take that comparison and deal with it.”

“What I mean is I want you to tell me what you mean.”

“I mean, I don’t believe you.” Chloe swallowed. Took a deep, congested breath. “And so I have to say no to you, Lucky. I have to say no.”

I blinked. “No to what?”

“Please don’t make me use a term as idiotic as going steady.”

“Oh.” I felt a recognizable twinge from my junior high years. “Calling it a relationship wouldn’t help smooth the transition?”

“Do you even know what you mean when you say relationship?”

“Does anybody? Do you?”

“Relationship. Boyfriend and girlfriend, it’s something I don’t get. It’s a strange idea, but I do know it means a… deeper level of trust somehow. I trust you, but I don’t trust your personality. I don’t trust this, right now. I don’t want to be part of your new beginning. I don’t want to watch you parade around in front of fate, or the gods, or whatever, as proof of your new contract with nobody but yourself. You know what that would make me?”

I shook my head.

“A trophy wife.”

“You’re wrong.”

“And I’ll take you at your word when I take you at your word.” Chloe dug into her pocket. Pulled out another tissue and blew her nose. Her nose glowed red from irritation, eyes watering… “But if we’re going to keep being friends, then we have to be friends.”

“Well…” I reached for my coffee and took a sip. Lowered the mug, then went in for another drink. The disappointment was somewhat neutralized by the stale taste of too many refills.

Chloe twisted the tissue with her hands, turned it into a piece of bow-tie pasta. “Sorry.”

“Offer still stands,” I said. Unwilling to let this elephant remain in the room. “And as long as we’re stuck comparing one unrelated thing to another, thanks for being my sponsor.”

Chloe laughed a little, coughed a lot. Spat some gooey substance into yet another tissue. “Always.”

She excused herself to go to the bathroom. I leaned back in the booth. Had some coffee, glancing over to the door every time a burst of wind ushered in the next anonymous customer.

“I’m going to have to stop doing that,” I announced, to nobody in particular.

“Lucky!” Carla called out from the counter. “You got a phone call!”

I felt my throat tighten. Grabbed hold of my mug, ceramic security blanket, and made my way over with unwelcome expectations. Carla handed me the phone. Ducked under the coil to brew some fresh coffee. I put the receiver to my ear, wondering if I truly would be able to say no to whatever was waiting for me on the other end.

Turned out to be nobody other than my mother.

Informing me that I had been accepted to film school in New York.

I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Took another sip of coffee, and my senior year was now in its home stretch.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

12:45 am.

 

The microcosm of Creole Nights has slowed.

Close to how it was when Lucky first walked in. Just the regulars at the end of the bar, now joined by Jean and Lionel. All music left to the stereo, Gregory Isaacs singing Cool Down the Pace. Orange light spills over evidence of the past half hour; abandoned tables tossed with empty glasses and beer bottles. A random spattering of people hanging onto their drinks, last vestiges of sobriety. Final attempts to put together a proper sentence. Conversation simmering,soft spoken imitations of subway rails.

All the makings of a bar about to close.

But Lucky knows better.

Shame about Chloe,” James comments. He has stripped down to a white t-shirt, black pants. The ensemble gives the impression of a waiter after another brutal night on the floor. Adds a few extra years to his smooth, untested face. “Real shame.”

How you figure that one out?” Lucky asks.

Just when you finally spice up the story with some backseat action, it all comes crashing down.”

Ha.” Lucky smiles, in a rare moment of immodesty. “Don’t you worry, my horny little rabbit. Just because Chloe rejected my offer, didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of sex to be had.”

But I thought she didn’t want a relationship.”

And I pose the same question she did: Do you even know what a relationship is?

James wiggles in his seat, as though trying to fit his way into the explanation.

That’s what I thought,” Lucky concludes. “Let me tell you something, James. The emotions may be raw, they may be real. But when it comes to high school, relationships are all about make-believe and practice. Call it a dry run on adulthood. Chloe may have said no to a relationship, but we learned real quick, sometimes, once that physical barrier is broken…”

James leans forward, waiting with eager eyes.

What, you need a table of contents?” Lucky asks, reaches for his Jack Daniels.

He’s met with an eager and shameless nod.

Once that physical barrier is broken, that’s the ball game. Chloe and I barely made it two days past our little talk before we ended up in bed together, again. We’d go at it every chance we got. Her house, my house, in the car, even while I was babysitting –”

Lucky is a babysitter!” comes a taunting, sing-song jeer from across the bar.

Here’s to doing it!” Zephyr proclaims, raising a glass of rum. “Here’s to doing it all night long!

Everyone raises their drinks, James included.

It gives Lucky a moment’s pause. “Where did you get that, James?”

James proudly shows off his Red Stripe. “A drunk lady bought it for me.”

Ah…” Lucky brings his glass in for a meet-and-greet. “The student has become the master.”

Really?”

Oh my, goodness, no.” Lucky toasts anyway, then has a drink. “Sitting here all drooling over the prospect of sex… It’s like watching a toddler with loaded revolver. I’ll tell you what, sex can change things. Only it’s not until something comes along, screws up all the rules, that you realize just how much has changed.”

James has a timid sip of his beer. “Like what?”

I mean, like Chloe was right about Rebecca Demarco.”

Well, obviously.” James rolls his eyes. Motions to their surroundings, as though proving his point.

Not as obviously as you might think.” Lucky lights a cigarette, flicks his Zippo closed. “I did hold true to my word in one very real respect. I did give up the chase, cold turkey. And it helped that there was nothing new under the sun left to surprise me.”

How’s that?”

The pattern had become an everyday part of my life. In the months leading up and through to the heart of summer, encounters piled on like mindless rugby players. Met another daughter of a studio head involved with the making of Ghost Girl –”

Carrie,” James volunteers, looking to impress how many of these people he’s met.

Lucky gives him a thumbs up, continues with the list: “Read an interview with Rebecca Demarco that had taken place in the very restaurant where I had sat down with the heads of the Film School, not one hour before –”“–The waiter from The Four Seasons –”

“ – even got a message on my machine from Adrian Lane’s assistant, Cassidy, whom I never thought I’d ever hear from again. Calling me, with information about Rebecca Demarco, and you know what she said?”

What?”

Neither do I,” Lucky takes a satisfied tug of his cigarette. “I erased the message before I could memorize any of it. I was determined not to play into the hands of inevitability. Turning my back on the coyotes of the world for the sake of my own safety. I had exploited leads, cracked my skull, abandoned ship, misled healthcare officials, vaulted the Florida Keys, shacked up with celebrities, endured triple crosses, and I had come out the other end of a police raid with the sun shining on my face… And now it was time to end it.”

But, then…” James furrows his brow, thinking. Takes a sip a sip of beer without doing as much. “What does this have to do with what Chloe said –”

You ever read Oedipus Rex, James?”

I know the story.”

Let’s hear it.”

Well…” James replays it in his head, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “A child is born to the king and queen. A prophet tells them that this child will bring great tragedy to Thebes. The king and queen get someone to kill the child. But instead of killing him, this third party takes baby Oedipus into the wilderness and nails his heels to the ground, death by exposure. Oedipus is saved by a passing sheppard. He grows to manhood. In turn, a prophet tells him that it is his destiny to kill his father and marry his mother. Believing his adopted parents to be his real parents, he skips town. On the road to Thebes, he gets into a fight with the king, not knowing it’s his own father, and kills him…”

Preach it, James,” Lucky murmurs into his glass.

Nevertheless, James cuts it short as he can. “Oedipus marries his mother, becomes king of Thebes, and when pestilence descends upon the land, he orders an… investigation, I guess. The whole ugly truth comes out, his mother kills herself, he gouges out his eyeballs, and leaves Thebes to wander in exile.”

That’s very good,” Zephyr says, leaning back by the register.

Boy knows his stuff,” Lucky agrees.

James looks bashful, unaccustomed to Lucky’s compliments. “Well, I never read the actual play.”

So you don’t know the last line…” Lucky raises an eyebrow. “The final summation of what Sophocles hopes to teach us?”

No.”

“Let none, presume on his good fortune, until he find life, at his death, a memory without pain.

It had its own special ring to it, hovering between them with a delicate hum.

Chloe was right about me, James.” Lucky shrugs. “But not about her. Not about me and her, I really did love her. I loved so much and everything about her. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and I got mixed up. I wasn’t using her to get over Rebecca Demarco, but I also wasn’t over Rebecca Demarco. Because the truth is, I just can’t be trusted.”

James takes a sip of beer, visibly less enthusiastic. Spirits dampened, searching the bar, window shopping for detail. “It got quiet.”

A trick,” Lucky says, motioning for a refill. “Calm before the storm.”

Outside a passing siren gives credence. The wail of red-and-white lights that don’t quite make it down underground, and Lucky sniffs his drink. Shudders with a smile, the doomed rapture of a smack addict.

What storm?” James asks.

Lucky takes a sip, and James is startled to see the transformation. Lucky’s eyes have almost gone blank with an overload of memory. Shoulders hunched, head staring down in his lap, where his hands cradle the glass of Jack Daniels as though it were a dying squirrel. “What do you know about a girl name Leah Herschel?”

I know the name,” James says, treading lightly, trying to sound neutral beneath his concern.

Anything else?”

I know she lived in Los Angeles. Sherman Oaks. The only person who had any information on her was Chloe, but all she mentioned –”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Lucky says. His head snaps up, eyes free from the clutches of what came before. “No sense in calling it an early night.”

No sense at all.”

Which brings us to the twentieth of June, 1996.” Lucky hurriedly lights another cigarette. “I had passed my exams, graduated from high school. Turned eighteen, a ritual marked by the age-old tradition of applying for a Master Card in the pursuit of cautiously building a credit history. All the while, I had continued to stave off the hydra of coincidence, but you already knew that. Every now and then, I’d buy a magazine or two, check in and see what Rebecca Demarco was up to. Not a big deal, I thought, really. I would soon be off to film school, and she, like all those celebrities out there, would someday be part of my professional landscape.”

Bullshit,” James mutters, a little disappointed to get the old Lucky back.

Well, we know better now, don’t we? The important thing is that life was going full speed, and it was good to feel the smirk return to my face. Chloe had settled on Barnard, so I wouldn’t be losing my best friend to college. Bruce and Dan had entrusted me with my first major project, the TIP Account.”

TIP account?”

The Talented Individual Program. Which we often times referred to as the TIP Program, which is ridiculous, as that would translate to the Talented Individual Program Program –”

Lucky – ”

Just screwing with you, James.” Lucky seems to be done making things easy for his audience. “The TIP program is a summer camp for high school students. Hosted by Pantheon University. They pick out kids from all over the country. Best of the best, I guess. They hang around for two weeks, get to live in a dorm. Take a few college level classes in whatever field they’re… the best at, I suppose.”

James listens, takes another sip of his beer. Discovers its resources to be entirely depleted.

Want another one?” Lucky asks.

Am I going to need it?”

Lucky doesn’t answer. “June twentieth of 1996, James… and this is where things took a very different turn.”

The door to Creole Nights bursts open and spews forth a group of club-hoppers, stopping in on their way to more glamorous prospects. The regulars at the bar greet them with uninhibited cheers, and the girls unanimously cry out in return, positive they’ve made the right choice in coming down below. The door hardly closes behind them, when a couple of drunk musicians trundle in, instruments in tow, and that’s not the last of it.

The bar begins to fill up, right before the eyes of a young James Joyce. An assault of pure randomness, innumerable stories coming in from out the cold, putting to rest any thoughts that Creole Nights will be closing down anytime soon.

And before any of them can disrupt the balance, James decides that yes, he will have that drink now.

***

I woke up with Chloe’s arm draped over me, fingers barely brushing against the bedspread.

Unnatural breeze tickling the sheets.

My eyes went to the source. Pallid daylight, guillotined by a half open window. I blinked. Turned my eyes to the bedside clock. Stiff digits reading a green eight-fifteen. Next to that, Far Side calendar; cowboy with an upright piano sticking out of his back pocket.

JUNE 20, 1996.

I sniffed, pasty with the sweat, muscles sore. Felt Chloe’s subdued snore rattling gently against my neck. Slithered my way from beneath her arm and hopped into a pair of jeans. Hardly noticing the tight fit, just looking to cover myself along with last night’s indiscretions. I searched around for my shirt, squinting.

Gave it up.

Watched Chloe sleep. Half her face pressed against a hypoallergenic pillow, blond hair cut short for the summer. Lips settling into the remains of a dream. She stirred, a naked leg squirming its way around the comforter, ankle encased in bandaged shell.

I sniffed again.

I walked down a colorless corridor, up a two-stair ramp and into the den. That strange morning poured through a glass wall overlooking the tiny patio. Kitchen floor greeted my bare feet with cold, linoleum kisses. I pirouetted to the fridge. Poured a glass of orange juice. Took a sip. Stared over the rim. Yet another window, same glow casting its colorless shadow on inactive cupboards.

There was an inconsistency, I felt, to this day.

A disjointed familiarity, regards from no return address.

I heard Chloe’s father call out from the dining room.

More floor-to-ceiling windows, more watery light pouring over a long table. Chloe’s father at the far end. Sitting in his wheelchair, halfway through his breakfast. Daily rag, The Verona Observer, spread out to the right of toast and sliced fruit. He glanced up from the editorials, blue eyes piercing, peeking beyond his hawkish nose.

“Morning, Lucky.”

I leaned against the threshold, arms crossed, cradling the glass of juice against my naked torso. “Never been a fan of this time of day, Dean.”

Dean scratched at his beard, doing what he could to hide the currents of his smile. “Are those Chloe’s pants?”

The fact that I had to check was plain admission, but I did him the service of a bald-faced lie: “No.”

“Are they Chloe’s jeans?”

“Yes… Those they are.”

“Is that the last of the orange juice?”

“Nope.”

“Get me a glass?”

I returned with another helping.

Sat alongside him.

Behind us, the living room spread out, quiet and inert.

“Did some damage on the treadmill this morning…” Dean took a sip of juice. “Third of a mile.”

“I woke up this morning. Lifted my eyelids and everything.”

“So we’re both shattering records, then.”

“Men of the world, you and I, Dean.”

He leaned in close to his plate. Cut into a slice of cantaloupe with slow dedication.

Chewed thoughtfully.

Outside, the sun broke through cloud covers.

Dean looked out the window, nodding appreciatively. “There it is.”

I finished my juice.

“Not too long now,” he said. “You and Chloe are going to be off in New York City. Big Apple.”

“Bit of a mind bender.”

“You’ll see that she’s alright?”

“Chloe does all right by herself. You don’t need me to see that.”

“That is true…” Dean turned back to look at me. His eyes were drained, disagreeing with his trademark smile. “But nobody should have to do all right by themselves.”

I did us both a favor and didn’t bother faking my way through it.

“So what is it about today?” he asked.

“What’s that?”

“I mean, what is it that’s got you up at this hour?”

“Oh…” Couldn’t help feeling as though he’d offered me a detour. “Bruce and Dan got me putting together a promotional video for TIP.”

“You’re working point?”

“Documenting bits and pieces, but yeah. Basically put the project in my hands. First major field assignment.”

“Well, second, in a way…”

“Second to what?”

Dean finished off the last of his cantaloupe. “You know who I haven’t heard about in a while?”

“Who’s that?”

“Rebecca Demarco.”

“Yeah.” I stood. Picked up Dean’s plate, silverware sliding precariously before coming to a halt. “I guess you could say that’s all ancient history.”

“Too bad. I was real interested in knowing how that story would end.”

“You’re a crazy old bastard, and your daughter got all her looks from her mother. You know that, right?”

Dean nodded. “You’ll look after her in New York?”

“I’ll look after her.”

Dean stared down to where his plate used to be, blank gaze of a child with no object permanence. Hands tapping against the armrests of his wheelchair.

“Dean?”

“I’m good…” He glanced up. Motioned. “You really ought to get out of Chloe’s pants though.”

“Dean.”

“Jeans,” Dean corrected, wiping as much affliction as he could from his face. Fingers still tapping. “You really ought to get out of Chloe’s jeans.”

I nodded. Took his plate to the sink. Rinsed it off with methodical wipes.

Afterthought: refilled my glass.

Wandered back through the den, hallway and back into Chloe’s room.

She was sitting up in bed, working on yesterday’s crossword.

Broken ankle propped up on a purple cylindrical pillow

“Got you orange juice,” I told her.

Chloe didn’t look up. “And here I gave last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Joseph Rotblat.”

“The notion that you’d ever give me any peace never crossed my mind.”

“That’s real deep, Lucky…” She leaned over, took the juice. “You’ve grown a lot this past year, well done.”

I kneeled down by the bed. Pointed at the gauze bandages around her foot. “Does Claude Rains know you stole his ankle?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Claude Rains…? The Invisible Man? Nineteen Thirty-Three? Nineteen Thirty-Three, directed by James Whale and, seriously, you know Joseph Rotblat, but Claude Rains – ”

“Ask me again sixty-three years ago, when I would have given a good damn. Got a five-letter word for unfortunate one?”

“How about Chloe?”

“How about Lucky?”

“How about hexed…” I stood up, searched for my pants. “You need anything from the airport?”

“Are those my jeans?”

“Mistakes were made.” I switched to searching for my shirt. Found it crumpled on the corner of her desk. “There we go.”

“Try to keep my car in once piece, yeah?” Chloe said. “And try not to split those jeans, could you?”

“Still can’t figure out where they went.”

“Don’t figure anything.” Chloe threw the crossword aside. “I’ll see you later today, yeah?”

I leaned in for a kiss.

Still can’t wrap my head around how comfortable her lips felt.

Eyes closed, I pulled away. Still tasting citrus on my tongue. “I’m off.”

“Hey, Lucky…”

I stopped at the doorway. Turned, waiting with what must have been a stupid, painfully happy expression.

“For real, take care of that car.” Chloe glanced towards her toes. “You’re some piece of work.”

I didn’t know what to say. Blew her a kiss, and headed on down the hallway. Headed on down the hallway, and through the kitchen. Briefly wondering how I ended up with shoes on my feet. Noticed that Dean was no longer in the dining room. I said goodbye to his placemat instead, and headed out to the Volvo.

Got in the front seat, rubbing my eyes against the misty morning.

Glancing down at the passenger’s seat, I saw a copy of Premier Magazine.

A familiar face on the cover stared up at me.

So what? I asked, fumbling with my keys. Haven’t even read the damn thing.

And I wasn’t about to, as I had real things going on that day.

And as far as I knew, none of them involved Rebecca Demarco.

***

I made a pit stop at Video Squared.

Gave my due to Bruce and Dan. Picked up the camera, a digital beauty fresh off the assembly line. Cannon XL1. High stakes investment in the name of their new account, an obscene sum of money pouring in from Pantheon University. I gave them my shooting schedule, got their approval. Bruce went to go get a burrito. Dan went to get two.

I drove onto I-40, towards the airport.

The second level of Terminal C dipped down towards baggage claim. I eased Chloe’s car to the curb. Hopped out, hoisting the weighty camera bag. Headed towards the sliding doors. Past a security guard, half asleep. 1996, and it was pretty much park where you want, for as long as you want. For whatever reason you want.

Happier times, I know.

It was somewhere near ten a.m., peak hours. Bleary-eyed passengers wrestled with loaded luggage carts, wheels rattling like hospital gurneys. I circled a conga line of squealing children, caught sight of twenty or so high school students clustered around Carousel B, laughing beneath the nervous reality of leaving home for the first time. Lying about. Propped up against their bags, relaxing, waiting.

Masters of their environment.

My eyes lit on the only person standing above it all, topping at six-foot-one. Hair poking upright in alert, blond spikes atop a crescent face so lengthy it bordered on the absurd. Lips stretched into an interminable simile. Comfortably certain he had the world all figured out.

Ticking names off a clipboard. Muttering to himself as I approached.

“Hey… You in charge of the TIP program?”

“Me?” His eyes flashed a light green, could barely grant the premise. “Yes, I am the mastermind behind this devious plot.”

“Could be I misspoke…”

“I’m Basil.” He shook my hand. “I’m one of the resident advisers involved with TIP. What’s your story?”

“Here on behalf of Pantheon University and Video Squared. I’m documenting this year’s TIP, putting together a package for future generations.”

“Delightful. But your name?”

“Lucky.”

“I’m Basil.”

“You said that.”

“Goes to show…” He took a quick glance at the bubbling cauldron of hormones and checked something off his list. “So how much can we expect to see of you?”

“It’s a tall order,” I told him. “Pantheon’s current promo tape is a little out of date.”

“How out of date?”

“Mentions something about the Alien and Sedition Act of 1718.”

Basil’s narrow face was almost entirely bisected by his smile. “Seems like only yesterday, doesn’t it?”

“Tall order.”

“Ah, crap,” Basil said, checking his list once more. “You go ahead and do your thing, Lucky. I need to check something out…”

I turned the camera on. Pulled out a sheet of paper, held it in front of the lens. Did a bit of white balance. Checking my levels. Introduced myself to the flock. Wasn’t too difficult to gain their trust. Summerset Cruise all over again. Frame for frame, built a shot sheet in my head.

“Say, Luck.” Basil jabbed me with his pen. “Think you can do me a solid?”

“What’s up?”

“Got a fresh batch of kids coming in just a few minutes…” He thought about it. Added: “Like we’re basically dealing with muffins, right?”

“Blueberry?”

“Either or, I’d like to get these muffins over to the dorms, but I can’t fit them all in our van… Would you mind taking a pair of extras over to East Campus? Sure to get some good footage, maybe film the orientation later on. You’d really be helping us out.”

“Not a problem.”

Basil put a hand on my shoulder. “You know what I like about you, Lucky?”

I waited.

“Guess we’ll have to get back to that,” he conceded, off once more.

I returned to the sweltering morning, that familiar-carbon laced heat that seems to surround every airport south of the Mason-Dixon. Leaned against Chloe’s Volvo and watched cars creep by, mini buses and taxis jostling for ownership of the road.

The reek of cologne hit my nostrils a full minute before a pair of duffel bags plopped down at my feet.

“It’s like we’re all just sheep.” The comment came hand in hand with a bleached grin of perfectly set piano keys. Beneath the cloud of Ralph Lauren lay an orange tan, chiseled features of a game-show host. Fugazi diamond in one ear. Slicked hair that looked one half-degree from ignition.

My reward for an act of good faith.

His grin didn’t let up, and I felt obligated to reply: “You got a better way to get us to the slaughterhouse, be sure’n let me know.”

“Yeah!” He laughed, a high-pitched guffaw that was either completely disingenuous or nature’s way of telling me to keep the funny on hold. “That’s all it is, really.”

“Yeah.” I tossed his bag into the trunk. Already calculating the minutes.

“I’m Marvin. Marvin Sepperano.”

I took his hand, indistinguishable from that of a manicured debutante. “I’m Lucky…”

Salvation approached courtesy of a girl in sleeveless purple, jeans cut halfway along a set of confidently sturdy legs. Round face, hair a bed of red-dyed spikes. Sparkling nose-stud endearing in all the ways that Marvin’s earring was not. Puckish eyes a solid cobalt, tiny teeth making up a sneaky, tiptoeing grin.

“I’m Amy,” she proclaimed. Held out her hand, perfect chaser. “Amy Button.”

“Amy. Do you know Marvin?”

“Yeah,” she said, giving a pert wave. “Incidentally, Lucky, I haven’t had a chance to meditate today.”

I tossed her camouflaged duffel in the trunk. “Punk-rock Buddhist?”

“I can take the back seat, just sit there. Just saying, don’t be offended when I am just sitting there, completely cut off from all conversation.”

I glanced over at Marvin, chewing gum in rhythm to his thoughts.

“No offense taken,” I said. “Plenty of envy, though.”

Amy winked.

So Marvin rode shotgun, while Amy went lotus in the back.

Marvin watched me navigate the airport’s various off ramps, onto I-40 West. “You live in Verona?”

“Pretty much.”

“I’m from New Jersey. Originally. Live in New York now, though.”

“Never been myself. Jersey, that is.”

“Not even Atlantic City?”

“Nope… never even been to Las Vegas.”

“Ah…” Marvin gave a knowing grin. “The City of Lights.”

I turned my head, stuck face to face with that grin, and realized there was no way around it. “And what are you doing as part of TIP?”

“I want to be famous.”

“Ah.”

“How about you?”

The stench of Marvin’s cologne was acting as a general anesthetic, coaxing the truth. “I’m going to film school in New York, this coming semester.”

“No shit, dude! I’m an actor!”

I made an aggressive bid for the fast lane.

Marvin continued to prattle on about his budding career and outlandish hopes of working with Paul Cicero. Words meshing together in a wasteland of useless facts. I ground my teeth, let a little lead into my foot. Glanced into the rearview and spotted Amy Button, calm as a cow. Legs crossed, eyes closed. Feet resting on her thighs, making a serious argument for enlightenment.

When Martin finally did cut himself off, it was compliments of Rebecca Demarco.

“Huh.” He reached down between his Doc Martins and picked up the magazine. “Hello.”

“I’m sure she says Hi right back.”

“Me too,” he said. “I go to school with her.”

That old all-encompassing heartbeat.

Combined with my new all-knowing safety net.

“Yeah, I figured as much.”

One hand over his chest, other to God. “No, shit, dude. I’m not joking.”

“I’m not laughing, so –”

“Professional Children’s School! I’ve talked to her and everything. She went to my graduation, I saw her applauding.”

“What’s a high school graduate doing in the TIP program?”

“I’m taking the year off, that doesn’t mean I’m lying about Rebecca – ”

“I believe that you went to school with Rebecca Demarco. I’m just not surprised.”

“I really do –”

“I know,” I assured him, truck blasting past. “I know, and trust me, I believe. You went to school. With her.”

“I know all kinds of shit about her. I was at a party in a hotel room with her this one time. She was with this guy, he was her love interest in 1313 Mockingbird Lane. We were all playing truth or dare, and him and her –”

“Marvin – ”

“– went up to second base on a dare. No farther than that, though, because she told us –”

“Marvin, please –”

“– that she’d never want to be fingered by a guy, because she thinks fingers are just dirty –”

“Marvin!” I paused. Remembering the camera, the project, my childish take on professionalism. “Marvin, I don’t care.”

“I’m just –”

“Marvin, please, just, please, listen to me… I don’t want to hear it.”

“Sorry, man. I thought you liked her.”

“I do…” Couldn’t help reaching over, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I just… I know you go to school with her. You don’t have to prove anything. Her and I have a history.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know her.”

“I don’t.”

Marvin’s perplexed stare was the first real break in conversation since hitting the road.

I seized the moment and went with it. “Perhaps a story might explain the situation…”

I let him have it.

The Rebecca Demarco saga.

Director’s cut; the most complex, interwoven, digression-laden telling to date. Happily borrowing from assumptions and second parties. Details I wouldn’t bother telling a court stenographer, adding observations and ideas that had never occurred to me.

Managed to chew up a good deal of our journey with little or no interruptions. Got us well through the Swath Avenue exit and onto East Campus. Just a stone’s throw from our destination, cheerfully topped with a more or less predictable reaction from Marvin:

“Well, shit, dude… I bet I could help you out.”

“Maybe I haven’t been telling you the right story, Marvin.”

“But I can –”

“I swear, I’m cool, man… I’m doing all right.”

“But you don’t have an end,” Marvin insisted. “If this were a movie, I’d walk the hell out.”

I pointed towards his door. “There’s the exit.”

Marvin paused… broke out in his trademark laugh.

I closed my eyes, no chance of a merciful collision.

We had arrived.

Pantheon’s East Campus was a square mile of grass and ornate structures, surrounded by a three-foot high stone wall. Primary entry off Main Street, half block from Downtown Verona. A drooping banner hung in the archway, welcoming all TIP students. Directed us to the quad, carpeted by two oval expanses of recreational lawn, flanked by two-story buildings sporting ostentatious Greek columns.

Martin’s laughter was just starting to taper off as I caught sight of sign-in.

Four tables had been laid out in front of the student union. Loose-knit groups of over-achievers ambled around. Feeling the grass beneath their feet. Others stood on the sidelines, anxious eyes, impatiently awaiting mom and dad’s departure.

I didn’t realize how fast I had been driving until I came to a screeching halt.

This sent Marvin into another giggle fit.

I opened the door and casually bolted for the trunk. Had Marvin’s bags out on the lawn before he’d even undone his seat belt. It was Amy Button who first set foot on Pantheon soil, stepping out of the car with outstretched arms, fingertips reaching for the sun. Serene smile, eyelids resting.

Marvin trotted to his bags, took a knee and began to rummage.

I glanced over at Amy. “Enjoy the ride?”

“I feel like I’ve been born again.”

“Lucky you.”

“No…” she pointed to me with her little finger. “Lucky. You.”

“How very zen.” Carried her bags over, as Marvin popped a bottle of pills, downed a few.

“Hey, Amy.” Marvin swallowed, pocketing the prescription. “Lucky here’s obsessed with Rebecca Demarco.”

“Yeah,” Amy said casually, resting her arms over the top of the Volvo. “I heard.”

“I thought you were supposed to be meditating.”

“Supposed to be, yeah.”

I shook my head, muttered: “Wish I’d thought of that.”

Amy giggled.

Marvin shrugged it off with a dour whatever, and went back to rummaging.

“Are you even a Buddhist?” I whispered.

“You better know it,” Amy replied, happy with her voice the way it was. “You?”

“Aquarius.”

“So was Rebecca Demarco.”

“I’m guessing she still is.”

“Well, I haven’t talked to her since Junior High…” A Frisbee sailed past us, plastic spaceship crashing into the Volvo. “But I guess astrology is forever.”

“So you knew her back when.”

“On the soccer team together. She was one solid defender. Liked kicking people in the shins.”

“Quite the firecracker. And also, I’m not obsessed.”

“You don’t look obsessed.”

“I’m not.”

“I believe you.” She kicked her foot in Marvin’s direction. “Hey, super-slick. You tell him about Leah yet?”

Marvin glanced up, eyes uncertain. “Didn’t think it was important.”

“Who’s Leah?” I asked.

A maroon van came to a halt behind Chloe’s Volvo.

Basil hopped out, slid the side door open with a dramatic salute. “All right, troops! Fall out!”

Amy ran over with excited steps.

She had left her sandals in the car. Delighted toes digging into the velveteen grass.

I tapped my foot a few times against the curb. “Hey, Marvin?”

Marvin stood up, shouldering his bags. “Yeah?”

“Who’s Leah?”

“Nobody.” He made his way to the S-Z line, and I decided to let that particular encounter die.

Glanced towards the van, already planning my next shot, expecting to see the same old world.

Found myself on a planet whose magnetic poles had entirely reversed.

It was Amy.

Returning from the van, arm in arm with Rebecca Demarco.

Not Rebecca Demarco, though.

Rebecca Demarco didn’t exist in this corner of the world. Certainly not within the limits of Verona or imaginary circles pure of insignificance. Whoever she might have been, there was no getting past who she appeared to be. There was no getting past the eyes, petite features, tiny lips that met in a rosebud frown. No getting past the body type, childlike fingers reaching up to sweep back a tangle of brown hair from her forehead, made all the more prominent by delicate eyebrows arching quizzically above anime eyes. Even the casual combination of jeans and a well-fitting red blouse did little to bring reality in for a landing.

“Lucky…” Amy brought her out of the abstract, with a slight bow. “This is Leah.”

“I’m Leah,” Leah repeated, and that voice, the same voice, it was coming from her.

I let her fingers curl around my palm, before I found it in me to ask: “Leah?”

“Yeah.”

Our eyes locked.

My arm wouldn’t come through with the obligatory shake: “Are you sure?”

Amy laughed.

Leah joined in with a breathy rat-tat laugh that sent my stomach swirling.

Bought me a few seconds. I willed my lips into a smile and slowly followed through, pumping my arm in measured strokes. “Good to meet you, Leah.”

“And you are Lucky Saurelius.”

“Yes.” My name and those lips. “I am Lucky Saurelius.”

“I know. I look like Rebecca Demarco.”

“I know… Myself, not so much.”

She was still holding my hand.

Basil’s marching orders broke through the moment. “All right, everybody!”

– Our hands split, atoms discharging –

“You’ve all got two weeks to enjoy all this, but only a few minutes to get yourself registered. Nobody likes standing in line, I know. Nobody much likes me either, but you’re stuck with both these ugly realities, so come on! Find the table corresponding to the first letter of your last name –”

“That’s our cue,” Amy said.

And Leah waved goodbye, half her hand lost beneath a half buttoned sleeve.

“Lucky?” Basil was next to me now, arms crossed. “How’d you get here so damn fast?”

“Basil?”

“Yeah?”

I continued to stare out over the lawn. “Did I tell you what my last name was?”

“No.”

“It’s Saurelius.”

“Mine’s Hanlon.”

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever met Rebecca Demarco, have you?”

“The actress?” Basil smiled. “Can’t say that I have… but we do have a girl with us, just came in with the latest batch of muffins. Looks just like her.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Uncanny… Almost asked her for an autograph…” Basil gave me a back pat. “Orientation’s in a couple of hours. If you want to catch any of the students settling into their rooms, now’s the time to do it. Only the boys, please. Just made that rule up, but I’m pretty sure nobody better break it.”

Basil trotted off to see how his time could be put to better use.

I should’ve been thinking along the same lines. And eventually, I did. Followed through with my camera, balancing for light, and set about catching all the action I could. Had to stop a few times and recalibrate, though. Scattered clouds had appeared in an otherwise spotless sky, and the day went from yellow to gray, as the Earth resumed rotation, only this time in an entirely different direction.

***

Chloe was struggling with the same crossword puzzle, still, two days later.

Sitting snug in our usual booth.

Not a lot of smoke in the air.

I was checking the shot sheets, class schedules and a complete list of TIP students. Jotting vague, rambling notes. Second cup of coffee. Gunning for that third, but for all the caffeine, for all attempts at concentration, I found myself returning to the roster.

Same name. Not going anywhere.

“Five letter word for bad luck?” Chloe repeated.

I looked up from my veneer of responsibility and shrugged. “How about Chloe?”

“We already did that one.”

“We did?”

Chloe dropped her pen. Reached for her coffee. She was spread out along the booth, bandaged ankle out in the open, just begging for a passing bookworm to make contact. One loud snap undoing all that progress.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

“Going somewhere…”

“Doesn’t look that way.”

I placed my own pen alongside the spread of papers.

“You seem distracted, is what I mean,” Chloe replied to my silent question. “I’ve seen you at your best. When you’re there, hitting your stride, and the look in your eyes is always… scary, but also a strange kind of impressive. Mostly scary, though.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know. But it’s neither scary nor impressive. Which is actually plain scary.”

From across the room came the muffled obscenity of a king falling prey to a mere pawn.

“It’s not important,” I told her. “I’m just trying to get this straight in my head.”

“Can I help?”

“You’ve been working on that crossword for a while now.”

Chloe turned took a few newspaper pages, turned them over. “See how easy it is?”

I smiled and went back to work. Circled the time slot for a creative writing class, shuffled the cards, and took a look at the enrollment list.

Caught myself in the headlights of four letters.

Absently spelled them out in my head.

L-E-A-H.

“Did you see this?” Chloe asked.

“See who?”

“Idiotic, yet appropriate response.” She pointed to a column in the Observer. “Hex Raitliffe is reading here. On Saturday.”

“Yeah.”

“Cover to Cover, here. In four days, he’s going to be here.”

“Yeah.”

Chloe picked up a crumpled napkin, nailed me between the eyes. “Not a wink, not a blink. Not one double-take, not the most remote interest in another intersection?”

“Hey, look.” I slapped my pen down on the table. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s been months. Half a year, in fact. In fact, yes, half a year. It’s been half a year, and every time I’ve come across another coincidence, or another lead, I’ve looked the other way. So just leave me alone about this Demarco bullshit, I think I’ve proven myself plenty.”

No music playing that day, and my voice had somehow found its way to every table.

Stares from across the room joined with Chloe’s.

“Besides…” I leaned back and draining the rest of my coffee… “I read about Hex Raitliffe a couple of days ago.”

It came gratifyingly close to a punch line.

And as everyone returned to their literature, Chloe came gratifyingly close to laughing. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’ve been busy, Chloe.”

“I know.”

“Sorry.”

“You want to come see him read?”

“I’m actually going to be taping the event…” I stared down at the name, circled some seven times. “A couple group of TIP kids are going to be coming here. Part of the arts scene around Verona. I told Basil all about it, said it sounded like a good call. So if you really think it’ll be that much fun, watching me work –”

“Who’s Basil?”

“Huh?”

“I don’t know who Basil is, Lucky.”

The house phone began to ring. “Basil’s one of the RAs in charge of the – I told you who Basil is, Chloe.”

“No, Lucky.” Chloe began to straighten herself up, then winced. Arms reaching down towards her ankle, fingers pressing against bandages in a useless attempt to assuage the pain. “You haven’t told me anything about the TIP project. Not a word. Which is how you are, when you are how you are, but you could at least give me a reason why –”

I heard my name called from over the counter. “Got a phone call!”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “I can see you years from now on Hollywood Boulevard with a phone glued to your ear.”

“Give me a break…” I scooted out from my seat. “Cellulars are for stockbrokers and trial attorneys.”

Clara was waiting with the phone in one hand and a serrated knife in the other. “It’s Bruce.”

I took the phone. “Lucky, here.”

All I got was an order on the other end to get hell over here, right now.

Then he hung up, leaving me at the counter with Clara’s questioning look.

“Let me get the check,” I told her, digging into my pocket. “Put it on the card.”

***

I helped Chloe to the car, and drove to Video Squared. Gray skies or no, it was another scorcher, and I insisted that Chloe join me. I helped her though the entrance, heard Dan calling out from his chair.

“Lucky, we need to have a talk.”

I turned to find Bruce and Dan, as always, rapidly outgrowing their already oversized chairs. Half the monitors were paused on a balding middle-aged man with thinning hair and regrettably forgettable features buried under a regrettably academic beard. Pantheon director for the TIP program. In the middle of orientation, addressing an assembly of this year’s best and brightest.

Cleared my throat. “Gentlemen… I believe you know Chloe.”

She raised her left crutch in an awkward salute to the joke.

“Lucky,” Dan said sternly. “What’s with this footage?”

“Huh?”

“What’s with this footage you shot for orientation?” Bruce repeated. “Seriously.”

Dan’s tiny eyes shifted towards Chloe. “Lucky, if you’d rather have this conversation in private –”

“She’s here because I was actually in the middle of sorting out the schedule for the next few days,” I bristled. “Checking the classes, arranging interviews. Calling professors, administrators, campus security. Tracking copyrights, logging the shots, creating the sheets. Cutting prelims, and that was all since this morning, so whatever problems you have you can lay them out –”

Glaring problems,” Bruce agreed. Mashed play with a meaty finger as the video belched into action. The director came alive, accompanied by placid movements and flaccid words. A monotone that hypnotists might spend years perfecting. Shot from between two halves of the auditorium, off-screen interest waning. As if to prove the point, the camera moved. Meandered with a sneaky, steady grace, towards bored teenage faces. Kept panning left, finally landing on a face that was familiar to me as it was to any committed star gazer.

Bruce hit the pause.

This time to remain frozen on Leah’s face.

Bored as the rest. Eyes darting to the side.

Casting a sly glance towards the camera and whoever lay behind it.

“So, Lucky…” Bruce swiveled his chair. “You want to tell me what Rebecca Demarco is doing in our promo tape?”

“Well…” I scratched my head. “That’s obviously not Rebecca Demarco.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

Dan placed his hand on Bruce’s chair. “Lucky, we know that’s not her. God knows if she’s even heard of this town. I’m just saying –”

We’re just saying,” Bruce interrupted.

“– We’re just saying that while the visuals wouldn’t have accounted for more than thirty seconds of time –”

“What we’re actually saying is this…” Bruce stepped in to mop up. “We expected you to trail away from him once or twice to get some reaction shots. Once or twice. But you shot the scene with a shotgun mic, and this opening, this opening speech, boring as it is, would have been very useful in its entirety, and you lose the audio on this loser every time you pan away to this Rebecca Demarco look-alike, which you did over ten times during this loser’s entire speech.”

I didn’t have anything to say.

The truth would’ve been a little hard to admit.

Ten times, and I never once remembered sending the lens in Leah’s direction.

Keeping my mouth shut turned out to be a pretty good move.

“Look…” Dan said. “Most of this stuff is useless. Some of it is salvageable. We still don’t know what the finished product is going to look like. It’s still early on in the game, so I feel pretty secure when I say –”

“Get your head in the fucking game, Lucky,” Bruce ordered, enunciating each word as though talking to a small child. Rocked his Millennium Falcon back to the time-captured image of Rebecca 2.0. Ended the meeting with a dismissive wave. “And go get your girl.”

I don’t know exactly when Chloe had bailed.

Checked to the left, and she was gone.

Found her leaning against the car. Arms crossed. Lips like sullen lilies. Eyes staring out towards Lakeside Shopping Center in what appeared to be an honest attempt to blow the stores apart with her mind.

“Chloe?”

“After you gave me that whole pompous, fucking condescending lecture…” Her neck was taught, vocals straining against pale skin. One shoulder tensed slightly higher than the other. “That self-righteous speech about all the effort you’ve made to move on.”

“You’re making this out to be way more sinister than it is.”

“How sinister is it?”

“Exactly as sinister as it is…” So convinced, I had myself forcing rewrites. “I’m filming this intensely boring speech, and I notice Rebecca Demarco in the crowd. Rebecca Demarco. Anybody’s eyes would have gone there. I just happened to have mine attached to a camera. It wasn’t until afterward I found out it’s just some girl who looks like her. That’s all, Chloe… Just some girl who looks like her.”

Chloe wrinkled her nose. “Is this why you’ve been acting so strange?”

“I haven’t been…” That was stretching it too far. “Yes, it threw me for a loop.”

“Does it mean anything?”

“Does it –”

“And don’t throw the question back at me, you know what I mean by mean.”

“Doesn’t have anything to do with Rebecca Demarco. Might as well grab an autograph from some graying Arkansas farmer and tell the world that I met President Clinton.”

She gave it some thought, watched a crosstown bus fire on by.

“Chloe…?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty messed up,” she agreed. “If I’m having this strong a reaction to the resemblance, then it’s only natural that you went a little ape-shit yourself.”

“Ape-shit?”

“Whatever you want to call it. You’ve gotten enough grief from the Blobsie Twins in there… So let’s just forget the whole thing.”

I took a few hesitant steps towards her, closing the gap. “Are you all right?”

“I said let’s forget it.” She rolled her eyes. “But first, you owe me a back rub.”

I took her crutches and tossed them into the back seat. “Are your parents home?”

“If they are, you can always perform your duties in the car.”

Well, that much was true, anyway.

Turned out her parents were out that afternoon, and we settled in to begin the misguided process of healing.

***

By the time I got to Amy, the sun had hit high noon.

I had started off early in the morning. Although the point of the gazebo was to provide shade, southern heat didn’t care much for shadows. Getting a jump on the day was the best defense against getting boiled alive, and so I went about my one-on-ones.

The gazebo was situated equidistant from the main entrance to East Campus and the quad. Built on a cement foundation fused right into the soft ground. Constructed with the same large irregular stones from the campus wall. An aesthetic coup without a single comfortable spot to sit.

I positioned Amy, seated on the wall. Asked her if she’d be more comfortable leaning against one of the pillars. She complied, and for a while we managed to stick to the list of questions.

Stick to it for about five seconds anyway, before suggesting we get something to eat.

Short walk to Ninth Street.

She ordered a falafel sandwich. I got the gyro. Put them both on the card. Took our feed back across campus, and sat down to eat. Watched the wind play amongst the trees.

“Thanks for lunch,” Amy said.

“I charge the expenses, and they reimburse me.”

“Nice.”

“I feel a little strange, eating lamb in front of a vegetarian.”

“I worked at a burger joint for an entire summer. You don’t strike me as guilt prone.”

“I’m everything prone.”

“I’m pumpkin prone.” Amy rubbed her belly. “It’s like I didn’t make it into this world before midnight or something.”

“Pumpkins are an excellent source of iron.”

“Ha. That’s a new one on me. I like that. Still, as though this world needs another lesbian who’s an excellent source of iron.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Well, I’m gay.”

“I get that… What’s all this about yet another lesbian who’s an excellent source of –”

“Who knows? Just sounded like a good joke. I’m no good with words.”

“I thought you were an actress.”

“Isn’t everyone?”

“What about actors? Especially actors.”

“I do act on occasion, but that’s neither here nor there.”

“I should be taping this.”

Amy shooed at a few mosquitoes. “Not everything has to be on film.”

“Tape.”

“Who cares?”

I picked up the scent. “So you’re no good with words. Don’t strike me as the painter type.”

“Nothing past a few sketches now and again.”

“So what’s your angle?”

“Puppets.”

“Should I pretend you just said trumpets?”

“I like puppets,” she said “I like the craft, the tradition. I love the precision and imagination. And it is a rare art form that requires its creator to commit to a finished masterpiece. You wrap a movie and that’s it. End of a love affair.”

Blade Runner, director’s cut.”

“Raise your hand if you’re Ridley Scott.”

I wasn’t, and I didn’t.

“Once you’ve fashioned your marionette, you’ve got to pull the strings if you want to bring your creation to life. It’s a never-ending commitment. Work of a puppet master is never done.”

“You like to manipulate?”

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, bring me a cat,” Amy sang, swayed her head side to side.

I let her take the lead.

Amy didn’t seem to mind. Took a sip of water, eyeing me as though trying to figure out ten differences in this picture. I kicked back with my own drink, legs resting along the gazebo wall. Squirrels scaling trees, paranoid twitches in all directions. Sky a swirl of blue-and-white whips, while birds sang with typical abandon, bobbing along the ground like small feathered jesters.

“So what’s the story with Rebecca Demarco, anyway?” Amy finally asked, taking hold of my attention in a lazy kind of way. “You don’t seem like the obsessive type.”

“I’m not.”

“So you mentioned.”

“Several times, I believe I’m due to be taken at my word one of these days.”

“I believe the amount of obsessed people out there who actually admit they’re obsessed –”

“Fingers of one hand, I know.”

“So what’s it all about?”

“I do believe you’ve heard it all…” I picked up my sandwich wrapper, halfheartedly throwing it in her direction. It floated to the ground with a pathetic sigh. “Unless you were meditating just a little too aggressively.”

“Yeah, I heard how it all went down…” Amy pried herself from sitting. Picked up my wrapper and threw it in the trash can. “But that’s not what I meant when I asked what this was all about.”

“What did you mean?”

Amy sighed. Sat on her hands. “I mean where are you now?”

“You went to school with Rebecca Demarco?”

“Yes.”

“You ever meet Genevieve Goldman?”

“Yeah, we talked once or twice.”

“And now us two. Talking. That strange kind of energy. You feel it. Sense of being watched that comes with every coincidence?”

“Yes.”

“Like there’s a puppet master out there somewhere, just having himself a time?”

“Yes.”

I put my hands behind my head, I gazed up into the high reaches of a nearby branches. Invisible thieves in the magnolia leaves. “Far as I’m concerned, Rebecca Demarco is stalking me. And I’m doing all I can to keep her away.”

Amy smiled sweetly, freckled cheeks bunching. “I think it’s amusing.”

“How so?”

She slid off her perch, wandered over. Crossed her arms over my legs and propped her chin against them. “There’s this story you might recognize as something worth listening to… Two monks walking through the forest. A master and his student. For several years now, bound a vow of strict chastity. Forbidden to even glance at a woman, let alone talk to or touch one.” Words regaling the near-empty campus, break in her brow, crinkled in thoughtful recollection. “Their path was interrupted by a lazy river. At the edge stood a woman. She turned to them, asked if they would please help her cross to the other side. The student stayed true. Went ahead and forded the river. Upon reaching the other side, he turned, only to find his master cutting through the water, carrying the woman in his arms…”

Amy shot me a look.

I nodded.

“The master set the woman down on the other side, and the two of them continued on their journey. Several hours passed in silence, until, finally, the student couldn’t help himself. Master, he said. I don’t understand. We both took a vow of celibacy, and yet you have broken it simply to help a woman cross the river… Why?

“And the master simply looked at his student and replied: You’re still thinking about her.”

Amy propped herself up on her arm. Elbow digging pleasantly against my thigh. Eyes positively married to the story, serene as the welcoming seconds before falling asleep.

We gave ourselves a moment to watch a blue jay come hopping our way.

Amy’s wristwatch beeped.

She straightened abruptly and checked the time. “High noon, partner. Got to get my ass to class.”

“Yeah.” I took a pull of soda and felt my tongue go sticky. “You stopping by the dorm?”

Amy nodded.

“Could you send over another student? Our little chat’s got me a bit behind schedule.”

“Got it.” Amy picked up her lunch wrapper, crumpled it. “See you at Cover to Cover?”

“You’re looking at the club promoter, right here.”

“Excellent.”

She took a few steps into the sunlight.

Must have heard me thinking, and she turned, waiting.

“Anybody but Marvin,” I told her.

Amy gave me a mischievous smile and disappeared.

“Damn it,” I muttered, words losing depth to the acoustics. “She’s sending me Marvin. I just know she’s sending me that Goddamn Marvin.”

I checked the tape. Found there was plenty left.

Picked up my spiral ring, made a few notes.

Amy’s story skipping rope just beyond my reach.

You’re still thinking about her.

From behind me I heard Rebecca Demarco’s voice. “Lucky?”

No small surprise, it was only Leah.

But turning to find her standing there, five-one, perfectly framed by the stone archway, eyes an endless shade of brown, tiny hands barely peeking out beneath a white linen blouse, sandals pointing inwards, bare toes wiggling against each other… Had to ask myself what I really meant when I told myself it was only Leah.

“Hey, Leah.” I waved. “So you’re my next victim.”

“I guess I am.”

“How are you enjoying TIP?”

She glanced to the tripod. “Don’t you want to save this for the camera?”

“Of course.” I nodded, searching for my script. “Just sit over there.”

“Where?”

“Um…”

“Here?” She pointed with best intentions to the worst possible spot, lighting that would have backlit her features into oblivion. “Is here OK?”

“Sure,” I told her. Giving up my search. “No, wait, hold on… What if we… hang on.” I reached for the camera bag. Hoisted the whole twenty-five pounds onto my shoulder. Closed the tripod’s legs and scooped it up with an audible grunt. “Follow me…”

I guided Leah from the gazebo, between the set of magnolias. We passed through a stunted tunnel of gnarled branches, leaves like shining fruit rinds, and emerged before a modest fountain. No more than ten feet in diameter, built ages ago in memory of a Pantheon student killed by a drunk driver. Within the murky waters, orange slivers swam circles around the centerpiece, a concrete spout serving up slow trickles of fresh water.

“I think this is better,” I told her.

“It’s real peaceful,” Leah followed the fish with her eyes, hands folded. I set up the shot. Kept watch on her the whole while, impassive stance, centerpiece statue.

I snapped the camera in place. “OK, sit down anywhere you like.”

“Really.”

“I mean it this time.”

She sat down on the fountain’s edge. Scooting from side to side, finding her place. I flipped the LCD screen and adjusted the tripod, camera, zoom, capturing the shot to its fullest.

“Are we rolling?”

“Yes. But don’t let it be a thing. I’m just letting the camera get used to you. The whole thing’s eventually going to be cut down to scraps.”

“OK…” she smiled nervously, locked her legs at the knees. “Should we begin?”

“You don’t have to look into the camera, just kind of look at my face. Not the grandest of views, I know, but if you could just take one for the team…”

“Don’t be stupid,” she said. Seeing right through my efforts to make her comfortable in her own shoes. Sandals. Toes pointed inwards, once more. “I don’t mind looking at you.”

My mouth was breathing roast beef and caffeinated corn syrup.

I reached into my pocket, surreptitiously popped a mint.

“So. What is your name?” I began.

“Leah.”

“I’m sorry. Full name.”

“Oh…” She made a motion with her hand as though asking me to restart the camera. “My name is Leah Herschel.”

“And where are you from?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Sorry, Leah, but –”

“Right, full name…” Leah nodded and began again. “My name is Leah Herschel and I’m from Sherman Oaks, California. Otherwise known as the Valley. California.”

“What are you studying here at TIP?”

“Creative writing… I’m also taking a class in the art of social relevance.”

“And your age?”

“Fifteen.”

I had been expecting at least seventeen. My face must have been a little liberal with my thoughts, got Leah frowning.

“I’m sorry,” she announced, holding up a hand. “I’m just a little camera shy.”

“No need. For apologies. You look great.”

“Telling me that isn’t really a thing, Lucky.”

“You’re from Los Angeles. Isn’t this kind of thing imprinted in your DNA?”

“You’d think so…” Leah reached back into the fish pond, let her fingers glide along the surface. “Everyone in LA want to be a star. And anyone who doesn’t gets to spend the rest of their life trying to explain why.”

I took my eyes off the screen and straightened.

Didn’t bother telling her to please look at the camera, or at the very least, my ugly mug. “You never drank the Kool-Aid?”

“My parents tried to send me down that little primrose path. Head shots and everything, did a commercial or two…” Leah darted her eyes. “Even got runner-up to being cast in a movie once. Major motion picture, might have been the start of something… They didn’t choose me though. After that, I put my foot down. Got out while the getting was good.”

“Sounds a little bleak.”

“Well, I get enough attention with my looks…” She reconsidered. Doubled back.. “I mean, with my resemblance. The resemblance.”

“Does it ever bother you? The resemblance?”

“I see my own face in the mirror… As for others, I get requests for autographs on the streets, in restaurants… even got a paparazzo to snap a few of me this one time, until I showed him my license.”

“So what do you do now?” I asked. “In LA?”

“I go to school, ace all my tests, and spend the rest of the time bored and without much to do.” She smiled demurely. “Is this the kind of interview the rest of them got?”

“I’m not really following a script…”

And I really wasn’t. Not anymore at least. Just as I hadn’t adjusted white balance for a new location, or the audio, just as I didn’t think twice about sitting next to Leah on this forgotten memorial, continued to ask questions while the script remained tucked in the confines of the camera bag.

Forgotten.

***

It was four past midnight in the bowels of Video Squared.

I mashed the pause button with my hand. Tapped my foot against the floor. Slid back along well-oiled wheels, built to withstand four hundred pounds of Bruce. Reached for a glass of water and took a sip. Slid forward, came to rest at the board. I reached for the toggle knob. Began to spin, right to left, winding past footage already reviewed so many times over.

Overheads off.

Whir of machinery backed me up along with the monastic hums of surge protectors and cathode tubes.

I slowed it all down, watched Leah’s face come into focus.

Hit Play, picking up on the interview seconds before it officially went off the rails.

“I’m not really following a script…”

I winced. Hated my voice.

Focused on Leah’s instead. “OK, then… what’s next on your not-script?”

“Don’t know… that’s what makes it a not-script. You said all you do in LA is score high in school and whatever and ever, amen.”

I watched her face look up towards something off camera. Passing bird, perhaps.

“It’s not just apathy… There really isn’t a lot for us to do where I’m from.”

“Us. So you must have friends.”

“Everyone has friends… I suppose you do, too. You have to wonder, though. Sometimes it feels like we’re all just together to avoid being alone. Like maybe it’s all circumstance, and if LA weren’t such a rotten place to grow up, maybe we’d all be somewhere else.”

“That rotten?”

“It’s a shit hole,” Leah said. Put her hands over her mouth. Glancing at the camera, basically glancing right down at me as I watched from my chair. “I’m sorry, am I not allowed –”

“You can say whatever you like,” my voice stepped in from stage left. “LA is a shit hole, sure.”

“Smoggy as hell. You can’t get anywhere without a car, and people deal in exchange. Got to give action to get action. Not a conversation to be had in that whole town.”

“You’ve got the beach, though, right?”

“I never go. I’m too white, I get sunburned.”

“So what do you think of Verona?”

I leaned back, watched Leah stare right at me through the monitor as she replied: “What difference does it make? In just about a week, I’ll be gone. Back to LA. We can’t really assume we control what happens to us next.”

My voice: “We can always make the best of it.”

Leah: “We?”

I charged past the implications. “Verona isn’t such a bad place, once you get to know it.”

Leah: “Back on script are we?”

“Possibly out of time, though.”

I stood, moved out of frame.

Heard myself lying, turning a half hour of remaining tape into a few scant seconds.

“Uh-oh…”

And the screen went blank.

I rubbed my eyes.

Fondled the old toggle knob and brought it all back to the beginning.

Watching Leah as I used to watch Rebecca Demarco.

Right up until that one line: “We can’t really assume we control what happens to us next.”

I hit pause once more.

Catching her eyes in the pixilated wilderness.

“This has simply got to be meaningless,” I said.

Snapped off any number of buttons, killing the vision of Rebecca Demarco’s double, and went home to bed.

Three hours later, I found the presence of mind to fall asleep.

***

It was close to six in the evening.

Might as well have been mid-afternoon, far as the sunlight was concerned. Chloe and I made our way down the narrow alleyway. Her hobble had us going at a slow stroll. The walls on either side of us were painted over in a colorful dance of unrelated subjects; unicorns, books, chandeliers, sea turtles, skyscrapers poking through cotton-ball clouds, no base or point of origin.

We pushed through the familiar rusty screen.

Let it slam behind us in the same familiar fashion.

Chloe adjusted her crutches as I scanned Cover to Cover. Most of the tables had been filled by a healthy dose of TIP kids. The regulars managed to save a small chunk of their home court, dirty looks on hold in anticipation of that evening’s entertainment. Cigarettes set to full steam, practically obliterating the skylights. Lively rumble of conversation standing in for the sound of rolling thunder.

“Is that her?” Chloe asked.

I followed her gaze, over to the counter.

Yeah, that was Leah all right.

Chatting up Hex Raitliffe of all people, clad in jeans and a light blue shirt draped over his boney frame. Denim jacket draped across the adjacent stool. Head now overrun with curly blond locks dangling generously around wire-rimmed glasses.

“So that’s what his hair looks like,” I murmured.

“Lucky…” Chloe pointed with her chin. “Is that her?”

“Who?”

“Is that the girl?”

“Yeah,” I said, guiding Chloe towards the back. “I got Clara to reserve us a table. Thought it’d be a good place to set up the camera.”

“Uncanny,” Chloe mumbled, throwing one last glance toward the counter as we pardoned our way past tables of wayward legs and jutting elbows. I got Chloe seated, set the tripod on the table. Mated it with the camera. Stood on the seat and got the threadbare stage into frame, just a few soft bulbs trained on a mic stand and one lonely, rickety stool.

“All set. You want some coffee?”

Rhetorical at best, and I went to fetch us a couple of mugs.

No Leah. No Hex.

Instead, Clara came bounding towards me, pigtails bouncing. “Oh my God, Lucky… Do you know who’s here tonight?”

“Hex Raitliffe.”

“I mean Rebecca Demarco!” The name came across in the logical implosion of a screaming whisper. “Rebecca Demarco is here, Lucky! Aren’t you totally nuts about it, aren’t you just… isn’t this it?”

“Better get me a cup of coffee,” I told her. “Two, please.”

When I returned to the table, I was pleasantly surprised to find Amy Button sitting alongside Chloe.

For about half second, anyway.

“You’ve met?” I presumed, sliding myself into the booth.

“She came to bring you something,” Chloe informed me.

“Yeah, my bad,” Amy said. “Kind of stole it from your car when you dropped me off.” She reached into her olive green cotton canvas bag and pulled out a magazine. Slid it across the table. I was met with a full spread of Rebecca Demarco in tight white leather pants. Hair dyed jet black, slicked back into an invisible ponytail. Cleavage peeking out from behind a white feather stole draped over pale shoulders. Single wisp stuck to her lips, painted in an impenetrable gothic black.

“Good to have it back,” I said. “There’s no escaping it, is there?”

“Not sure I get your meaning,” Amy told me.

Unable to take it any further as I was assaulted by the scent of rancid cologne.

Marvin slid in next to me, hair glistening with product, face breaded and deep fried in some kind of orange foundation. Sucking the life out of a McDonald’s shake. The rudimentary slurps were perfect overtures to what was coming:

“I was just thinking…” He wiped a trace of vanilla from his mouth, set the styrofoam down. “Now that we’ve got some unexpected time together, maybe I can help you out with this Rebecca Demarco thing.”

“I agree with the unexpected part,” I said. “Not interested.”

Chloe raised her hand. “Anybody want to clue me in?”

“Marvin went to school with Rebecca Demarco,” Amy explained, correctly assuming that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. “Her New York School, the Young Professional whatever. Up until recently, at any rate.”

“Ah,” Chloe nodded. Glad to be in from out the cold. “And you, Amy…”

“Same soccer team. Her old school, back in Montclair.”

“That wheel in the sky…”

“Keeps on turning.”

“Guess that’s what wheels do.”

“What wheels do what?” Marvin managed, utterly confused. “Lucky, I’m sitting right next to you. Ready to help you get Rebecca Demarco.”

Get Rebecca Demarco,” Amy muttered.

“Look, Marvin,” I said. “One of the last guys that tried to help me got thrown in jail. Far as I know, he’s still there; I’m doing you a favor, here.”

“I don’t believe this.” Marvin’s mouth managed to somehow stay agape, even as he babbled on. “How the hell am I going to end up in jail, or whatever you think? Why don’t you just use this chance to go after what you really need to go after, instead of wasting your time with Leah?”

That was interesting. “Short of the routine interviews I’m doing, I haven’t said much of anything to Leah since she got here.”

“But the resemblance –”

“Yeah, Lucky,” Chloe said. Eyes looking just over my left shoulder. “The resemblance has got to make a guy wonder.”

I turned, checking my seven. Saw Leah sitting in a foldout chair. Her back against shelves cramped with dusty anthropology books. Legs crossed, pen resting against a spiral notebook. A bohemian regular approached her with a slip of paper and a pen. She shook her head with a tired smile. A moment there where he looked to be insisting.

I watched as Leah reached into her bookbag. Unsheathed her state ID.

That seemed to end the argument.

The bohemian slithered away, and Leah glanced over in my direction.

I froze.

She abruptly returned to her scribbling. Head down.

A thin trickle of applause began to gain momentum.

Hex Raitliffe was stepping up onto the half-foot wooden riser. Accompanied by Michael Gavin, owner and everlasting employee. Amiable smile lines signed in triplicate. His gray eyes sparkled beneath a floppy top of gray as he adjusted the stand.

I leapt up, balancing myself on the mushy seat.

Checked my levels, and got Michael into clear focus.

“Welcome everyone, special welcome to all TIP kids… I’m Michael Gavin, owner and sandwich guru here at Cover to Cover. Interestingly enough, our guest today has told me that, according to his score card, he has read at several Cover to Covers across the country. Bit of a letdown really.”

“We love you, Mike!”

Another round of applause, this time for the master of ceremonies.

Hex grinned, leaned back against the wall.

“Still,” Michael continued, rolling up plaid sleeves, “I remain just as honored to have Hex Raitliffe here with us today. As a writer of short fiction, he has appeared in almost every major publication across the country. His novels have been translated into over thirteen different languages. His second novel, Ice Station, 1973, has been adapted for the screen and will be premiering –” He turned to Hex, who mouthed something the microphone didn’t pick up. “Premiering at the New York Film Festival in September, under the name Tempest Haven…”

As I adjusted the focus once more, I felt a tapping against my thigh.

Looked down and saw Amy, craning her neck while pointing to the Demarco article.

I sent her the universal gesture for What the hell?

She took a pen and rapidly circled two paragraphs.

I snatched, brought the article close, eyes squinting through the cancerous smog.

Applause broke out once more, as Hex stepped forward and took his place on the stool.

I handed Amy the magazine, went back to looking through the camera. Glanced down long enough to catch Chloe going over this fresh piece of information. Fingers tracing the typeface to its conclusion.

Saw her sigh, eyes appropriating my trademark sentiment.

What are the odds?

The applause died and Hex adjusted the microphone.

Adjusted his seat.

Opened his book and began to read.

***

Camera off. Tripod collapsed. All business packed in for the evening. Lights up. Spotlight reclaimed by the chattering class. Coffee cups refreshed, caps snapped off beer bottles. I had long since packed my equipment, Marvin had long since departed our table, leaving me with Chloe and Amy.

Hex Raitliffe in a booth at the far end, inviting visitors between cautious sips of ice water. Signing books and offering himself up for a few photo ops. A little larger than life from where I sat, Tempest Haven a few months shy of premiering at the New York Film Festival.

That, and what I had read in the magazine article.

“Are you going to go talk to him, or sit there with your thumb up your butt?” Amy asked.

The ultimatum got Chloe rolling in the aisles.

“Thank you, Chloe,” I said. “And yes, Amy, I’m going to go talk to him.”

“It just seems like ever since you read that Rebecca Demarco is going to be in Ice Station, 1973 –”

Tempest Haven.”

“Ever since you read that she’s going to be in Tempest Haven, you appear to have become more committed to the thumb thing than actually going to talk to –”

“I said I was going, you unbelievable dick.” I slid out of the booth and stood up. Saw that Basil had sat himself down across from Hex, pronounced chin nodding to the tempo of their conversation. “Besides, I’ve got something for him.”

I tossed a few hellos to casual acquaintances along the way. Reached into my pocket as I approached the booth, extracting a wad of twenties. Took a deep breath and tossed the currency onto the table. Watched it slide, come to rest against the napkin dispenser.

“Hundred and twenty dollars,” I told him. “I believe that’s what it cost to get us out of Miami.”

Hex blindsided me with instant recognition: “Lucky! Hey, man! Basil told me there was this Lucky guy who brought all these kids down here to see me. Kind of figured it had to be you, but never figured I was actually right.”

“Well, with all the Cover to Covers this country’s got to offer, I figured it was only a matter of time.”

Hex didn’t laugh, but he didn’t punch me in the face either.

Amy and Chloe were suddenly at my side.

Hex raised his arms. “Chloe! This just keeps getting better.” He turned to Amy. “New person! I don’t know if I can handle all this excitement.”

He invited us to sit.

Amy sandwiched herself between Basil and me, made herself comfortable by casually laying down the Demarco article on the table.

Chloe hesitantly took her place next to Hex.

“Good to see you kids,” Hex said, took another sip of water before picking up the roll of twenties I’d dropped on the table. “What’s with the hush money?”

“You’ll have to forgive me if I didn’t include the interest.”

“Can’t accept it, Lucky.”

“Eh.”

“You can’t afford this.”

“It’s been almost a year since that fateful day. Think I’ve had enough time to put together a little scratch.”

Hex nodded, wrapping his own thoughts around the concept. “Yeah. It has been a year, hasn’t it?”

“Just about on the dot.”

“What are you up to these days?”

“Graduated, somehow.” The joke flopped, and I pressed ahead. “Going to study film in New York.”

“Film…” Hex released the word with certain curiosity. Let it float about the table. “I kind of figured you would go into creative writing.”

“Oh…” I felt an inexplicable twinge of humiliation.

“Film’s good, though. Wasn’t long after I met you, it turned out that Rebecca Demarco was cast in Ice Station… Sorry, Tempest Haven. It was hard not to think about you, our little give and take we had going in Miami.”

“I’m not here to ask for help,” I told him. Overreaching. Secretly disturbed at how much I sounded like Marvin Sepparano. “I’m done. Over that. I’m not doing that Rebecca Demarco thing anymore. Just in case you thought.”

“Why not?”

“Yeah, why not?” Amy chimed in.

“Yeah, why not?” Basil echoed.

Since when had Basil known anything about the Rebecca Demarco situation?

“A lot’s happened since then. I know we talked about it, and I was certain about certain things…” I could have kicked myself for such an utter lack of clarity. Made up for it by doubling down on my smile, practically beaming my intentions into Chloe’s mind. “But I’ve found a good enough conclusion.”

Chloe stuck a finger down her throat.

“But have you met her yet?” Hex asked.

“No… But I’ve pretty much figured things out on my own…”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes.”

“Then best of luck to you…” He pulled out a pen, clicked three times. “Got anything to write on?”

Amy was at the ready. She slid the magazine over to him, open to Rebecca Demarco’s picture.

Hex laughed… “Unreal.”

He jotted something down, sheathed his pen and closed the magazine.

I held out my hand, expecting him to hand it over.

Instead, he continued to stare at Rebecca Demarco’s face. Focusing. Looking to unearth something. He took a sip of water. “You know, something interesting happened to me today.”

I waited.

Basil took up the cue, tugging at a cigarette. “What happened, Hex?”

“Met this girl named Leah,” Hex said. “Don’t know if you’ve done the same.”

“Yeah, I’ve met Leah.”

“Interesting, no?”

I shook my head. Quite convincingly, maybe.

Michael Gavin slid on up to the table, asked if we needed anything.

A unanimous vote for fresh coffee sent him on his way, and Hex wasted no time in bringing the conversation back to brass tacks. “You’re not interested in Leah?”

“Why should I be?”

“I think the more important question is why shouldn’t you be in interested in Leah?”

“My God. It’s like a bunch of girls at a slumber party, huddled around an Ouija board and swearing on their lives the planchette is moving on its own. Leah is not Rebecca Demarco.”

“Maybe that’s the point…”

I tapped my foot a couple of times, magically summoning Michael back to the table.

He distributed the coffee and returned to his remaining duties.

I reached for the sugar and slid it over to Chloe.

She began to pour, urged Hex to continue.

“Let me ask you something, Lucky…” Hex took the sugar and slid it over to our side of the table. “Who, exactly, have you been chasing this whole time?”

“Wow… Guess I’m a worse storyteller than I previously thought. At this point, if you can’t come up with the name on your own, then I don’t know what –”

“So you stand by that?”

“Yeah. Rebecca Demarco is who I’ve been chasing.”

“You sure that’s right?”

“I’m sorry, Rebecca Demarco is whom I’ve been chasing.”

“Where did the Rebecca Demarco mystery truly begin?”

“Three years ago, give or take. December, 1993. Sitting in my room, when I happen across Rebecca Demarco in the pages of a magazine – ”

“Incorrect,” Amy said, carpet bombing her coffee with granulated sugar. “You were in your room when you happened upon a picture of Rebecca Demarco.”

“A picture of Rebecca Demarco,” Hex agreed, pointing in Amy’s direction. “She gets it, she knows.”

“Fine, a picture of Rebecca Demarco,” I conceded. “This picture, in turn, fills me with a sense of what I’ve come to describe simply as an intuition… And though this feeling gets buried immediately, it’s brought back to life one year later, June of 1995, when I see Rebecca Demarco again –”

“On a television screen. You were at your job, the editing room. You didn’t see Rebecca Demarco, you saw an image of her.”

“ – Image of Rebecca Demarco, which leads me into a seemingly unending chase for her.”

“For Rebecca Demarco?”

“Have we met?”

“Have you met Rebecca Demarco?”

“Back to this?”

“Have you?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know you’re chasing Rebecca Demarco?”

“Because I saw her.”

“Incorrect…” It was Basil’s turn at the trough. “You only saw an image.”

“This whole time,” Hex agreed, “you’ve been chasing an image.”

“So I’m chasing an image of Rebecca Demarco,” I said. “And with each new development comes defeat after crushing defeat, all of which leads me to further certainty that I’m destined to meet Rebecca Demarco –”

“An image of –”

“– an image of Rebecca Demarco. After which I finally stop giving chase, all of which ends up right here where I started, where I meet a girl who…”

I stopped.

Stuck with four sets of eyes.

Chloe, Amy, Basil, and Hex, who summed it up nicely: “All of which ends right back where you started. Right here in Verona, where you meet a girl who is, in fact, the spitting image of Rebecca Demarco…” Hex held up the magazine, pointed at Rebecca Demarco’s picture. “This is what you’ve been chasing. It’s just an image, and if Leah looks so much like this image, then who’s to say that Leah isn’t what destiny has been preparing you for?”

I opened my mouth, waiting for a brilliant argument to reach out and grab Hex by the throat.

Nothing, though.

“Excuse me,” Chloe mumbled. Slid out of her seat, hoisted her crutches and added the word bathroom, before swinging her way across the room.

Hex stood up, as though Chloe’s exit had given him some kind of brilliant idea.

He leaned over and held out his hand for Basil and Amy to shake.

As for me, he simply pointed to the issue of Premier, finger poking Rebecca Demarco – an image of Rebecca Demarco – square in the eye. “You’ve got my number in Brooklyn,” he said. “Give me a call once you get to New York. Let me know how it all ended for you, my friend.”

He turned and left us behind. Stopped by the counter, shook Michael Gavin’s hand. Picked his jacket off a stool and, with a final wave in our direction, let the screen door slam shut on his way out.

“Got to hand it to writers…” Basil scratched his head, downing a couple of bleached spikes. “Most of them are a complete mess, but they’ve got everyone else’s life all figured out.”

“Yeah…” I opened the magazine, turned to Rebecca Demarco’s picture like a trained seal. Found Hex’s phone number scrawled amongst white feathers. 718 area code, but my attention was focused elsewhere. Not on the phone number. Not on his name, autographed in the accustomed proficiency of all artists, established and wishful alike.

There was another name.

Four letters, spelled out in caps across Rebecca Demarco’s ample forehead.

LEAH.

***

I maneuvered Chloe’s Volvo into the driveway.

Turned off the engine.

Little past nine, per the dashboard clock. The sidewalks were empty. Most of the house lights turned off. Even the nearby lamppost couldn’t force enough of itself through the trees, and we sat in silence for a while. Chloe shifted, twisted her body to reach into the back seat, collect her crutches.

“Let me,” I told her, following suit.

Her hair tickled my face for just a moment, before our lips met.

A couple of ill-conceived smacks, two touches of the tongue maybe. Typical maneuver, both of us breaking away before it got too heated. I followed through, picked her crutches from the back. Laid them to rest between us.

“You coming in?” Chloe asked.

I rubbed my eyes. “Really ought to look at the footage I caught tonight.”

“You could hook up the camera to the TV. In the living room.”

“Yes, that’s true…

“I was thinking…” She turned away. “I was thinking that maybe it’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“You know, it’s been kind of stupid… No, I know it’s been stupid. Second guessing you. I know you wanted to make us, whatever we are, official. You know, boyfriend and girlfriend, for lack of a less nauseating term.”

“Wow, Chloe…” I smiled slightly, uncertainty creeping up through the seats. “Say it one more time, you make it sound so good.”

“Shut up for a second.” She absently stroked the glove compartment. “I’m just saying, maybe I haven’t given you a fair shake. And maybe it’s time.”

“Why now?”

Chloe shrugged. “Why not?”

From outside, crickets did their best to get along, back leg melodies.

“I’m going to need some time to think about it,” I said.

Chloe turned back to me. “What?”

“Please don’t give me that look. Right after the ice storm, I told you. In January, I told you I was willing to make something out of this. You and me. And you handed me your own version of Versailles. A nice little treaty that said, Well maybe I believe you and maybe I don’t.”

Chloe stared at me, never expecting this.

“You’ve had just about six months to come to this conclusion, Chloe. I think it’s only fair I get a chance to think about it now.”

Didn’t feel like a conversation that could possibly end well.

But Chloe nodded. “This is one of those rare times, Lucky.”

“Rare times what?”

“Rare times where rethinking things might actually be the right thing.”

“Don’t be mad…”

“I’m not…” Chloe opened the door. “But something does clearly have to change, soon.”

The overhead light was on now, a burnt kind of yellow. “Chloe, why don’t I just hook up my camera to the TV in the living room. We’ll have some popcorn, watch a late movie on TBS… maybe give you a back rub, what do you say?”

“I’m probably just going to go to bed,” Chloe told me. “You can go if you want to.”

Learning by example just isn’t an option sometimes.

We ended up in bed together regardless, because relationships are frantic, twisted creatures.

And I was, admittedly, a twisted, frantic individual.

***

Bruce and Dan were seated in their chairs, same as any other day. But on this particular Tuesday, July second, the charm had finally drained from this once endearing image. My treasured home away from home was starting to feel like court-ordered community service. Work was starting to feel like work.

“OK, first off,” Bruce railed, hands grasping his tangled hair… “What made you think that Cover to Cover was the best place to capture off-campus activities?”

“What could be better?” I insisted, less than three steps into the room before coming under fire. “Hex Raitliffe is a bestselling author. New York Times bestselling. Pantheon asked, specifically, if we could include the virtues of Verona’s off-campus attractions. And what do you fucking know, I got us a star.”

“So you couldn’t give us shots of kids in an ice cream parlor? Milkshakes, oatmeal cookies, you know? You’ve got to take them to that crippled little bookstore?”

“That crippled little bookstore is Verona.”

“Part of Verona,” Dan said, trying to pump the brakes. “I just don’t know how happy parents would be seeing their kids surrounded by grizzled weirdoes puffing up clouds of RJ Reynolds.”

“It’s the South, for Christ sake. North Carolina, Tobacco Road. You don’t see me going to Tijuana and bitching about how spicy the food is.”

“I also don’t see rich suburbanites sending their kids there,” Bruce fired back. “Your notion of what Verona is or is not is beside the point. We’re dealing with propaganda here, like it or not, and we’ve got to give Pantheon something clean and crisp. Fresh and free of eccentric, burnt-out losers.”

“I just thought it would be a good idea,” I said, looking to keep things from erupting.

“And what’s up with the student interviews?” Bruce took another shot, reloaded. “You’ve only got a couple here, and then there’s this bizarre, hour-long confessional with that Rebecca Demarco lookalike –”

“Her name is Leah.”

“Don’t care. How do you suggest we edit an interview that involves a celebrity wannabe sitting by a fountain, talking to an unseen person directly to her left?”

“She’s not a celebrity wannabe, and unless you want me walking out –”

“Great.”

“– walking out of that door and leaving you –”

“Bye.”

“ – to even try to find the strength to lift yourself out of that seat and walk more than three feet –”

“Lucky?” With unexpected agility, Dan sprung from his seat and pointed towards the door. “I’m going to get a hot dog. Why don’t you come with?”

I glared at Bruce, big fat jelly roll, sitting in his chair like it was where God conducted his business.

Dan ran interference, placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Outside.”

We crossed the road, over to Lakeview Shopping Center. Once a major hub for commercial activity, it had fallen on hard times. Store fronts switched from business to business without much staying power. The three-screen theater had been crushed by the multiplexes. The last flick I’d seen there was back in ‘93 , Chloe and I stuck with wet sneakers from a busted water pipe. The building was now a surplus store for Pantheon’s outdated computer equipment. The only mainstays were Thrift World, Food Lion.

And, of course, the Dog House.

Smack in the middle of the parking lot.

Quaint little to-go cottage with a green shingled roof.

Dan got himself a chili dog, offered to buy me one.

“Not hungry. Thanks anyway.”

“Progress is a real bitch,” Dan mused. Took down half his dog in a single bite. Chewed thoughtfully, staring out across the blazing parking lot. “Video Squared has been around for so long. I’ve seen this shopping center, every day, and watched as businesses closed. Adding to the overall decay of the neighborhood, prompting less shoppers, prompting further closures….” He sighed, then turned to me. “We’ve really invested a lot in you, Lucky.”

“Look, I know I’ve been with you all for a while –”

“Media’s changing,” Dan told me. “Everything’s going full digital soon. Half-inch going the way of the dodo, even laser disks are already on the swoon. Won’t be long before people are able to edit their own shit on home computers. Video won’t be about posterity, it’s going to be about directing, producing. Everybody’s gonna be looking to be a star, and if we don’t evolve, whatever that could possibly look like for us, then…”

“Dan?”

“That new XL-1 is just the first step in a full overhaul we need to compete with what’s coming. We’ve been losing money for a few years now. Bruce is freaking out. And I’ll tell you the one thing that’s looking to put us back in the black, Lucky.”

I felt sweat break out on my forehead. “Jesus, Dan.”

“This Pantheon thing is it… if we come through on this one, we have a good chance of setting up a real working relationship with the university. If we come through… If you come through.” Dan swallowed the rest of his hot dog, wiped some chili from the corner of his bulging mouth. “TIP program comes to a close in three more days…”

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “I hear you, Dan.”

“And, Lucky…” Dan thumped at his chest, burped. “If I see that Leah girl one more time, I will have you destroyed…”

I watched him amble across the lot, massive figure blurring.

“Shit.”

Reached into my pocket to see if maybe I had the seventy-five cents necessary to score a lemonade.

I came up short, and slowly made my own way back to the car.

***

Was just considering that second cup, when I heard a familiar voice offering to fetch a refill.

A voice I no longer associated as Rebecca Demarco’s.

I looked up from my booth. “Hey.”

“Hey, too…” She pointed at my empty mug. “You want me to take care of that?”

A few minutes later, she was sitting across from me. Two butterfly barrettes pulling her hair back over small, hunched shoulders. Large eyes staring through the java steam. Early afternoon, and the sun gave us a decent spotlight.

“How long has it been since you’ve slept?” she asked.

“Been trying to piece this thing together.”

“The video?”

“Of course.”

The album of the hour was courtesy of Blind Lemon Jefferson, ancient sounds of pre-WWI blues scratching their way past the needle. I took a sip of my coffee. Smiled. Leah ran her hands over a notebook, thumb and forefinger playing over a few folded pages.

“What have you got there?” I asked.

“Something I’m writing.”

“Can I look?”

“Not yet.”

There was an unusual lack of smoke in the air. Simple clarity.

“So tomorrow is July Fourth,” I managed.

“It is.”

“There’s going to be fireworks,” I told her. “The show’s at the campus stadium, but you can pretty much catch all you need to from the quad.”

“OK.”

Leah wasn’t in the habit of throwing bones, and conversations seemed to live or die at her bidding. I finally settled on something between a smile and encouraging raise of my eyebrows.

Leah nodded back.

I gave up. “Yeah, I don’t know what the hell that was supposed to mean, either.”

Finally got a smile. Small, understated. Aimed down towards her coffee. “Yeah, I’ve never been known as a gifted conversationalist. Used to be able to convince myself that it made me mysterious. An upshot, you know?”

“I think it does make you a little mysterious.”

“Annoys the shit out of people is what it does.”

“Don’t worry about what other people think.”

“I don’t. I’ve gotten used to it, is what I said.”

She had. Moreover I had heard her say it.

I reached for the sugar. Sent my coffee into a nice diabetic coma. “You seemed to be doing all right on Saturday.”

“When?”

“Saturday.”

“I know, but when Saturday are you talking about?”

“The reading,” I said. “Saw you over at the counter, talking to Hex Raitliffe.”

“Oh, yeah… Well, I’m a fan.”

“What did you guys talk about?”

“This and that…” It almost came across as playful. But that was how almost everything she said came across. As almost anything. “I understand you know him.”

“Met him randomly last year, in Florida. Miami.”

Leah tilted her head up towards the ceiling, squinting. “What were you doing in Miami?”

“This and that. Mostly this.”

“And one year later, he’s here in your favorite hangout.”

“Yeah.”

“Coincidence just seems to follow you around.”

“Think so?”

“I think I’m living proof of that…” Leah’s body shifted forward slightly. Hair hanging precariously above her coffee cup. Her eyes were fixed on mine, as though awaiting an answer. Or a reaction.

As if to prove her point, Clara approached our table with an wide smile. “Hey, guys.”

“Hey, Clara.” I gestured towards Leah. “Have you met –”

“Hi!” Clara exclaimed, exhausting her breath in that one syllable. Held up her palm in a stiff salute. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but my son is a huge fan of Ghost Girl. Really. And I’m not usually one of those mothers who sees the TV as a babysitter, but he has seen your movie maybe a hundred times –”

“Clara,” I interrupted. “This is Leah. She’s here with TIP.”

Clara processed the glitch. Punctuated it with a miniature croak. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s OK,” Leah said. Grin pasted to her face like a scrapbook collage. “I get it all the time.”

“Oh, you absolutely must. I mean, now I feel bad. Being just another, you know –”

“It’s really OK.”

“Well, don’t let me interrupt…” Clara paused. Realized that made no sense. “Let me know if you all need any more coffee.”

I leaned out of the booth, watched her disappear around a table and head back to the counter.

When I straightened, Leah was fitting herself into the standard. Lips back to neutral, eyes retreating from the edge of distress. Even managed to shrug… “And now you see what follows me around.”

I tried my hand at a reassuring smile. “I think I’m living proof of that.”

“What does that mean?”

“That’s a good question. What does that mean?”

Leah laughed, and shook her head. “I’d better get back to campus. Amy’s going to show me some puppets she’s made.”

I stood as she slid out of the booth, scooped her notebook off the table.

“What are you up to tomorrow?” she asked.

I glanced down at the chaotic spread of papers and highlighted spreadsheets. “It’s the start of presentations. I’ve been assigned a couple of theater and architecture classes. They show their final projects, maybe some parents managed to fly and drive in… pretty much the final act. If I don’t get it on camera, then it never happened, right?”

“You should stop by my art class,” Leah suggested. “My parents certainly aren’t coming in from LA, and Amy can’t make it. It’s from ten till noon.”

Felt my muscles tense. “Thing with the theater people goes from nine till noon, then I’ve got the architecture class from three till four.”

“I’ve got this thing I put together: My First AIDS Barbie. I’ve got this whole –”

“My First AIDS Barbie?”

“Yeah, I put the doll together myself. Amy helped, but I also made a box for it and everything.”

“Kind of dark.”

“It’s the nineties,” Leah replied. “Barbie was never safe. It’s time she realized it.”

“I really can’t, Leah.”

The screen door swung open with fresh patrons, slammed shut.

Leah nodded. “Well, there’s always the fireworks.”

I watched her round a display of discount vinyl and lay a few dollars on the counter. She waved to Clara and headed for the door. Even as she swung it open, the pair of newcomers began to call after her, eyes alight with the awed certainty that they had found themselves standing no less than two feet from fame.

“Don’t bother boys,” Clara told them. “It ain’t what you think.”

I wasn’t sure if Leah heard them or not.

That screen door had a tendency to slam all on its own.

***

It was July Fourth, a sunlit and mercifully tepid Thursday.

And I was a good boy for a good part of it. Eight thirty, already set up in the small black box amphitheater. Freshly showered. Coffee in hand. Sharp as a tack. TIP kids and their parents began to trickle in, take their seats. Warm welcomes from a healthy handful, and I had to genuinely search to remember when I had met any of them.

Exception being Amy Button, who sent a confused frown my way.

Repeated this several times over the course of the performance. Darting in and out of shadows with the other stagehands. Could be nobody else caught it. But I had every glance in my direction documented through the lens, forever captured.

Caught the curtain call from the sound booth. Rushed down to capture the crowd. Solid footage of parents hugging their children with pride. Avoiding all those who secretly wished their kids might someday consider law school.

The auditorium cleared.

I was alone, on my knees. Packing up, making labels, when Amy finally appeared.

“You weren’t supposed to be here,” Amy told me.

“Don’t ever tell yourself you don’t belong right where you are,” I told her, fitting the lens cap into place with a confident click. “I’ve given that advice over and over to many, many people. Think it’s time I started following it myself.”

“I wouldn’t.”

The gravity of her voice had a commanding quality in the empty theater.

Gave me pause. “I was in hotel in Miami once, remember? All set to be where I was supposed to be, and what I did next almost got me stranded –”

“She told me something.”

“Who told you what?”

Amy poked her tongue from the corner of her mouth, testing the winds. “Leah told me something.”

“Yes, told you what?”

“I can’t tell you.”

I gave her an withering smile. “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a cat?”

“It’s bring me a cat.”

“Sure.”

“Honestly, how the hell do you make a cat?”

“You pulling strings, Amy?”

“Hm?”

“That day at the gazebo? Where did my script go? Was it when we went to grab lunch –”

She put her hands on my shoulders. Drew me close. “Just go… Go to her next class. Creative writing presentations. I know you were planning to check out that class anyway, this could be your last chance.”

I kissed her on the cheek, broke free of her grasp. “Don’t ever tell yourself you’re not exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

“What if yourself isn’t?”

I shrugged. Motioned her to walk out with me.

Amy returned the gesture and we called a truce.

Lunch.

Which, of course, I charged to the card.

We sat in silence. Pasta salad for her. Hot Pastrami on rye for me.

Leaning into my last bite, when Amy said, “You know, your breath isn’t going to smell too hot after that meal you just had.”

I paused, the final morsel inches from my mouth.

Amy grabbed her water. Unscrewed the cap.

I dropped the remainder, casually trying to taste my own tongue. “Leah told you something?”

“She did.”

“Leah never mentioned her creative writing presentation.”

“I know.”

“She probably doesn’t want me there.”

“Probably not.”

I nodded. Reached for that final piece.

Picked up another napkin instead.

And after we parted ways, I stopped by a vending machine. Got myself a pack of gum. Extra strength. I stared down at the winter blue wrapper. Tapped it against my palm.

“She probably doesn’t want me there…”

But the snack machine wasn’t dispensing any free advice that day.

I tore the pack open, took out a stick of chalky peppermint.

Chewed it over for a while.

***

The classroom was a cramped second story affair. Seating limited to twenty chairs, and so I had taken my place at the back. Perched in a window alcove. Blending behind a wall of standing room parents. Waiting for the professor to start the presentations before setting up my shot.

A little insurance against my momentary insurrection.

Kept filming until her name was called.

Leah took her place in a camouflaged shuffle. Shoulders tense beneath a dark red cardigan, papers clutched in her right hand. Couldn’t imagine how she had ever managed all those cattle calls, stood before all those producers, casting agents, wolves at the gate.

She caught my eye from the back.

Had to admit a certain pleasure, seeing her mouth unhinge. Yes. Even for the slightest of seconds, that panicked surprise left me with a sense of relief.

She was human after all.

I turned off the camera.

Furthered the point by turning it to the side, proof positive this wasn’t an audition.

“Hey,” she told the audience. Done with the self-aware, she scratched her nose and continued, unconcerned. “My name is Leah, and this story is called George.”

I settled in. Overdone relaxation.

An architecture class somewhere on campus missing a cameraman.

When I was nine years old,” Leah read, “my pet hamster, George, choked to death on a peanut I fed him.”

I was slugged, right through the ribcage.

And I maintain to this day, that hearing those words did something to me. First time seeing the blood moon, or watching bygone footage of Ali sending Foreman to the mat. Leah’s story couldn’t have been more than two pages long, but within those few paragraphs, I was knocked sideways.

Almost forgetting all that had led me here, where I was supposed to be.

She finished to awed silence.

Then muted applause of parents who didn’t want their own to know they’d been blown clear out of the water.

Leah took her seat.

Threw me a hidden smile.

Coupled with lips meant to be exhaustively read, cover to cover.

Mouthing the words thank you.

***

Neither one of us knew where our footsteps were leading, but we ended up there anyway.

Rounding the Center for Women’s Studies, those few remaining yards taken with an established sense of conclusion. Sat on the edge of the fountain. All that footage that Dan and Bruce had dismissed as thoroughly useless. The thought came and went, hardly interested in the repercussions of this devastatingly perfect afternoon.

Seventy-two, sunshine in midstream. Stealthy breeze that seemed to have no origin. Tickling the grass, confusing the trees, wildlife that had woken up expecting another humid day in Verona.

“I still feel stupid,” Leah told me. “I wasn’t expecting you to show up.”

“I showed up. And I was floored. By what you wrote, I was –”

“No you weren’t.”

“You’re right.”

Leah smiled.

It wasn’t a bad reaction, and I let the afternoon do the interpreting.

Leah looked up from the fishes. “Oh, shit.”

“What?”

She motioned with her head.

I saw Marvin stalking up.

“Shit.”

“What’s up, Leah?” Marvin greeted her with a stiff smile, hands stuffed into designer pockets. Threw me a courtesy nod. “Lucky.”

“Marvin.”

Turned his attention back to Leah. “So tonight’s the Fourth of July.”

“It’s the Fourth of July right now,” she said.

“Yeah, I guess it is…” Marvin tugged at his earlobe. “But the fireworks are tonight. Over at the stadium, and I was wondering if you wanted to come with me?”

“I can’t. Sorry.”

He didn’t sound surprised. “Why not?”

I had my suspicions that this was generally how these things went down for him. An unnervingly familiar scenario, brought me close to stepping in, letting him know that I would be at the stadium, filming the fireworks, and why not all of us make a night of it?

Then Leah made herself perfectly capable. “I’m already doing something with Lucky.”

Marvin blinked. “What?”

My thoughts exactly.

“Yeah,” I agreed, prompted by my own voice. Spouting words as they came to me. “There’s a showing of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead over at the Tobacco Film House.”

Again Marvin blinked. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“It’s a movie. Based on a play. Leah and I were going to go see it and –”

“Whatever.” Marvin kicked at a pebble, then brought his foot down with a violent stomp. “Whatever, Lucky.” Beads of sweat popped along his brow, glistened like a wet tiara. “You don’t even like her!” He pointed at me, turned to Leah: “He’s only interested in you because you look like Rebecca Demarco! You know that, right? If it weren’t that you looked like her, he wouldn’t even be hanging out with you!”

I was halfway standing.

Certain that this was where I was supposed to stand up.

For what was right, true and honest, ready to shut Marvin up, when I heard Leah’s voice.

Straight to the chase, flat and free of apologies. “If I didn’t look like Rebecca Demarco, I wouldn’t be hanging out with him, Marvin. Now go away.”

Neither one of us were expecting that.

“He’s got a girlfriend, you know,” Marvin seethed, backing up with uneven steps. “Her name’s Chloe. She was there at Cover to Cover, sitting with him. She was blond. Blond with CRUTCHES!”

Marvin stormed off, kicking a mushroom along the way.

Saw a tiny butterfly flutter off from that path of destruction.

Watched Marvin grow smaller, disappear around a corner. Sucked a good amount of atmosphere from around the fountain. Even the birds had taken a moment to quietly assess their safety.

Passing jetliner.

“Marvin thinks you’re only interested in me because I look like Rebecca Demarco,” Leah said.

Right next to my ear, it felt like.

Turned to find she had drawn near. Not quite face to face, but closer than I had ever thought of getting to her. Enough to question whether those five sticks of gum had been enough to kill the stench of mustard seed.

“That’s what Marvin seems to think,” she said.

“Marvin is a weasel.”

“He is a weasel. But is he right?”

“No.”

“You’re not interested in me because I look like Rebecca Demarco?”

“I’m interested in everything about you,” I told her. “And I am just as surprised to hear myself say that as I was when I first realized it.”

“And when was that?”

“First time I saw you.”

“And when was that?” she asked, eyes mercifully playful.

I returned the smile, still unable to sort the timeline. “So are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Are you too busy to see the fireworks tonight?”

She brushed off the back of her jeans. “I’ve got a date with this guy. His name’s Lucky, and I think he kind of likes me… But I think maybe you and I can catch the fireworks afterwards.”

“Looks like we’d better get moving then.”

There’s a version of this moment where that butterfly found its way between us.

Just a few flap of her wings that sent us walking away from that fountain.

***

The truth was slightly less romantic.

Leah had one more symposium to attend.

I took Chloe’s car and returned it to her house.

Thought about knocking.

Walked home and changed.

Gathered a few twenties and called a cab back to campus.

Knocked on her door.

She answered with a smile, so blinding I can’t even tell you whether or not she had bothered to change for me.

***

I kept my eyes on the screen the whole time.

On the screen itself. Too focused to actually capture the images.

Trying to kill the fringes with an overdose of light. Doing all I could to get a handle on Leah’s presence, there in the dark. Hands in her lap. Very sure, from the minute the lights had dimmed, that I wanted to put my arm around her. Certain, without measure, that this was the next step. Easy enough. Laughable. A door with no lock, combination. Just a matter of lifting my shoulder, drawing her close.

A classic never dies, right?

Words washed in ebbs and flows, partitioned dialogue, only portions reaching, then receding.

Hearing the character of The Player laughing with Godlike superiority.

You call that an ending? With practically everyone on his feet?

My goodness, no.

My elbow twitched involuntarily. An inglorious jumpstart. Hands sweating, perpetually damp. Hardly able to wipe them against my jeans. Foot tapping on the floor in a sticky drum roll. Flu-like symptoms burning as I tried to will my arm to go along with it.

Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they can reasonably get.

No fear of rejection.

No worries that she might cast off my arm in disgust.

There was always one last conclusion to be reached, and to truly learn that lesson, I was going to have to make one more mistake, one last time.

A voice from up on the screen asking: Who decides?

I raised my arm. Without deliberation, and I thought I heard Leah let out a slow, thankful breath. Felt her body relax against mine, reaching up to take my hand in hers. Both our hands wet with nerves. I moved my fingers, taking time to trace each tiny digit. Soft, cyclonic motions against her palm, the future spelled out in unnecessary fortunes.

Neither one of us daring to get much closer.

It was inexperience. It was ungainly. It was strange and young.

Seated amongst well-ordered rows of silent faces.

Staring at the screen as The Player looked down on us all with a scoff:

Decides… It is written. We are tragedians, you see – we follow directions; there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily… That is what tragedy means.

An entire year had passed, and it was once again, the Fourth of July.

***

We emerged in a daze. Readjusting to the electric nighttime glare of small-town streets. Surrounding sounds out of sync with ears that had taken in two hours of surround sound. Even our voices seemed to come from somewhere else. A passing couple tried to stop us, ask for Leah’s autograph. We kept walking, one of us commenting that Rebecca Demarco had unknowingly lost a set of fans.

And one of us had laughed.

We strolled past the train tracks, between the abandoned warehouses.. Neither of us said much of anything. Hardly aware that we were arm in arm, passing beneath the neon lights of restaurants and propped up chalkboards spelling out barroom specials. Traffic lights vacillating between green and red, occasionally finding that yellow middle ground.

Wasn’t too long before we were back on the quad. A few TIP kids had stayed behind, ignoring the call of Pantheon’s football stadium. Leaping around on the grassy expanse, spotlight shenanigans under the white glow of ornate lampposts.

Leah and I closed in on the far end of the lawn, found an isolated space.

Our own little spot to lay ourselves down.

Open floodgates, and she settled against me without a second thought. I sent my arm around her, eyes on the heavens, staring at a blanket of pure white stars.

“We don’t get stars in Los Angeles,” Leah told me. “Too much smog. Plays hell with my asthma.”

“I hear it makes the sunsets look real nice.”

“What did I tell you about LA?”

“LA is rotten.”

“Yeah, fucking Denmark.” Leah sighed, body pressing against mine. “I’m glad you remember the things I’ve said.”

“I’m not saying I’ve understood most of them.”

“Honesty, see? Try getting that in Los Angeles.”

“I’m not sure that makes me the best guy in the world.”

“I didn’t say you were the best guy in the world.” Leah raised her head for a moment, gauging my reaction. “Probably not the most honest, either. Marvin said you have a girlfriend?”

“He’s real hooked on you,” I told her.

“We took the flight in from LA together. He was out there looking up on UCLA as a possibility. We were assigned the seats right next to each other. I guess he saw that as destiny or something.”

“Hm.”

“You don’t want to ask me…?” Leah laid back down, lilac scented hair sprawling over me. “If I’ve got a boyfriend?”

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Kind of. Adam’s been my best friend since we were kids. Close to boyfriend as it gets. And I guess best friend is as close as it’s ever felt. We hang out after school, make out like a couple of teenagers – ”

“You are a couple of teenagers.”

“Yeah… He says we should have sex, but I could never do that with him. He has no penis.”

“Adam has no penis.”

“I’ve never seen it. Not a question of the man behind the curtain, though. I’ve just known him for so long. It’s not even about romance or the nature of attraction, I just can’t imagine him as someone with a dick…”

“My heart goes out to him.”

“Something I should know?” she asked.

“Woke up one day with a note and a five dollar bill on my dresser.”

“Where did it go?”

“My dick?”

Leah giggled. “Yeah.”

“Cincinnati.”

Leah put a hand over her mouth, mumbled something through the laughter.

“Either that or wherever socks go after disappearing in the drier.”

“It never brought back a souvenir?”

“Very same socks I have on right now.”

Leah continued to giggle, and I found myself following her lead.

“And you, Lucky?” she asked, laughter trailing. “Chloe, girlfriend? Yes, no?”

“Chloe’s a lot like your Adam.”

“Friends with privileges?”

“Just going to say, she too has no penis.”

More laughter. Lengthy variation on a theme. I closed my eyes as she nestled in. “I saw her at Cover to Cover. I was once on crutches for six months, and Adam never took care of me the way you were taking care of her.”

“That doesn’t say much about me, as much as it says so little about Adam.”

“Yeah, but nobody else would have Adam…” Leah sighed. “I still don’t know what I’m doing here with you.”

“I’m as late to the party as you.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was a bit of a mutt growing up.” It wasn’t the answer she was looking for. Kept talking, speaking my mind. “An oddball, never really fit in.”

“Been in North Carolina your whole life?”

“Kind of.”

“Where were you born?”

“Amsterdam.”

“No.”

“Yes, I’m sure of this.”

“Sure your sure?”

“Well, I was just a baby.”

“Amsterdam…” Leah’s voice drifted into thoughtful straits. “You an army brat?”

“The opposite…” I followed the sound of Leah’s voice, letting go. “My parents were refugees. From Chile. Exiles, drifting from country to country. Havana, France, then Amsterdam, where I came into the picture, February of 1979. We moved when I was one. Moved to Mexico, then D.C. Then North Carolina. And during this time, we’d go back and forth, from the US to Chile. I grew up speaking two languages, knowing two worlds. Getting used to one, then the other, then the other…”

Somewhere amongst the trees, the sounds of an acoustic guitar joined in.

And wind chimes, hard as it was to imagine where that was coming from.

Feeling my thoughts wander, details of my past coming unglued. Slow emancipation from the little black box I’d built for them over the years. “When Democracy returned to Chile, my parents decided it was time to reclaim their home. It had been almost twenty years for them. I’d been alive for eleven of those years, all of it determined before I was even born. And I couldn’t fit in down there. Missed my friends in The States, missed what had somehow become my home… Didn’t go well for my parents either, turns out twenty years of a country torn apart by dark forces… nothing ever mends the way it’s supposed to. Two schools and eight months later, we were back in North Carolina…”

I paused, remembering.

A pristine clarity, the invisible jabs to my stomach, kidneys.

“And no real change had gripped Verona… But eight months for an eleven year old carries more weight than you’d think. Or at least, I think it must have, because despite returning to North Carolina, I don’t think I ever really made it home. My place was gone. Not in any literal sense, my friends were there, my school. But my life, I think, didn’t get the forwarding address. And I kind of went with it. Confused and aimless, I just kind of went from group to group. Turned myself into an object of entertainment, humorous derision. Known to all, There goes Lucky Saurelius. Always on the outside, looking in. Nobody dates the class clown, and it just served to…”

I was no longer sure what I was revealing about myself.

Leah was there, listening.

“I just wanted to be normal,” I concluded, sensed the loose ends hanging in the air.

“Better than normal,” Leah murmured.

Her lips brushed the side of my cheek.

Small mouth, breath lifting hairs on my neck.

“What?”

“You don’t want to be normal. You want to be extraordinary. Cross the Rubicon, cut the Gordian knot. I don’t know if that’s why the whole Rebecca Demarco thing, why you’re here with me.” She laughed, quietly. “But why do I sense normal won’t ever do it for you?”

I didn’t know how to answer the question, came back with my own: “Is normal good enough for you?”

“I’m not normal,” Leah replied, unfazed.

My fingers traced her lips, soft touch.

She gave one a kiss, then another.

“You think I’m normal?” I asked.

“I think you’re gentle,” she whispered, eyes closed. Both of us lying face to face. Grass tickling, encouraging. “I think you’re so fucking gentle.”

And it could be that what’s good for trauma works just as well for moments of immaculate bliss. Impossible to remember, unavailable for future recollection. Faced with infinity, and that’s what happens with the incomprehensible. That’s what happens when a memory knows its place. That’s what happens when stars collide.

That’s what happened, when I look back, and find myself in Leah’s arms.

Soft kisses without origin.

Nothing but the way our lips felt together. Every kiss that took us further from what came before, each one asking for the next, mouths interpreting. Intertwined. Pressed close in breathless agreement, slowly slipping under. Wrapped in our own quite murmurs, hands clutching at hair, neck, shoulder blades, hips, never enough, not nearly enough.

Circles sealed shut, locking out every last thought.

No room for the fireworks, the cries of nearby forms, come alive with wonder.

No room for events, no time to wonder, no questions left to ask.

Fingertips.

The racing warmth beneath her neck.

The way she looked with her eyes closed.

With her eyes open, miles from where we lay.

Nothing short of what felt like salvation, and while the days to come waited in silent preparation, it was all that I needed to leave behind all those that had come before.

***

I walked Leah back to her dorm.

It was close to midnight, curfew for the TIP kids. Leah and I stood outside her building, skies cooling down after their battle with red rocket glare and the echoing blasts of Seventy-Six. A pair of dim lanterns shone down on us. We regarded each other with bemused looks; disheveled hair, eyes a little glassy. Lips aching slightly from the pressure of imperfect kisses.

“I’m leaving the day after tomorrow,” she told me. “Got a Saturday flight out to LA.”

“Yeah.”

“Amy’s coming with me,” she volunteered, happy to have found a neutral subject. “I mean, she’s got a later flight, but she’s checking out colleges out west, too. Staying with me for a few days.”

“OK.”

“You sound like me,” she said. Smiled, awkwardly.

“I’ll see you tomorrow. And I’ll be there, Saturday, to see you off.”

“More time would have been nice.”

“I know…” I leaned down and met her lips for a kiss, still feeling that spark in the dark. “Still, I’ll settle for this.”

“I have to go in.”

“I have to get home.”

“You don’t have a car,” Leah said.

“I’ll walk… Same way I got here.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Yeah.”

We brought ourselves in for one more taste.

Made it last.

Broke away, and she turned to go in. Blew me a kiss, lips pursed and eyes smiling as she walked into the doorjamb. Bounced off, and looked back one last time. Laughed, and finally made her way through the door.

I stood there for a moment longer.

Turned and walked out onto the grass, blades folding beneath my feet. Positive I could feel them brushing against my skin, even through my shoes.

I gave the heavens their due. Eyes to the skies, smirking in the face of stars. I raised my fist and casually lifted my middle finger. Let it ride all the way up there.

“Ha-ha,” I whispered, afterglow of Leah’s kiss running its course. “I beat you guys. You hear that? I fucking beat you.”

I shoved my hands into pocket sockets and took the long way home.

Casually considering that I might, someday, pay dearly for this.

Only someday, though.

And only casually.

I was that certain this was all worth it.

***

I woke up at noon.

Wasn’t fully conscious, though, of what I was doing. Threw on a pair of pants. White tee and worn Converse. Walked out the door. Previous hints of yesterday’s paradise eradicated, today was an open-air sauna. By the time I’d turned onto Rosewood, my shirt was already wet static. Green glances sent to watered lawns, occasional stops to tie my shoes.

Pacing myself. Stretching the scene.

Wasn’t until I found myself at her front door that I realized what was about to happen.

Hey, Chloe, I might be in love with this girl.

Leah.

Maybe you had every right to be worried.

Wasn’t until the door opened, and I saw Chloe standing there, crutches stuffed under her arms, that I realized that I had actually knocked on the door.

“This is different,” she said.

I looked past her, into the living room.

Marvin was standing next to the sofa. Holding a glass of orange juice, backlit, light siphoned by full-length shutters along the living room windows.

I walked in, down the living room ramp.

“Marvin…” I briefly remembered my vampire mythology. “What are you doing here?”

“Wasn’t too hard…” He winked, hands in his pockets. Rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Cover to Cover gave me Chloe’s last name. Phonebook did the rest. I called a cab, which, by the way, was surprisingly expensive compared with New York –”

“Marvin –”

“Cleaned me right out. Still, best twenty bucks I’ve spent in a long time.”

“Spare me the theatrics, Marvin, which by the way, you’re not very good at –”

“Marvin told me about Leah,” Chloe said. She swung herself down the ramp and into the living room. Stood there, doing the best she could to cross her arms. Supernatural calm veiling her face. “Marvin came here to tell me about Leah.”

There was no panic to the situation. No frenzied synapses. Quiet dread left checked at the door. Sad relief that didn’t come without strings, pulled taut now that Marvin had taken matters into his own hands, robbed me of the chance to come clean.

“Well, Chloe…” I took a breath. “Don’t believe him.”

“Is that all you got, Lucky?” Marvin sneered. “Don’t believe him?”

“Don’t believe him,” I insisted, eyes trained on Chloe’s. “I don’t care if he tells you the sky is blue… Believe me.”

“OK….” Chloe held her palm out, stopping the buck right in its tracks. “Yes or no: You were out with Leah last night.”

“Yes.”

“True or false: You’ve been infatuated with Leah since you first saw her.”

“True.”

“Yes or no: You really do believe them when they say that Leah is your answer to this whole Rebecca Demarco nonsense.”

“Yes.”

“True or false, Lucky… Are you in love with her?”

“…I think so.”

Chloe hung her head just long enough to whip her hair back when she looked up. “I hate you, Lucky.”

“It’s what I came here to tell you.”

“Well… You certainly didn’t come to my fucking window.”

Over on Marvin’s side of the world, things weren’t playing out quite as he’d imagined. His grin had retreated to a puzzled smirk. Unprepared for how little this had to do with him. Angel of retribution, reduced to a mere cameo.

“Dead giveaway…” Marvin rolled his eyes. “When I told Leah you were his girlfriend, Lucky didn’t even blink.”

I don’t remember taking the steps to bridge the distance. Another jump-cut moment, missing frames replaced with saturated white, and suddenly it turns out I had punched Marvin in the face. More like an ineffectual pop; my arm didn’t know the difference between a right hook or a haymaker. Suddenly, Marvin was stumbling backwards. Eyes wide, hands over his mouth in a red soaked birdcall. Hit the easy chair, catapulted backwards, sprawling over the imitation leather and sliding onto the floor in the same motion. Propped himself up on the white rug, left hand leaving a pasty smear of his own negative.

I hadn’t felt the initial impact, fist to face. Felt an isolated ache between my knuckles. Localized pain, stepping on a shell while barefoot on sandy shore.

“Damn it, Lucky…” Chloe sighed, dutifully reaching for some napkins on the coffee table.

“And another thing,” I told Marvin. “When your host is on crutches with a busted ankle, you answer the goddamn door for her.”

“What the hell – ” Marvin groaned.

“Huh…” Chloe stared at the floor, dazed. Realizing what a chore bending over would be, paying little mind to the phone as it began to ring.“This is how you think this works.”

“You punched me, you asshole!” Marvin screeched. “You punched my face.”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t have to hit me!”

“Yeah, well…” I wiped my hands along my jeans to hide trembling adrenaline. “That’s how it happens, I guess.”

“Oh, well, you just really did it, Lucky.” Marvin lurched to his feet, fingerprinting the chair as he steadied himself. “You can forget about my help now, pal. You could get on your knees and beg for all I care, I wouldn’t hook you up with Rebecca Demarco now if your life depended on it.”

“You don’t get it Marvin,” I said. Saw him recoil slightly, as though I were about to hit him again. “I found Leah, now, I’ve got what I need, and I don’t need your help or anyone else’s.”

“Nice.” Chloe shut me down with that one syllable, eyes cold as she began to hobble past me. “That’s real nice, Lucky.”

I felt something catch in my throat. An apology, held fast by the sad truth that it wouldn’t make much of a difference. A thousand swollen thoughts squirmed beneath my skin, as the telephone continued to stab at us, punctuated with the corroded wheeze of Marvin’s breath.

I glanced in his direction, saw him trembling.

“I have asthma,” he whispered. Eyes watering from the effort of this random confession.

I imagined a more virtuous version of myself, reaching out to steady him. Could even hear the words building up to common ground: Shit, I’m sorry, Marvin. Seriously. Shouldn’t have done that, let’s talk this over like adults.

But then the answering machine chimed in and our day was only about to get worse.

Chloe?” Her mother’s voice crackled with raw nerves. “Chloe, honey, if you’re there, pick up, please. I’m at Pantheon Hospital. Your father’s had a… a relapse. He’s still in the ICU, and – ”

Chloe made a tiny noise, dying kitten. Snatched the phone, and I could hear the plastic clunk as she slammed it against her ear. “Mom, what happened?”

Marvin forgot all about me for a moment.

A little more reality than I had bargained for as well. Stomach seizing. graciously empty, little in there to come rushing back up.

“Yeah…” Chloe began to cry. Strictly from her eyes, sobs on hold as she struggled through her half. “Uh-huh… uh-huh… yeah… ok…” with each reply, her vocal chords tightened. Neck rippling, pallid caterpillar. “Yeah, I’m with Lucky… Yes, right away… Yes the parking lot across the…” A sob managed to break free. She caught hold of its friends before they could follow. “Across from the hospital… In the lobby, OK… I love you, too.”

She hung up.

When she turned back, you could see actual waves in her eyes. Backlog of tears. Face drained of consistency. She held her crutches against her hips, fists sinking into the soft foam surrounding the handles.

“My dad’s in the hospital,” she managed. “Alive, right now. But, I don’t know…”

The following minutes clocked in somewhere at fifteen seconds.

I rushed into the kitchen and snatched the keys off the counter. Doubled back and took Chloe’s crutches. I ordered her to hold onto the them as I swept her up in my arms and bolted for the front. Chloe was no Delta Burke, but then again, I was no Sly Stallone. My arms and back began to ache as I got hold of the knob, swung the door open and rushed her to the car. Set Chloe down, opened the passenger’s and helped her in, trying to avoid the catatonic wasteland of her eyes.

I closed the door, remembering something.

Many a marigold met their early demise as I cut through the garden, back into the house. Marvin was still stuck to the spot, head at a confused angle.

“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing hold of his arm.

“What’s going on?” he managed, popping a pill, slipping the prescription bottle into his jeans. Rattle in his lungs fading away. “Where are we going?”

“Chloe and I are going to the hospital, Marvin.” I slammed the door behind us. “Got no goddamn idea where you might be headed.”

I ran out to the car, opened the door and threw the crutches into the back seat.

“What the hell am I supposed to do?” Marvin called out. “I don’t even know where I am!”

“Don’t care.”

“You’ve got to at least give me a ride, you dick!”

“Yeah, that’s great.” I called back, closing the door and running around to the driver’s side. “Tell you what, Marvin: Why don’t you get down on your knees and beg me?”

I didn’t wait to see if he was willing.

Just jumped into the Volvo, got it started, and peeled into reverse. Felt the back bumper scrape against the asphalt as I hit the brakes. Put it into drive, and flattened the accelerator as Chloe finally began to sob, face buried deep in her hands.

Another banner day for Lucky Saurelius and Chloe Bloom.

***

By the time we stepped through the sliding doors, Chloe had exhausted her reserves. Eyes parched, nose bright red. Fatigued despair in place of hysteria as we made our way through the lobby.

High ceilings, enormous plants and sparkling fountains.

One last chance at denial for all visitors.

It never did the trick with anyone in Chloe’s family.

Hospitals were like a second language to them.

Jean was waiting by the front desk. Hands clasped together, fingers interwoven and resting near her diaphragm. I suppose some part of me expected her to be wearing all black, but this stood to little reason. Tan skirt brushing her ankles, transparent shawl hanging loose around her thin body. Open toed sandals, hair up in a disheveled bun of tangled curls.

Chloe met her in a rocking embrace. Mother’s head resting, glasses scratching along Chloe’s scalp.

I stood by, happy to be sidelined.

Chloe winced as they pulled apart, her hair caught in her mother’s earring.

Would’ve been worth a laugh on any other day.

Jean managed a weak smile. “Hey.”

“Mom, is he alright?”

“He’s stabilized, out of ICU.” She straightened her daughter’s hair, then sniffed. “It’s a start.”

“I was afraid.”

“Me too, baby…” Jean turned to me. “Hi, Lucky.”

I nodded. “Hey.”

“Thanks for bringing her. Fortunate for us, you were at the house.”

“Yeah.”

Into the elevators and heading to the eighth floor.

Jean led us along the corridors.

Nurses and interns floating by with hallucinatory poise.

We stopped at her father’s room.

“I’m going to look for Doctor Whitman,” Jean said. Checked Chloe’s bloodshot eyes. “Are you going to be alright here for a bit?”

Chloe nodded, and we were left standing on our own.

Just us and an abandoned crash cart, waiting to be put to some use.

The sound of footsteps signaled an approaching intern. Early twenties, jet-black hair hanging in his eyes as he leafed through pages on a clipboard. Glanced up, began to head our way. Features searching for a fit. Chloe had always described this concerned, uncertain expression of aspiring doctors. Seeing it for myself, I had to agree. The universal look of someone years from grasping the profession they had stepped into.

And Chloe was not in the mood.

“Good afternoon…” He introduced himself with a familiar, uncommitted sensitivity. “Can I help you?”

“Waiting for Doctor Whitman,” Chloe said.

“Doctor Whitman, yes. He’s around… I can go find him if you –”

“My mother’s gone looking for him, thanks.”

“Oh…” His eyes narrowed with an approaching connection. “Are you Chloe, Dean’s daughter?”

“Yes.”

“I heard you were coming in, do you need anything?”

“I’m just waiting for Doctor Whitman.”

“My name is John. I’m one of Dr. Whitman’s interns. I was here when they brought Dean in. Have a copy of his chart, right here…” Leafed, leafed, checked the pages. “Your father has stabilized, we’re not sure of his present condition as far as the effects of his episode. When multiple sclerosis attacks the fatty tissue around the axons, the Myelin sheath…. The breakdown, called demyelination, and the neuron axons, there are any number of possible –”

“What is wrong with you?”

“Sorry, I don’t understand –”

“Are you really going to stand there and lecture me on what MS is?” she asked, voice on the rise. “I know what the hell it is. My father’s had it for ten years now, I think I’ve got its MO pretty much figured out.”

I put my hand on Chloe’s shoulder.

Considering where she thought it had been, wasn’t too surprised to have it met with a vicious shrug.

“I’m sorry, I was –” John looked down at his chart, a hapless waiter. “Of course, you know –”

“Yes!” Chloe yelled. The hospital walls winced on behalf of recovering patients. “Of course I know. What, have you got an exam on this tomorrow? Going over your cheat sheet? Is this what it’s going to be like when one of your patients kicks off someday, you’re going to gather the family around and introduce them to medical technicalities of death?”

I didn’t hear Jean and Doctor Whitman running down the hall. Too busy figuring out how to get a hold of Chloe without actually touching her. Then Jean was pulling her daughter away, crutches clattering to the floor. I leaped to, scooped them up, while Doctor Whitman calmly sent John down the hall. By the time he rejoined, Chloe was more or less under control. Apologetic, even, but Doctor Whitman was an expert in the basics. Took the crutches out of my hands and let it all slide.

“Do you need anything, Chloe?” he asked. He scratched his beard, handed Chloe her crutches. “We can get you some aspirin, valium if you like.”

Chloe shook her head. “I’m all right. Sorry about –”

“We just had a bit of a problem,” I offered. “John was just trying –”

“It’s alright. Already been a long day for all of us.”

“Can I see him?” Chloe asked.

“You can… He hasn’t woken up yet, and might not for a while.”

Chloe didn’t even try to address it.

“Might not…” I stopped short. Started over, tried to return the favor with my own attempts at calm. “He’s not… Is this something he’s going to come out of?”

“He’s not comatose. It’s too early to tell if there’s an existing sleep-wake cycle, but he is responding to external stimuli. He’s been relapsing/remitting for a few years now, but as you know, we have to be patient before we find out if this recent attack has worsened –”

I took a hold of Chloe’s shoulders, and this time, she didn’t shrug me off.

Dr. Whitman cleared his throat. “You can stay with him through the rest of the day. Through the night, if you like. Just know that if he’s not awake by the time you are, it means little either way. It could be a long wait before we know anything, Chloe.”

Chloe swung her crutches one-eighty degrees, and lurched towards her father’s room.

She turned and looked at me. “Thank you, Lucky. But you can stay outside.”

Jean reached for the handle, pulled.

Chloe hung at the threshold.

“Go ahead, Chloe.” Jean put a gentle hand on her arm, then reached out to me. I took her hand, and she gave my fingers a feeble squeeze. “Thank you for getting her to the hospital, Lucky.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

“We could be here for a while –”

“Go ahead.”

The door shut behind them, and there couldn’t have been fewer ways for Chloe to prepare for what would be waiting on the other side.

***

The day didn’t pass as much as it simply went limp. Every hour or so, I would stretch my legs, walk to the closest window, only to find the sun right where I left it. The clouds overlooking West Campus might as well have been part of an expansive still life.

I was determined not to leave Chloe until her father’s condition improved. A little disgusted with myself that this required any kind of determination. Thoughts of Leah tainted what should have been silent prayers for Chloe and her whole family. I scratched the itch on several occasions, quarter in a nearby payphone. It was Leah’s last full day in Verona, and I wasn’t surprised to get voice mail on every try.

At around five in the afternoon, Chloe and her mother emerged from the room. No news, just a paternal mandate that it was time for lunch. Or dinner. Time to eat something, and Jean insisted I come along.

The meal turned out to be an unproductive one. My burger suffered two consecutive bites before defeating me, fries turning cold in their paper cup. Jean managed to make it halfway through her salad, while Chloe merely stared at her pizza. Soggy Frisbee of rubbery cheese. When she finally tried, the plastic wear did little to penetrate its forces. She continued to saw away. Frustrated surgery, paper plate sliding with enough force to knock her soda off the table.

I did the same, tipping my own drink to the floor in the only sign of solidarity I could manage.

The janitor glared at us as we left for the elevators.

Another shapeless stretch of time oozed by. Saw Chloe once, when they wheeled her father out of his room, then an hour later when they wheeled him back. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one taking notice of her disastrous state. Taking note of her red swollen eyes and chalky shades, the doctor gently insisted that she head home to get some rest.

Chloe’s submission to suggestion was just as worrisome.

“Then what?” she had asked.

“Relax.” Dr. Whitman told her.

“How?”

“Take a bath. Watch some TV, have a glass of wine.”

“I’m eighteen.”

Her mother settled things by offering to buy a bottle… “Let’s just get you home.”

Pit stop by the nearest Kroger.

Not too many shoppers at that hour; mostly grad students hauling cases of Natty Lite, a couple of women with waking infants, standing along a checkout belt littered with canned food and bottles of luminescent papaya.

We found the wine section, and Chloe’s mother asked her what kind of wine she liked.

Chloe pointed to random bottle of red.

“That’s a thirty-dollar bottle of Chianti, honey.”

“Is Chianti wine?” Chloe asked.

“From Italy, yes.”

“Well, then…”

The woman at checkout didn’t bother with a second glance. She scanned the item with routine indifference, added tax, gnarled fingers easily breaking a fifty down to a few of fives and some change.

Chloe’s mother walked us into the kitchen. She dutifully opened the bottle, and poured Chloe a glass.

“I’ll be at the hospital, honey, you just call if you – ”

Chloe threw her arms around her mother for a minute of crushing silence.

I observed silently from across the kitchen, watching them rock back and forth, eyes closed. Tears a glistening, genetic match.

Then Jean was gone.

The sound of her minivan starting up in the driveway, wheels crunching in reverse. Through the kitchen window, headlights briefly illuminating the trees before going dark.

Chloe and I were left alone with an empty house, darkened rooms. She sat at a stool by the oven, looking away, out into the den. I crossed my arms, felt the linoleum counter press against my back.

Crickets outside playing tag with their hind legs.

“How’s the wine?” I asked.

She picked up her glass, an oversized orb atop an elegant stem. “Haven’t tried any yet.”

“You want to watch TV?”

“No.”

“Want to take a bath?”

She shot me a dirty look, top lip curling in a disgusted sneer.

“Would you like to take a bath,” I specified. “Would you, yourself, on your own, consider taking a bath to help you relax –”

“I get it, thanks. And no thanks, I don’t want to take a bath.”

I let it go.

Chloe sighed, swirled the contents, holding it up to the sickly hue of the overhead stove light. She brought it close for a curious whiff. It didn’t kill her.

She sensed me staring. “I’m doing it, all right?”

Before I could defend myself, she was taking her first tentative sip. I saw her eyes widen as the wine touched her tongue, a sampling that quickly drained half the glass.

“Shit,” she whispered, awed and unable to stop herself from downing the rest.

She grabbed the bottle and poured herself another.

Picked up the glass, and peered down into the burgundy. “So, when is she leaving?”

“When is who leaving?” I asked, instantly regretting it.

“You know exactly who –”

“OK, yes, I do now…” I picked a glass from the dish strainer and poured myself some water. “She’s leaving tomorrow.”

“Back to Los Angeles for our counterfeit Demarco?”

“How did you know she was from –”

“Marvin told me… Remember Marvin, this morning?”

“A million years ago, you mean?”

“Yeah…”

“It was a shitty way to find out,” I said. “I was on my way to tell you this morning.”

“Huh…” Chloe took a hit of wine, wiped a loose droplet away with her hand. “What exactly were you planning to tell me?” She raised her hand before I could answer. “Never mind, please don’t tell me.”

“I know you’re upset,” I told her. “But I really don’t see why you feel the need to be upset with me.”

“Hey, ego-boy,” Chloe snapped. “My dad’s hooked up to a respirator with an IV drip hooked up to his arm. He’s dead to the world right now, what makes you think I even give a damn –”

“You’re an incredibly capable person Chloe, so it’s not as though you can’t be upset about two things at once. I’m crazy about your dad, and I’m still your best friend, so don’t act like I don’t care –”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Chloe, you were the one who decided, for the both of us, that I wasn’t being honest or sincere.”

“Oh, and I really blew the call on that one, didn’t I?”

“A little faith might have gone a long way, Chloe.”

“Sorry if I wasn’t supportive enough,” she said, sneering into her glass, words already a little unbalanced. “If I’d known you was a woman, I would’ve sent you some fucking chocolates.”

“Tomorrow.”

Chloe swallowed. Blinked. “What?”

“She’s leaving tomorrow, so… there’s your answer, if you still want it.”

The clock on the wall made it an even one in the morning.

“You’d better watch how deep you get with this girl, Lucky. She may not be Rebecca Demarco, but if she’s even remotely woven into this insane narrative your mind has created… you’re going to end up like everyone else you’ve dragged along with you on this idiotic journey.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“For now…”

I finished my water, set it down in the sink. “I’m going to make a phone call.”

“I’ll bet you are.”

“I’m here for you as far as your father goes,” I said, walking past without a glance in her direction. “But Leah is my business now, and I’m not going to let you treat this like it’s some meaningless…” I trailed off, standing at the entrance to the den. I quite literally ran out energy to argue any further.

“Go make your phone call,” Chloe said flatly.

I ducked into Chloe’s bed room. Sat down on the bed and dialed Leah’s number.

***

The voice on the other end was scratchy, tired. But it was hers.

“Leah, hey…” I drew my voice down to a respectful whisper. “It’s Lucky.”

“Hey…” I thought I heard a smile, faintly over the phone. “How’s Chloe doing?”

“OK, considering. Her dad’s not out of the woods yet.”

“I’m sorry I missed you.”

“I missed you, too.”

A bit of silence over the phone lines. “I heard you punched Marvin.”

“What time are you leaving tomorrow?”

“Round noon… Eastern standard time.”

“I don’t know if I can make it.”

“I understand.”

“I really… want to see you before you go. I feel like we had last night, and now it’s just goodbye.”

“I feel the same way.”

I sighed, aimed the phone away from my lips. Didn’t want her to hear.

“Amy’s coming with me to Los Angeles,” Leah said.

“Yeah.”

“Later flight… She’s taking a look at UCLA. She’ll be staying with me.”

“We’ve had this talk.”

“I know… I just didn’t want to have a new one until I had the chance to see you.”

“That’s – ”

From the kitchen, I heard Chloe’s crutches come crashing to the ground.

Followed by a shrill scream.

My grip on the phone tightened. “Shit. I have to go, Leah.”

“OK, see you tomorrow…”

Didn’t have time for the maybe game.

I hung up and went sprinting down the hallway, up the ramp to the den and into the kitchen. I found Chloe at the far end, hands on the sink. Crutches passed out on the floor, staring over the sink.

I dashed across the kitchen, socks sliding along the floor.

Took hold of her from behind.

Caught sight of a face floating beyond the window, eyes wide in the dark.

“I’m sorry!” he cried out, holding his hands up, a bunch of flowers clasped in his left fist. “I’m sorry, it’s me, John!”

Who!?

“It’s the intern, Chloe,” I managed. Hand velcroed over her chest, feral heartbeat through her shirt. “From the hospital –”

“John, the intern!” His voice was muffled, genuine desperation. “I’m the one helping Dr. Whitman with your dad, we met just this afternoon – ”

“What are you doing here?” Chloe yelled.

“I wanted to apologize!” Dogs barking out in the darkest corners of the block. “Your mother said I should stop by and see if you were doing all right, and she told me I should check the kitchen window before knocking. That if you weren’t in the kitchen, then you’d probably be asleep, and I didn’t mean to scare you, I just wanted –”

“Oh, Christ!” Chloe turned and headed for the back. Plodding along as though her ankle was just fine and dandy. I checked the bottle, a little over three-fourths empty. She mashed the garage button. Sound of the automatic door grinding its way along the ceiling shook the cabinets, as Chloe lumbered back to her seat. Breath labored, another pour of Chianti.

“It’s open!” she called out.

John appeared in the doorway. Cautiously filling the frame at six-one, broad build. Dark hair fell over his eyes in a tribute to his own ineptitude outside the hospital. Still dressed in aqua green scrubs, white sneakers shifting their weight from side to side.

“Were you raised in a barn?” Chloe barked. “Shut the door behind you, in or out!”

John hopped to, stood close to the refrigerator’s comforting girth.

“You scared the hell out of me,” Chloe informed him, wine glass sloshing just a bit. “You knock on the window before letting someone see that it’s actually you.”

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, cringing behind dying daisies, slouched over in shamed yellows. “Look, you just jumped out of your seat and ran for the window. I thought you were going to go clear through, I didn’t have time.”

“What’s with the flowers, doc?” I asked.

“He’s an intern,” Chloe corrected. “And maybe he can actually help me – hey, intern guy!”

“John.”

“Oh, sorry, I’m just being stupid,” Chloe blurted out, from outrage to misery, bypassing all other emotional landmarks. “I’ve just got my dad, you know? And Lucky’s got this Leah, so I don’t know. Maybe you’ve got a cure for that?”

John stepped forward with a timid shuffle and held the flowers out. “I thought I’d bring you some daisies…”

Chloe blinked.

I blinked along.

“I didn’t know if you liked daisies,” he said. “I actually don’t buy flowers very… ever. I know people like carnations, but I understand those are supposed to be romantic –” John shot me an assuring glance. “And I’m not here to be romantic, or put any moves on you or anything, if that’s what you –”

“Fuck that!” Chloe took a sip of wine. “Don’t even worry about stepping on any toes, there, John. Lucky is to boyfriend as Martin Van Buren is to break dancing.”

I moved to refill my water,

John couldn’t decide which of us to address.

Chose Chloe. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry if I didn’t do my job, because the last thing you need is some idiot with poor bedside manner making things worse. I’m supposed to be helping people. I’m supposed to be here for you, Chloe… And I am, and… I didn’t know what kind of flower says all that, but I decided maybe it’s daisies.”

I watched Chloe set her feet down and stand up.

The stool almost tilted back, then righted itself.

She gave into a moment of lucid honesty… “That’s pretty disarming, John.”

“I can put them in some water if you like.”

“Did you just get off work? At this hour?”

“I wanted to stay a bit later, look after your dad. I guess you could say they sent me home, too.”

Chloe walked over, reached for the flowers.

Her ankle gave way, and she pitched forward.

The daisies scattered to the floor as John caught her in his arms.

I continued to monitor from a distance. Chloe’s face mashed against John’s chest… “You’ve got some strong arms there, intern guy John.”

He managed to spin Chloe around, take hold of her from behind. “Easy. Easy there.”

“Your arms are way more in shape than Lucky’s.”

I unconsciously glanced down at my underdeveloped biceps.

“I see you’ve been drinking,” John observed.

“Doctor’s orders,” Chloe said, one of her eyes rolling back slightly. “So suck my dick.”

“You’re supposed to stop after a glass.”

“Didn’t take a bath either.”

“Alright, you’ve had enough…” John struggled with her rubbery limbs, threw me a look as if to ask what he should do. When I couldn’t think of anything, he asked. “How about some TV? Where’s your TV?”

Chloe gestured limply over to the den.

John swept Chloe off her feet, prompting a squeal that turned into a mess of giggles.

“You should be a romance novel cover thing,” she said, carried her into the den, body stretched out on the sofa. “Mm, I hate this. Drinking is for idiots. No fucking idea how my mom did this for so long.”

I moved to the doorway, watched as John tucked a blanket beneath her chin.

“Here.” John reached for the remote. “I’ll turn on the TV.”

Chloe repositioned herself on her back as the tube clicked on.

“Will you watch with me?” she asked.

Even through the hazy glow of a late-night slasher, I could see the unspoken answer in his eyes.

“You can sit close to me, Lucky,” she murmured, flipping back onto her stomach, eyes closed.

John turned to me… “I think she’s talking to you.”

I shrugged, tired. “I think you’ll do nicely, there, doc.”

Without waiting to see his reaction, I turned away.

Last thing I heard was John sliding down to sit against the sofa, Chloe whispering Thanks for the flowers.

My own movements were hardly as cautious. I trudged into the living room. Found my own blanket waiting for me on the couch. I wrapped myself nice and tight, and collapsed, eyes giving it one last go before closing. Head tumbling, body following, doing all I could to fight off thoughts of Leah as I flattened out into a mercifully unremarkable dream.

***

There’s times I tell it where John woke me up the next morning, and upon seeing this stranger standing over me, I screamed like a little girl, and fell face first onto the floor. On occasion, I also knocked over a potted plant, adding dirt and pebbles to an already ruined white rug.

In actuality, it had been one of those surface slumbers, easy ride into consciousness. I opened my eyes, saw John standing over me. Noticed morning sunlight. Noticed a quilted blanket bunched around my feet. One of my socks blue, the other red. I sat up without much thought, and rubbed my eyes.

“What time is it?” I asked.

“Nine-fifteen, I think. Wait…” He checked the pager hanging off his waistband. “Yeah, nine-twenty.”

I rose to my feet.

Standing side by side with John, I had to double check that I was, in fact, standing.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yeah, don’t be so nice…” I croaked. Coughed, cleared my throat. “I’m sorry, that was… be as nice as you want, you really helped Chloe last – Where’s Chloe, anyway? She all right?”

“Still sleeping.”

I headed to the kitchen. Noticed an open bag of gummy worms on the dining room table. Dean’s favorite junk food. Mine too, and I helped myself to a few multicolored nightcrawlers. “Shouldn’t you be at work, doc?”

“I was just headed there…” Johns eyes landed on the easy chair. “Who’s blood is that?”

“Nobody important.”

“I just got a page from Doctor Whitman.”

I paused. Half a worm hanging out of my mouth. I forced the rest in, chewed with great difficulty and swallowed. “And?”

“He’s out of the woods. He’s awake, and all signs, so far, point to… well, opposite of the worst.”

I closed my eyes, sighed. “OK.”

“Anyway, I didn’t want to wake Chloe myself…” John checked his pager again. “Seeing as how I almost sent her into cardiac arrest last night. Thought you should do it. Get her up, and we can all head to the hospital. See him back into the land of the living, as it were.”

“Did you say it was nine-twenty?”

Another check of the pager. “Nine twenty-three, now.”

I nodded. “I’ll catch up with you guys later.”

My shoes were in the kitchen. Took a few tip-toes towards the den, and peeked in. Chloe was sleeping on the couch, snoring quietly. The television was still on, inexplicably tuned to a Spanish soap opera.

“Lucky, you sure?” John whispered from the kitchen.

I shuffled to the sink, poured myself some water. “Yeah, John. I’ve got something to take care of.”

“Need a ride?” he asked. “We can wake Chloe up, and I can drop you –”

“It’s OK. You go ahead and tell her the good news.”

“I think maybe you –”

“It’s all right,” I assured him, wondering which one of us was the elder statesman. “Trust me, if you didn’t notice last night, she’s… perfectly fine with the idea of you right now.”

I headed for the back door, opened it.

“OK, then,” John called after me in a whisper. “I’ll see you at the hospital, then.”

I flashed him a dismissive peace symbol, and closed the door behind me.

Left through the garage, and began to walk home.

And when I got there, I continued to walk on by, heading for Pantheon’s East Campus.

***

I refused to run. It would have been tantamount to panic. I kept it to a brisk walk. Lungs struggling against the soup as I kept Leah’s face in front of me. Sweat collecting in crevices previously undiscovered. Marched on.

It was an hour’s walk to the quad. A squadron of vans were already lined up along the lawn, devouring TIP kids as they stood around like baby transients, bags littered about their feet. Hugging each other with heartfelt goodbyes, scraps of scrawled phone numbers exchanged in hopes of stretching two weeks into a lifetime of unchained friendship.

Blazing reflections had me holding a hand up above my eyes as I approached. Hardly able to distinguish Basil’s imposing frame as he strode towards me. Couldn’t make out his features just then, but if I could have, my smile would’ve died in a midair collision.

“Basil…” My throat was dry from the hike. “Glad I got the chance to see you!”

“Yeah, me too, Lucky,” he said, glancing around. “Here’s the thing: you can’t be here right now.”

“Basil?”

“Yeah, Lucky. I’m sorry, but you have to go.”

“I was kind of hoping I could catch a ride to the airport.”

“Lucky, you punched Marvin in the face,” Basil hissed, drawing close. “Whether or not the kid had it coming is not for me to say, and neither here nor there. You punched one of my kids, and he put Pantheon on our ass… and on your bosses, I might add.”

“Bruce and Dan?”

“That’s right.”

Shit. “Shit, I’m sorry Basil.”

“Don’t be sorry, just… Shit, I’m sorry, Lucky…” Basil dug into his pocket, handed me a twenty. “Grab a cab, would you?”

“Yeah,” I replied. Stuck with his back as he returned to the vans. “Thank you.”

Muttered the words to myself one last time, as the departed fought to extend their goodbyes, certain they’d all meet again.

Another place. Another time.

***

Hadn’t even considered how I would be getting back home. Shelled out Basil’s twenty, let the cabbie keep the change. Not being a clairvoyant, I let the car take off, engine echoing below the overpass. No escaping the heat, even in the shade outside baggage claim. Trapped exhaust of shuttle buses, taxis, and emancipated travelers plowing the cement with their tiny carts.

And then there was Amy Button.

Leaping off a bench, rushing me. Wide grin, hair limp along her forehead. Sunburst freckles dancing as she rocked me in a massive bear hug.

“Hey, there, sailor…” I wrapped her in bones and elbows. “Easy now.”

She grabbed my face with both hands. “Is Chloe OK?”

“Yeah… Her dad’s out of the woods.”

“Leah was sad to miss you.”

“Leah was sad to miss me?”

“Yeah, Lucky. Her plane took off just a little while ago.”

I saw the bench beckon, took a seat.

Amy joined me, omnipresent PA announcing schedules, departures.

Late arrivals.

She lit a cigarette. “You all right?”

I nodded, sound of an overhead jet going Doppler.

“You were wrong about me,” I said.

“I’m not sure I’m ever wrong about anything, or what you’re talking about.” Amy took a drag, put her hand on mine. “You’re just coming down off your high.”

“So you know how it went down between us. Leah and me.”

“Early reviews are positive.”

“Early reviews?”

“Well, it’s over for now, Lucky.” She placed her chin on my shoulder and spoke softly into my ear. Melodies swaying. “She goes back to Los Angeles, you stay here. There’s plenty of time for both of you.”

“Feels… unresolved.”

“What feels unresolved?”

“You going to be staying with Leah for a couple of days?”

Amy nodded, chin grinding against a sore spot. “Yeah.”

“Don’t let her forget about me.”

“You play your cards right, and she won’t… You know she won’t.”

I rubbed my head against Amy’s.

She nuzzled close. Put an arm around my waist and held on.

All along the sidewalk, couples and departing families joined in with their own interpretations.

A burst of feedback from the speakers warmed us up for the announcement.

“Looks like you’ve got a plane to catch,” I told her.

Amy dropped her cigarette, showed it the bottom of her sandal. “Walk me to the gate?”

The two of us headed into the airport hand in hand. Up an escalator. Through security, times that still permitted random visitors to float through the metal detectors. Walked past overpriced boutiques, terminal bars, windows to the outside transformed into cinematic screeds, the never-ending schedule of departure.

Made it to the C-24.

“Time to go,” Amy said.

“It’s not like you’re the one flying the plane.”

“Someday,” Amy said, then reached into her bag. “I’ve got something for you.”

From the green satchel came an envelope. Sealed and taped, nothing but the word LUCKY written across the front in flowing cursive.

I contemplated each letter. “So who’s this for?”

“Leah is waiting for you,” Amy said. She stood on her toes, gave me a kiss, and turned to take her place. Turned to wave once last time before making it official. Handed her ticket to the attendant. I could hear it tear along the perforated line, and then Amy was gone.

I wandered up to the window. Leaned my head against the glass and kept watch on the plane. Scanning the windows with childish hope. Another body in a lineup of farewells, parents crouched with children, pointing, no question there was someone on that plane who would someday come back to them.

Leah’s letter weighed heavy in my hand, and I could feel a heartbeat from somewhere inside.

The 747 pulled away from the gate.

I turned away.

Back through a set of glass doors leading past security. Fingers working along the edges of the envelope, as I headed towards the escalators. One leading down to baggage claim and transportation, the other up towards ticketing.

I hummed a random tune, mindless progression.

Ripped the envelope open.

Reckless extraction, lucky to still have the letter intact, and from the folds, something small fluttered down to the ground.

I kneeled down. Stayed there, staring into Leah’s eyes, a wallet-sized school picture. Setting her against the artificial backdrop of a storybook sky. Stuck in a moment, doing what she could to look comfortable, despite that rickety stool and a professional request to Come on, give us a smile.

I unfolded her letter and began to read. A single page of handsome cursive, purple loops lifting me slowly to my feet. Leah’s voice coming alive, compiled, telling me more than I ever expected to know.

 

Dear Lucky,

I’ve been working on this letter since the moment I met you.

Or maybe since before.

That’s the thing about coincidence. We only categorize it when we see it. If you are walking down the street, and you run into a friend you haven’t seen in years, that’s most certainly a coincidence. But what if, before hitting that corner, you stop and tie your shoe. Then your friend walks right past you. But it’s still coincidence, isn’t it? You were both on the same block, occupying the same space, same moment. The difference is that neither one of you will ever know it.

I didn’t know how to tell you. Maybe I was afraid.

This is not the first time I’ve seen you.

I was there in Florida. In Miami. I was on vacation with my family, and I bought tickets to see Hex at the Film Festival. I saw you on stage, I heard your story. To think of all the things that might have been different if I hadn’t left to use the bathroom. I’m smiling as I write this, because they wouldn’t let me back in. And what next? My parents dragged me off to meet a relative before the doors opened. And so, you and I became another coincidence that never happened.

Until I finally met you.

It was you.

Because of you, I walked into the doorjamb.

Soon I will be going back home. I think it’s good that we can spend some time getting to know each other without my face getting in the way. After all, you’ve got your own story to follow.

Am I Leah or Rebecca Demarco?

Who do you think coincidence belongs to?

I’m not sure anyone can claim to ownership, and so I can comfort myself when I say that I can’t wait to for your call. I want to hear your voice over the phone, I want to read letters. I want to know everything that happens to you. I don’t know what any of this means, you and me. Only that this is miraculous. Miraculous and frightening.

I’m not sure what I love you means, so please don’t be mad I never said it.

Please don’t forget about me.

Yours always,

Leah

 

I folded the letter and tucked it into my pocket.

Back on my own two feet, very much where I was supposed to be.

Moments like these that feed off the split second, murder second thoughts in their footsteps.

I took the escalator up towards ticketing.

Picked a line. Took my place amongst impatient passengers. Singles and couples, entire families all weighed down with the baggage that comes with making a plan. I went along with it, already thinking I should stop by the a gift shop and buy a new shirt.

“Sir, I can help you over here…”

I looked down at the row of monitors and industrial scales. Caught the wave of an awaiting attendant, motioning for me to step up. Made my way over, striding with all certainty as I reached into my pocket and withdrew my driver’s license.

And if I’d had a drink and a few years hindsight, I would’ve most certainly raised my glass in honor of the ridiculous, stupid, selfish things we all do.

But I had neither, and that drink would have to wait. Future on hold, shelved in a cool, dry place where the unimagined prowls, and endeavor slowly turns into regret.

I slapped my photo ID on the counter and set the ball rolling:

“Put me on your next flight to Los Angeles, please.”

The attendant did as she was told, and I put all five hundred, thirty-six dollars on the card.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

2:15 am.

 

And it’s strange how, in the wake of such unforgiving memories, Lucky and James find themselves out on the floor. Each one with their arms around women they’ve only just met, swaying rhythmically to Inner Circle. Pop-Reggae plucked fresh from the early nineteen-nineties.

Especially strange for the likes of James. His arms are pressed flat against the hips of a woman named Sky, a full-figured Dominican from Bed-Stuy. He marvels at her smile, brown curls flying as she swings her head to the music. Her hands press against his chest, move up around his neck. It hardly matters that she’s leading, there’s no doubt he wouldn’t know what to do just otherwise.

He catches sight of Lucky, hot in the arms of woman named Trinity. A bit more in tune to his surroundings, confidently moving his hands across her back, down below her waist, along her thighs then back up to her thick, jet-black hair. Lips lopsided. Smiling sideways and onwards.

Five other couples are also punishing the dance floor in a spontaneous late-night celebration. Some with several months, several years together. Others with less than a few drunken minutes worth of foreplay to show for such a display of trust. The music keeps them moving. Secrets revealed, spectators taking part without knowing, by simple merit of wild catcalls and scattered applause.

This is not a step towards reparation.

This is not an example of blissful relapse.

This isn’t even a momentary ceasefire between Lucky and James.

It is an effective sleight of hand.

Another one of Creole Nights’ strange fluctuations.

Everyone going about their individual business, when suddenly, all minds pick up on a single passing thread.

And Lucky has no illusions about such moments underground.

Familiar with these anomalies.

Only to have such wondrous intermissions end with those final notes.

Everyone applauding themselves on having found their way down into the depths of Creole Nights, if only to experience that moment.

Sky gives James a warm kiss on the neck and leaves to join her friend.

Leaving Lucky and James back in their seats.

That was amazing!” James exclaims, wiping the sweat from his face. “I’m getting us another drink!”

Lucky has his own tradition, and apparently, it involves settling right back into whatever state he was in before the tectonic shift took place. Picks up his Jack Daniels, as James slams his beer against it in a fervent toast.

You’re something else, Lucky.” James takes two swallows of his Red Stripe, neck working like an oil rig. The bottle comes away from his lips with a sloppy pop. “Man. Nice.

It was both of us dancing out there, James,” Lucky says, sipping his Jack. “You as much as me.”

I’m talking about you and Los Angeles. This is what we do, isn’t it? Pick up where we once left off, charging ahead into the unknown?”

The very well known.”

Come on! What you did, getting onto a flight from Verona to LA?” James turns to Zephyr, who is pouring Lemon Drops into dwarfish shot glasses. “Is Lucky just not the craziest bastard you’ve ever met?”

Oh, yes,” Zephyr agrees calmly. “He belongs down here with us.”

Class act!” James cries out, slowly finding his way back to calmer depths. The beer and mad rush of hormones has temporarily blinded him to the first moments of meeting lucky. Forgotten, for the moment, that nobody drinks the way Lucky does without having made some colossal mistake somewhere in his past. But for the moment, as far as James is concerned, there is nothing to suggest that what Lucky has been leading up to could result in anything other than a happy ending. “That was the thing to do, Lucky. Getting on that flight, that was the thing to do.”

Lucky lights a cigarette. “Think so?”

How couldn’t it be? Isn’t that what always does it? Like in the movies. The guy always goes after the girl, runs to the gate to catch a plane. Gets to her just in time before she marries the total creep –”

What total creep?”

There’s always a creep. Who was it in this case? Was it Adam? She said she had a boyfriend named Adam, was that what –”

You want to hear something interesting?”

James sobers up suddenly. Rests his ass back on the seat, holding onto his beer. “Yeah, what?”

In my brief time at film school, I took a class or two on film theory. Bunch of nonsense, mostly. It’s what film geeks turn to when they discover they have no real sense of craft. But sometimes, there’s an interesting bit of information to be found, and this is one of them… so listen carefully.”

James begins to pout, unhappy with this return to business as usual. “Listening, master.”

Take romantic comedies… specifically, American romantic comedies. Always the same thing, never really straying from the script. It’s the four-bar blues of American filmmaking, minus the grief, marvel, or honesty. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy. Some relatively surmountable obstacle comes along, is inevitably surmounted… and, of course, we’re all familiar with the happy ending, so… The question presented is: if romantic comedies are so ludicrously bland, so painfully predictable, why is it that legions of people always return to see the next one? Week after week, without fail, usually for the rest of their lives… Why is that?”

I just figure it’s because you’re the only smart person left on the planet, Lucky.”

Well, most people have always insisted that romantic comedies are a kind of comfort food,” Lucky explains, sidesteps. “That it’s warm and uplifting to step into a world of stenciled romance and perfect storybook endings. But then again, there’s good reason to believe that the opposite is true. See, somewhere, deep down, in the regularly decaying part of the American psyche that can still tell the difference between real and reel, people know it’s all a sham. The perfect person doesn’t come along, conflicts are irreconcilable, and the rest of our lives turn out to be far longer than two hours on screen… There really are very few happy endings. But even those who admit they know the difference are never really aware of what their subconscious is whispering. And it is this particular cinematic experience that has ultimately left them unsatisfied. Because no matter how swept away they are by the ideal romance, at day’s end, people crave a real resolution. One that doesn’t cheat them out of their own experiences on this side of the celluloid. And it is this complete and total disillusionment with the fluff they see onscreen… this is what keeps bringing people back to the next romantic comedy, and the next, and the next. Every movie is just a continuation of the last one, and they keep coming back. Waiting. Sitting in a dark theater and secretly hoping that this time, they will finally be given a significant, meaningful ending…”

Lucky helps himself to a drink.

James stares at him, feeling the condensation sliding beneath his fingers.

From far away, he hears the call of a woman’s voice. “Bye-bye, Lucky!”

James turns to see Sky and Trinity at the door. Both of them with arms raised above their heads, wrists pointed down as though they’d just executed a perfect three point. Fingers wiggling in a coquettish goodbye.

He absently raises his own hand, heart dropping as they walk out the door.

Supple so-longs working their way up the steps and out of his life.

James turns by to see Lucky french kissing his drink, unaffected.

Hey, Lucky.”

Lucky turns, smiling with just the right caliber to get James fuming. “Yes?”

You’re really fucked up, you know that?”

Lucky considers this. Puts down his drink and crosses his arms. “You want to hear why?”

Zephyr approaches them and crosses his arms.

The gatekeeper, always smiling, always one step to the left of rank and file.

Nothing for now, Zephyr,” Lucky says.

Zephyr nods and resumes his duties.

Lucky tugs at his earlobe and sighs. “You’re from Los Angeles, right, James?”

Yeah.”

You ever been to a club in The Valley? Place called The Venue?”

James shakes his head.

Doesn’t matter,” Lucky pronounces, shaking his head.

James grabs hold of his drink, horrified at the notion that Lucky might be right, and that none of this does.

***

The fact that Leah was home when I came knocking was the last in what I had considered to be a long line of happy coincidences.

Count it.

One: an available seat on the next flight to Los Angeles, no more than three and a half hours after Leah’s plane took off. Two: solid connection in Chicago’s O’Hare. Three: a friendly tailwind shaving fifteen minutes off our estimated arrival time. Four: a friendly drunk businessman sitting next to me, so taken by my story, and so pleased to find that he lived not a mile away from Leah’s home, that he offered to share his cab upon arrival. Five, and furthermore: LA’s notoriously constipated traffic was experiencing a rare evening of easygoing green, lights guiding me with Zen precision to Leah’s house in the hills just as the sun was turning orange in the sky.

And, yes, bless my lucky stars, Leah was home.

Six: answering the door with a jubilant fanfare I felt could be meant only for me.

Her wide smile inverted. Almost instantly, puckered tip of a pyramid. A numbing awe barely held in check by a hand to her chest. Eyes mentioning that maybe I’d best be clutching at my own heart, too.

All replaced at an instant with nothing more than confusion. “Lucky!”

“Hey… I was just hanging around outside your house and I thought I’d drop in…”

“What are you doing here?”

The audacity of my romantic ambush kept me running. “I’m here to see you… And Amy, too. Is Amy around?”

“She’s here.”

“It’s good to see you.”

Leah laughed with a nervous glance down the hallway. “You too, but… Come in, there’s a bunch of us hanging out inside.”

She led me through the living room, her bare feet gliding over white carpet and into a sunken living room, decked out in modernist black and gray. Floor-to-ceiling windows looking east over the entire San Fernando Valley. Large leather couches colonized by a group of teenagers, drinking cheap 40s with dour, underage lips.

Only one face in the crowd showing any interest in my entrance.

“Lucky?”

“Hey, Amy.”

Amy stood up from her seat. Rushed towards me with a keen desperation. Wrapped her arms around me, proclaiming how good it was to see me. Abrasively over the top, thrashed my body about in her embrace, and whispered frantically: “Lucky, do exactly what I tell you.”

She broke away with one arm still wrapped around my waist.

“Everybody, this is Lucky.”

The teenagers looked up from their beers and welcomed me with disinterested hellos.

Leah stood by, jeans stuffed with both hands.

“Lucky,” Amy fawned. “You have got to come down and see my room.”

I went right along for the ride.

My arm jostled in its socket as Amy yanked me along another hallway, then down a set of stairs. Our hurried footsteps rattled the guardrail, and we emerged into a den remarkably similar to the upstairs living room. Two couches, glass coffee table, rear-projection TV complete with laser disk and surround sound. A black-speckled granite-topped bar rested in the corner, glasses and bottles of liquor all bored and ignored.

Glass doors lead out to a wide white concrete balcony.

“Nice digs,” I said. Dropped my imaginary bags.

Amy made it across the room. About faced, got halfway back to where I was standing before popping the question of the day: “Lucky what are you doing here?”

I balked… “Had to do it, Amy.”

“Lucky, this isn’t where you’re supposed to be.”

Not a single compliment on how marvelously I was adjusting to my surroundings. No points, ten out of ten for style, no suggestion that this was possibly the most daring thing anyone had ever done in the noble quest of love.

“Amy?” I took myself down a few pegs. “What’s going on, you’re not… Is something wrong? I thought you’d be happy to see me. I thought Leah –”

“I’m happy, sure. Happy, confused, but also… Lucky, things are different here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You got this West Coast time, I’m hip.”

“Lucky, one of those kids up there is Leah’s boyfriend.”

“Well, sure… Adam. He’s got no penis.”

“Lucky –”

“Look, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t come back to sweep Leah off her feet, but –”

“That’s going to be interesting, considering that in the past hour or so, you’ve become my boyfriend.”

I blinked. “Oh?”

Amy sighed. She crossed over to the bar, perched on a stool. Elbow on the spotless surface, head resting against her fist. “Adam picked us up. I didn’t know about him, and I mentioned you, and Adam asked about it, and, well… suddenly you were my boyfriend. Leah told him you were my boyfriend.”

“Do they realize you’re gay?”

“I don’t think they realize much of anything.”

“Huh…” I took it all in with a gumshoe’s unruffled calm. Walked over to the glass doors, hands behind my back. Turning back to Amy, as though ready to proclaim the butler did it. “Leah said I was your boyfriend?”

“As though she meant it, Lucky.” Amy let out another sigh, and I noticed how tired she looked. Drained. “This is a strange place. Leah’s acting different, ever since we got into the city.”

“Well, that’s not Leah,” I said. “That’s Leah in LA, that’s not who she really is.”

“Then there’s always the opposite conclusion –”

“It’s not her.”

“Lucky –”

“It’s not Leah.”

The light from outside was all that was left. Barely enough to make shadows. Orange lampposts dotting far-off streets, flaming match tips that did little to illuminate.

“I’m in love with her, Amy…”

I didn’t need to see her face. “You’ve only known her for a few weeks.”

“That’s as meaningless as it is correct,” I told her, words feeling their way around dark corners. “I love Leah. I came here to make good on that, and I’m not just mouthing off. I don’t care that I’m wading into the Pacific, I don’t care that I’m not welcome. I don’t care whether Adam’s got his own goddamn star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I don’t care if I have to turn Leah’s world upside down to win her affection, this is why I’m here…”

Amy nodded, motions dulled by surrounding shadows.

She stood up and walked over, took my hands in hers.

“All right, Lucky…” She gave me hug. “All right, I’m with you.”

I held her close, kissed her temple. “Thank you.”

“These kids are self-assured pricks, Lucky,” Amy said, pulling away. “They’re privileged, jaded. I don’t like to talk shit, but I’d go so far as to say, yes, malevolent. It’s not that they don’t want you here, it’s that they don’t care…”

“So I’m playing to a hostile crowd tonight?”

Amy gave a wicked grin, and it was good to be back in business. She led me to the base of the stairs. Craned her neck up. Checking to see that the door was still open. She held up her finger, and closed her eyes.

“Mm,” she murmured. “Mm…”

I frowned. “Uh, Amy, what –”

Amy stressed her finger again, kept those eyes closed as she continued to murmur. Murmurs that grew increasingly louder, from scattered hums to flat-out moans, round-mouthed syllables of pleasure. I watched as Amy built upon her cries of delight, faking her way through the clutches of gruesome ecstasy. Sweating from the effort, an absurd grin on her face as she began to scream out my name over and over…

“LUCKY! YES, LUCKY! GOD, YES, LUCKY, YEAH!”

It was better than sneaking into an R-rated movie at the tender age of eleven as Amy’s climax reached its peak, jumping on the couch, fists slamming against the portly, luxurious cushions, over and over, like a rabid chimp.

All topped with one final, fading wail of pure delight, as she sunk into the plush ocean of a falsified afterglow. Letting the silence draw itself out.

I remained rooted to the spot.

Crazed by what I had just witnessed, before finally managing to say…“I was great.”

Amy motioned for me to come over.

Drew me close, tousled my hair and whispered… “Now they care, my dear, sweet idiot.”

We emerged from the stairs arm in arm.

Met with an onslaught of snide and suggestive remarks from the guys.

Giggles and fleeting glances from the girls.

All antagonism doing little to cover the fact that they were now paying attention.

And Leah was welded to her seat, stiff as a board. Side by side with Adam who, from the looks of it, didn’t exactly feel like joining in. Eyes uncomfortable, shifting around in his baggy jeans and Gotcha t-shirt. Pale face with just a touch of color matching his buzzed, coppery hair.

“So,” I went ahead with a cool glance at every last face “What do you kids do around here for fun?”

***

Two designated drivers, two rides into the heart of The Valley.

Amy and I ended up in Adam’s BMW, crammed in the back along with two other teenagers. Leah took the girlfriend’s non-negotiable post. Shotgun, staring out the window. We snaked our way out of the hills, narrowed along block after block of single-story housing, stores, and gas stations.

A desert cold blew in through the sun roof, tasted dry and lonely.

To be fair, Adam seemed to be the exception to the rule, and I thought I’d offer an olive branch: “This is a nice ride, Adam.”

“Thanks, Lucky.”

“What do you drive, Lucky?” one of the others asked.

“I don’t own a car.”

“Do you even have cars in North Carolina?”

“Just one. Carpooling’s a real bitch.”

I heard Adam stifle a laugh.

A scoff from nearby. “Whatever, man.”

Amy nudged me.

Sent me a wink.

I winked back.

We parked a few blocks away from The Venue. Met up with the rest of Leah’s crew. Amy whispered for me to make a pit stop for some smokes. Didn’t question the puppetmaster. Made the announcement. Instant truce, most all of them slipping fivers, murmuring brand names, eyes shifty. Fresh reminders that Leah was only fifteen, her friends probably only one or two years off. I gave them knowing nods, all my assurances. All under Leah’s confused watch.

“You want anything, Adam?” I volunteered.

“No thanks,” Adam said, arm in arm with his girl. “Thanks, though.”

I had been wishing for the kind of loathsome rival found in most romantic comedies. Gruff, abrasive. Two-timing reptile who, for some reason, the smart, beautiful object of affection couldn’t quite see for the creep he really was.

“Sure thing, Adam,” I said with a wind-up smile. “Any time.”

I moseyed on into the gas station, showed some ID.

I returned to the rest with a brown paper bag, chock full of cancer sticks. Set about distributing the wealth. Gave Amy her share, and pocketed a pack for myself to ensure authenticity.

They all lit up as we stood in line.

Got the underage stamp, but oh well. Most of them were tanked before departure, and I was a teenage teetotaler, so add that to the list of once upon a time.

The Venue was hardly packed at this early hour. All-ages show, but dark red lights, blending with clouded yellows, made it difficult to tell where the median lay. Bored loners leaned passively against concrete walls, while large groups sat along the crescent arrangement of tables cradling the stage. A dirty-looking garage band was playing some unforgivable cover of some present-day hit that should have never seen the Billboards to begin with. Lyrics lost to amateur sound checks, but nobody was there to watch the show.

Blessings from heaven, the band wrapped up their set as our group located a table. I headed to the bar with Amy’s request. A mix tape playing at lower levels. Mellow, obliging. Allowing me the opportunity to put in my drink order with the bartender. I turned to get a better look around, and found myself face to face with enormous eyes, worried sutures lining her ample forehead.

“Hey, Leah…” I motioned with my head for her to slide in next to me. “Want a drink?”

“Sure,” she said with little or no interest in the favor. Squeezed in. “What are you doing here?”

“Adam drove us.”

“I mean, what are you doing in Los Angeles?”

“You had so many nice things to say about this place, I just had to see for my –”

“Lucky –”

“I came to see you.”

Hardly a revelation. Still, hearing it seemed to knock the breath out of her.

To her left, a disembodied voice spoke up: “Hey, aren’t you the Ghost Girl – ”

“I’m not her,” Leah said. Didn’t bother to even address her mistaken admirer. “I thought you had some things going on in North Carolina.”

“Yes. Well. I made a choice.”

The bartender arrived with my coke. Held up two fingers, wondering if maybe the lady…

I got Leah the same thing in a diet.

“And what’s going on with you and Amy?” Leah asked.

“You’re the one told everybody she’s my girlfriend.”

“Your name was coming up too much – ”

I smiled. “Neat.”

“– and you know I have a boyfriend here…”

“I like Adam.”

“I told you I had a –”

“Didn’t seem to matter back in Verona.”

Leah’s expression didn’t change. “This is Los Angeles.”

“And what am I doing in Los Angeles is the thing, right?”

“You came to see me.”

I nodded and the bartender brought Leah her drink. I paid for all three, didn’t ask for change. Handed Leah her diet coke… “I’m doing in Los Angeles whatever it is I’m doing here. And while I’m sure that’s not the world’s most concise answer, it remains true. And I’m not here to stop you from what it is you do, I’m not here to change your life. Let’s just both keep on doing what we’re doing.”

I knew we were just a couple of teenagers, but if only I had been aware of it. If only I had granted even the slightest respect to how little I really knew about anything. Instead, I picked up my drink and, with Leah following close behind, went to join the rest.

***

I sat quietly for the next half hour, taking secret measurements of Leah’s friends. Let the conversation go where it had to, nodding politely. Answering questions every now and then. Keeping things precise. No showboating. Amy took care of that aspect, hung her leg over mine, memory of our fake basement tryst in doing fine for the moment. Another band took the stage, did their bit to send Brahms rolling in his grave. Ended their set to lukewarm applause. With the next wave of recorded music, the conversation turned to the subject of ice breakers, pick-up lines. The delicate dance of chatting up complete strangers.

“How about this one,” one of the kids slurred. He’d snuck in a pint of vodka, done some mixing below the table for him and his buddies. “Baby…” He laughed under the weight of his own genius. Held up a finger and tried again. “Baby… if I could rewrite the alphabet, I’d put ‘U’ and ‘I’ right next to each other.”

Amid the mix of groans and laughter, I felt Amy’s elbow in my ribs.

“You know what she’d tell you right after that?” I asked.

Everyone turned to me, varied between shrugs and shakes of the head.

“She’d say, I don’t need to rewrite the alphabet to tell you that ‘N’ and ‘O’ are doing just fine side by side.”

There was an instant and explosive reaction from the group. Molotov cocktail of laughter and sour grapes. Some were drunk enough to give me my due, payable in high-fives. Others prepared to do battle with the interloper.

“How about this one?” Someone else piped up. He leaned back in his chair… “Hey baby…” He pointed to his left knee: “This is Thanksgiving.” Pointed to his right knee: “This is Easter.” He spread his legs and pointed to his crotch: “Why don’t you come see me between the holidays?”

He gave me a defiant looks, adorned with hoots and belching hollers.

“I’d love to, except…” I pointed between his legs. “Between Thanksgiving and Easter lies the shortest night of the year.”

Another batch of hyenas sent temperatures rising, at which point Leah leaned forward. Chin resting in the palm of her hand, smile of someone who’s paid the heavyweight champ to take a dive in the third.

“And what do you have for me?” I asked, raising my eyebrow.

“Nothing,” Leah said offhandedly. “I was just wondering what you had for me, Lucky.”

“Yeah, Lucky!” came the cries of the angry and amused. “Come on, Lucky!”

“I don’t have anything for you, Leah,” I replied coolly, mind racing.

“You can take it, but you can’t dish it.”

“Lucky can dish it just fine,” Amy announced. Sultry undertones that jammed everyone’s circuits. She put out her cigarette, took her leg off mine. “The problem is, Lucky knows Leah. And Lucky doesn’t need that handicap.”

Not a lot of believers sitting at that table, and Amy cut off the ensuing buzz with a sweeping gesture. She turned to me, ruffled my hair. “Lucky, show them the one.”

“The one?” I looked mildly insulted.

“Oh, come on…” She smiled slyly, leaned over and whispered a rapid set of instructions. What little I needed, before she leaned back in her seat with a seductive look… “That one, baby.”

I shifted in my seat to better address the mob. “Well, I guess this little number isn’t really a pick-up line. But when done properly, it’s a hell of a lot better than a simple one-liner.”

“I don’t get it,” someone burped.

“I haven’t done anything yet…” I leaned back in my seat and scanned the bar. “Someone give me a girl’s name. An average, off the rack, all-American name. Go.”

“Pamela!”

“Claire Danes!”

“The chick from No Doubt!”

“Jennifer Love Hewitt!”

“All right,” I said. Interrupted, fires raging. “Jenny…”

I took a breath.

Time to see if this would actually work.

“JENNY!” I sent the name across the room. “Hey JENNY!”

My vision fishtailed across the bar, looking to see if, odds being what they were –

There.

There at the bar, I caught sight of a slender blonde poured into a black and silver dress. Craning her neck, clearly straining on the tips of high heels. Squinting through the smoke, sweeping the room sector by sector, searching for the source.

I shot my hand up and waved.

Caught her eye.

“Hey, Jenny!” I called out. Saw her give another squint, trying to figure it out. I made a motion for her to come over. “Jenny!”

Jenny began to ease her way through the crowd, her slim fingers balancing a tonic-based drink in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other. Even her walk was slender, right leg peeking out from a slit in her dress. Coordinated enough to work her lips around her straw, take a sip before reaching our table. Her black painted toenails met the tips of my shabby shoes as I stood to greet her.

“Hey, there she is!” I held out my arms, vague enough to keep it from coming to hugs.

“Hi,” she replied. Smiling through her frantic search of the five W’s.

“Lucky Saurelius!” I kept it upbeat while the rest kept watch… “How have you been?”

“I’ve… Fine, you know…”

I smiled, modest shake of the head. “You don’t know who the hell I am, do you?”

“No, I…” Jenny winced, apologetic… “I mean, I do. I know I’ve seen – I know we know each other but…”

She couldn’t bring herself to confess, and I took up the slack: “But you don’t know who the hell I am, right?”

“I’m sorry, I’m trying to –”

“Want a hint?”

“Just to thoroughly embarrass me? Yeah, shoot.”

“Alright…” I took a book of matches out of my pocket. “What is something – no ,better still, what is the one thing that you love more than anything?”

“Well, I guess you know it must be acting…”

“As a matter of fact, I do.” As a matter of fact, I should have known. As a matter of fact, this was reprehensible, so I lit a match and cupped the flame in my hand. “Getting warmer, just think back.”

“Wait,” she put the cigarette in her mouth… “Last summer.”

“Yes, last summer.”

“Oh my God…”

“There you go.”

“You were in the Bay City acting company…”

“Well, that’s giving me all the best of it.” I moved forward and lit her cigarette, decided to take a risk. “I tried out. I was at the call, but…”

“Ohh…” She took a disappointed drag of her cigarette. “Yeah, me neither.”

“You didn’t make it?”

“No.”

“I know we didn’t talk that long but, you know, I really thought –”

She put a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. “We both did.”

“Well…” I picked up my drink. “Here’s to callbacks.”

“We need more,” she agreed, sharing in my toast. “More callbacks.”

I took a sip, and looked as though I had just remembered something. “Hey, I’m sorry. Lost my manners with my hearing. You want to join us?”

“Oh, sorry…” She glanced over to the bar. “I’ve got these friends, we’re going to a party…”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Like ships in the night, you and I.”

“You want to come with us?”

“I’ve got friends, too,” I told her. “Believe it or not.”

She laughed. “Hand me your matches.”

I did, and she flipped them open. Reached into her purse and took out a pen. Put both to good use, and by the time she was gone, I had her number. With a quiet sigh of relief, I slipped the matches back into my pocket and sat back down to the unanimously dumbfounded. Gave my lap a pat and Amy shot her leg back to its resting place.

“Not bad, baby,” she told me.

The table erupted in applause, probably more than any of the bands had seen that night. Fielding a traffic jam of questions, comments, compliments, all the makings of a populace swayed. Laughter mixed with instant replays from the mouths of babes. And across the table, there was Leah. Wondering. As close as I think she ever got to pride. The look of a girlfriend, unabashedly pleased, proud to be with the man she was. Not with the one by her side, but the stranger sitting across the table.

Destiny, chance, and coincidence be dammed.

There’s a million evil ways to meddle with powers that simply need to be left alone.

***

And soon enough we were dancing together.

Another one of the puppetmaster’s tricks, another maneuver.

Started off as just Amy and myself. In the crowd, moving to a band with some semblance of soul. Full brass. Bass and guitar versed beyond power chords, joined by a trio of backup vocalists. Headliner, and the floor was packed. Amy had somehow managed to get others to join in; the tight asses, drunks, the indifferent snobs. Couldn’t tell if it was part of a play already put in motion, some string pulled at an earlier opportunity. Cause and effect were lost as we swam through the mob.

One simple spin, limber two-step, and suddenly Amy was dancing with Adam. Getting a decent grind on him. Landing me with Leah, and looking back, I can’t even visualize how she pulled it off.

Could be, maybe, I was just getting lucky.

Because I had never bothered dancing. A few too many school functions alone, slow songs spent witnessing heartache from across the room. But what Amy had introduced me to, introduced Leah to, this was so much more than enough to forget a little more of my past. Arms around Leah’s waist. Feeling her hands against the back of my neck, her elbows pressed down against my chest. Both of us spinning in swift figure eights. Her thigh between my legs, hips spelling out an endless curve, sharing body heat. Music and movement coaxing sweat, hot drops forming on both our bodies. Good sweat, soaking into our clothes, glistening, eyes caught in an burning centrifuge. Hands running through my hair, foreheads touching as my arms slipped entirely around her.

Together in the crowd.

Free from distance, only music and movement, and it was good to be stuck in LA.

***

Adam had a curfew to make good on.

Somewhere near midnight when he dropped us off at Leah’s. Told Amy it had been a pleasure. He shook my hand, wondering if I was up for playing some basketball tomorrow. I gave him a friendly maybe, stood back and let him kiss his girlfriend on the cheek.

Tomorrow, I had assured myself as his tail-lights dipped downhill, lost with the fading purr of his engine. Tomorrow. I’m just going to have to sit down with him, let him know how I feel about Leah. Nothing personal, Adam, but this isn’t about you.

Tomorrow.

And the three of us had all adjourned to the deck; a small, square crown atop the stilted house, adorned with stretch chairs, propane grill, and a dormant hot tub. Neck and neck with the treetops. Not a cloud in sight, the distant grid of Los Angeles lit like a motionless wildfire.

It was nice to finally be ourselves. Free to relate without the burden of pretense, maneuvering illusions. Amy seated on a chair. Leah stretched on a reclining chaise lounge, wrapped in a plush comforter. Myself, sitting against the edge of the roof.

Talking in hushed tones, low and guarded laughter. Rarely marveling at the fact that we were all in Los Angeles. Because everything fit so nicely, actual stars in the sky pinpointing our conversation, what felt like a lullaby.

Still a few things to settle, though. And so Amy said goodnight. Off to bed, dark figure moving in what little light reached those isolated heights.

She handed the night over to Leah and Lucky, neither one of us sure what to do with it.

I remained where I was.

Leah wiggled within her cocoon, feet rubbing together.

“So…” she ventured, fireside voice. “Are you going to call Jenny?”

“Don’t know. She’s not the same person she was last summer, you know.”

“Not the same?”

“Things change. People grow distant.”

“You going to be all right?”

“I will find my way in this crazy, mixed-up bag of worlds.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

The sweat had dried on my body, and I surrendered to the chill. “Yeah.”

“You want some blanket?” She struggled with the tangle. Managed to make an opening, scoot to the side. “Come on, there’s plenty of room.”

I took a few cautious steps. Once again faced with no distractions, no complications. No remaining strategy other than to slip under the covers. The chair’s webbing sagged beneath our collective weight as Leah let me in.

Both of us on our backs.

Arms at our sides, staring right up into the night.

Our last night in Verona all over again.

“Better?” Leah asked.

“Much better.”

“Where’d you learn to dance like that?”

“Amy taught me,” I told her. “You?”

“I don’t dance like that.”

“Then who was that back at The Venue?”

Leah didn’t answer.

Warm kiss against my lips, instead. Perfect, wet and imprecise. She readjusted, both of us doing what we could to maintain, and I did the same. Leah rocked back, head resting against the chair. I caught a blurred glimpse of her hair hanging down, brushing against the cement. I reached down, brought the strays back up, brushed her check with my fingers, traced her lips. Both of us with arms pinned beneath us, struggling to make room. It was our first, our first kiss, first dance at The Venue. It was vindication, midnight blessing. It was freedom, the sum of all I had been searching for, what I had come clear across the country for, and there were stars, actual stars in the sky that night.

It was walking on the moon.

And I don’t remember saying it.

Pure subconscious, a thought caught in the wrong jet stream.

I don’t remember saying it, but I know I must have.

Because I know Leah heard it, and she broke away without warning, severing the kiss and all that came with it. Hands pressed lightly against my chest. “What you said really freaked me out…”

I wasn’t ready to abandon the moment. “What do you mean?”

“What you said.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“I heard you.”

“I didn’t –”

“I’m not in love with you,” she said.

A flood barrier went up in my head. “I’m not asking you to be in love with me.”

“Yes, you are.”

I forced myself into the clutches, gave her all the time she needed to assert what she meant with that simple, incomprehensible stare.

“Well, then…” I went down the list of available pleasantries. “That’s alright, then. Right?”

I sat up and kicked my legs over the end of the chaise lounge.

It was low to the ground, and my knees jutted upwards in an uncomfortable tilt.

Hands resting on the aluminum frame.

“It was nice to be next to you again,” Leah said. “I was just lying next to you. And that felt right, and kissing you felt right. But I was just… I was just having fun, that’s all this evening felt like. Going out, the way you… I thought it was just fun.”

“I don’t know what gave you that idea,” I told her, little conviction in my voice. “I know what happened in Verona wasn’t just fun. And I know you think there’s something to all this…”

“And I don’t know where you get the idea that I know just what this is.”

“I read the letter you left. I read what you said about me, about us. You were… Leah, you were there, in Florida. I saw you. It was you I saw going into that theater, what could possibly be more – I was down there looking for Rebecca Demarco, and it was you I followed instead of her. You, without even realizing that –”

I heard the chair creak as Leah sat up behind me. “That’s just it, Lucky.”

“Again, I don’t know what you –”

“Don’t you think I’ve gotten enough of this for a lifetime? This fucking trainwreck of mistaken identity? The idiotic stares of tourists, quiet whispers as I walk on by? Star-struck kids, little kids, five or six years old, come up to me every day. Every day, and ask me for an autograph, and I have to watch them slink away in disappointment just because I happen to be me, and not who they wanted me to be –”

“Stop.” A dull ache began to bloom in my stomach, gestating. Sprouting vile little claws, slowly going to work. “You can’t possibly think I love you just because you look like Rebecca Demarco.”

“I think you think you love me. And I think it has everything to do with me being Rebecca Demarco’s ugly twin sister.”

“You’re lying. You know I’m better than that, I read your letter –”

“And what I wrote was that someday, this would mean something…” I could hear her trying to get a better angle on my face. Leaning over and to the right, a shoulder brushing against my back. “But it’s going to take a lot more than two weeks to convince me that this is what you think it is. What I think it could be.”

“And why can’t it be this way now?”

“Lucky, I have a life here –”

“Which you hate –”

“It’s my life –”

“Which you hate,” I insisted, turning to face her. “You want to tell me you like hanging around those spoiled jerks? Sitting around like a bunch of losers just stepped out of an MTV lineup, locked in some ridiculous, pointless contest to see who can possibly be more bored? You don’t want to be here, this isn’t you.”

“It is me.” Leah stood up, blanket spilling onto the ground, gutted. “What happened in Verona was something I wanted, and what happened in Verona ended. And before things could be like Verona again, I had to come back to LA. I came back here, and you were supposed to stay in North Carolina. That’s what I wanted. I wanted to keep in touch, and dream about you. I wanted to get through the rest of my miserable high school existence with memories of kissing you, I wanted to remember the feel of grass against my neck. I wanted to get to a point where I could believe that what we had was real, that I wasn’t just some substitute for Rebecca Demarco, that was also in the letter Lucky, it was all there.”

“It’s why I’m here –”

“You can’t make things happen, Lucky. There is no manifest destiny, there is no land of opportunity, there is no will to power. Lucky, I am not about you. I am not your fucking decision.”

I looked up at her, half lit from the curious glare of a single streetlight. “Even though I came to Los Angeles to be with you?”

“As long as you’re not listening, why don’t I just counter with The same way you jumped off a cruise liner to be with Rebecca Demarco?

I nodded… “So coming to LA was just about the worst thing I could’ve done.”

She sighed. Her body went with it, kind of slumped. “Not a lot you can do about that now, is there?”

“No, I don’t suppose there is.”

Leah nodded. Crossed her arms and looked out to the city. “It’s late.”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I’m going to bed.”

“Good.” This was going to have to end soon. “I think I’m going to stick around up here for a little bit. Do some sightseeing.”

“I’ll see you in the morning.”

Watching her turn. Float across the roof and through the door leading downstairs. It was all ceremonial.

Left alone, out on my own, now more aware than ever, that yes

I was in Los Angeles.

***

“Alright…” I told myself. “All right, that’s –”

I cut myself off, stood from the chaise lounge.

Someone else’s legs, but they’d have to do.

“Yeah.”

Those immigrant appendages sent me on my way. Down a flight of steps. Down a shorter flight, out past the sunken living room. Sleek, cold furniture and empty, gray shadows. I took the winding staircase down into the den. Dim light coming in through the windows, courtesy of all those peasants in The Valley. I saw Amy stretched out on the black leather couch. On her back, one arm folded over her belly, the other masking her face. A whispered sigh came and went with every breath.

I took a few steps into the room.

Left foot, right foot. Certain that’s how it was done.

And then the anesthetic wore off.

I sunk to my knees. Hands knotted, then slipping around my sides, clutching.

Arms pressing against my abdomen, where that malevolent creature had metastasized into an angry and imprisoned monster. Thrashing about, nothing but limbs and teeth, talons ripping at the walls of my stomach. I shut my eyes, willing the pain to stop, trying to.

A noxious voice in my head letting me know I was about to cry over a fifteen-year-old girl.

I still didn’t get it, but what I didn’t get turned out to be the one thing I had been right about in a good, long while.

I laid on my side, and buried my face in the white carpet.

Kept those sobs under cover, never once hearing Amy stir. Mouth open in a silent cry, fibers rubbing up against my teeth, gums. Tongue tasting the luxury, floors that never went a day without vacuuming. Crippled and inconspicuous; anybody walking by would have seen little more than a slumbering girl and barely motionless body on the floor beside her.

All screams left to wander my mind, all directed at me.

Stupid.

Idiot.

Fool.

Asshole.

Jackanapes, the word wasn’t enough to make me laugh.

But in due course, the first wave passed.

I found myself rising, under no real orders from central command.

Took shoddy steps over to the mini bar.

Picked up the phone and dialed an 800 number.

Dialed a user number.

Dialed a PIN.

Dialed Chloe’s number and waited.

“This is Chloe…”

“Chloe?” I whispered through a frantic grimace.

“I’m not in. Leave a message if you think it’ll make a difference.”

Then the beep.

I hadn’t planned this far.

“Hey, this is Lucky…” I paused. “I guess you’re asleep. Or at the hospital, more likely. I hope your dad’s all right… I’m sorry I haven’t called… When you think about it, it’s been less than a day… I just… some funny thing happened on the way to this phone call…”

Some funny thing that was meant to be short and to the point.

Some funny thing that just kind of raged out of control.

“I guess I really opened Pandora’s box, didn’t I…?”

I felt another kick to the ribs.

Ground my teeth and kept going…

“Florida ended the way it did, because… Remember Florida? Almost a year to this day, I think. Christ, almost year to this day, Chloe. We were walking down the hallway, headed for Adrian’s thing. Her scene by scene, and I saw Rebecca Demarco. I could’ve sworn at the time, and I went in to see Hex Raitliffe…”

I interrupted myself with a stubborn laugh: “Hex, that son of a bitch, no wonder…”

My first half stepped back in, demanding full control of the floor. And the words just poured out, and I don’t know. I couldn’t really think, wasn’t keeping track, wasn’t scripting. Ball of string, unraveling as I felt tears abandon ship. Sliding down my face, a path well worn by their contemporaries.

“And after I read her letter, I thought, this has to be it. It can’t just end with me stuck in North Carolina. I just thought… this has to be where the decision is made. And I came to Los Angeles…” I stared down at the granite, impressed with the small puddle gathering between my elbows. “I came to Los Angeles, I gave the attendant my goddamn credit card and I went to LA.”

I gave a violent sniff… “Oh, God, I am in trouble, here.” I spread my lips in a nightmare leer. “I should’ve stayed home… I’m sorry, Chloe, I should’ve stayed home… I should’ve stayed home… I’m so sorry.”

I removed the phone from head with a pasty rip, felt the blood rush back to my ear.

Stared at the receiver.

Brought the phone back to my ear one last time.

Couldn’t think of anything else to add, and hung up.

Spun around in the barstool.

Head limp, arms hanging between my legs, rag doll muscles.

Sawdust.

I shuffled over to the balcony.

Took a look over to Amy, lost to the world.

And good for her.

I slid the door open and met the desert air with a maladroit greeting.

Sat against a wall and drew my legs close.

Pulled out a pack of cigarettes, unable to remember what they were doing there.

Pulled out a pack of matches.

Just enough light to catch Jenny’s number.

Area code and all.

I struck a match, lit a cigarette, and felt a chronic plague scrape against my throat, fill my lungs with rusted needles. I retched, tears coming to my eyes once more. But at least they weren’t Leah tears. And at least the awful, drowning sensation, the raw metallic pulp in my throat, the nausea and murder in my lungs… at least they were real.

I gave the cigarette another go, and let the paper burn a little brighter this time.

Got all the way down to the butt, crushed it beneath my shoe.

Struck another match, lit another cigarette, and repeated the process, all the way, whole pack, in for a penny, in for a pound, until the sun came up.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

3:15 am.

 

James is alone at the bar.

He stares at the row of bottles. For a moment, finds himself trying to memorize their names and the order in which they are lined up. Unsure of what to do on his own. The result of Lucky’s trip to Los Angeles tainting his drink, making the smoke a little more toxic.

By way of mirror, he scopes out the scene behind him.

Another lull in the action.

The waitresses have gone home, and the tables are woefully cluttered with abandoned drinks and gluttonous ashtrays. In the far corner, an older couple sips on L.I. iced teas, silently duking it out over a game of spades. At the end of the bar, an argument is gaining heat. James can’t figure the language. French, maybe Creole. The subject proves even more mystifying, as this furious debate is constantly punctuated with bursts of laughter, only to fall back on guttural cries of outrage.

James has a sip of his beer, wondering if maybe he might be drunk.

He doesn’t feel drunk, but even James knows that’s never proof of sobriety.

Not by a long shot.

Zephyr begins to wipe down the bar, and James politely lifts his bottle to allow full access.

You all right?” Zephyr asks.

Yeah, thanks.”

Where do you know Lucky from?”

James sides on the indefinable: “A long time ago.”

Same here.”

Can I ask?” James coughs, takes a bit of his beer. “I overheard earlier, it’s been a long time since you’ve seen him.”

Year and a half, I think.”

Why do you think he came down here tonight? Of all nights?”

Zephyr pauses, damp rag pressed against the wood. “I’ve got something that belongs to him.”

What’s that?”

Sorry…” He tosses the rag into the sink and crosses his arms with a smile. “Bartender-barfly confidentiality.”

Don’t ever change.”

You got it.”

With a bit of effort, James slides out of his seat. A couple of people nod in his direction, the respect that comes with staying in one seat for so long. He steals to the back, towards the truncated hallway leading to the kitchen. Spies Lucky leaning against the wall, facing a pair of bathroom doors.

Two paths diverged in an yellow wood, and all that.

James takes his place alongside, arms behind his back.

The overwhelming glare of fluorescent light pours through a single window in the kitchen door.

James glances over, polite as a stranger on the subway. “That’s a hell of a bitter pill to swallow.”

Lucky keeps his eyes on the door. “I wasn’t sorry for anyone but myself. If the pill is bitter, then check the chaser.”

At least the ticket wasn’t one-way.”

Lucky smiles, nods. “Yeah. Had to pay a small fee though, to get it changed.”

Huh?”

When I first bought the ticket, I had no idea it would go south as fast as it did…” Lucky sounds as though he is apologizing to himself. “I had the temerity to give myself a few days in Los Angeles. When things fell apart – which, if you haven’t figured out, they always do – I picked myself up off Leah’s balcony and took off. Amy was still asleep on the couch, and I snuck away under the cover of dawn. Didn’t even want to risk calling a cab from the house, petrified I might have to face Leah again. Instead, I hiked to the nearest payphone and called it in. Got my ass to the airport, onto a plane to O’Hare, then back to Verona. Charged the fee to the card.”

So the sum total of the trip…”

Yeah…” Luckysniffs, pulls out his cigarettes, lights one. “I’d saved up enough money from my job at Video Squared to pay most of it off. Considering I would be spending the next few years charging all my drinks to Citibank, it was small potatoes… One thing’s for sure, my job wasn’t waiting for me when I got home.”

James feels the pressure building up in his bladder. Doesn’t want to let on, just keeps talking. “Here’s something that might make you feel better.”

Go, man.”

I met Bruce and Dan when I was in Verona,” James says. “They’re doing good, got through the dark ages. Better than ever, now.”

Yeah, I heard.” Lucky sighs. “But I had a lot of repair work to do. Stopped by Chloe’s house… when I was sure she wouldn’t be there, of course. Nature of the coward. Paid my respects to her mother and father.”

Were they angry?”

Ah, they didn’t care. They still saw me as some kind of hero for getting her to the hospital that day. Truly undeserving is what I am of such understanding.”

And what about Chloe?”

Lucky shrugs… “Took me a few weeks to get the courage to face her.”

The door to the men’s room opens.

A thin high-school girl in a tube top exits. Smile as crooked as her steps, she stumbles back towards her table.

James extends his arm, inviting Lucky to stake his claim.

You go ahead,” Lucky says.

You were here first.”

Like that’s ever made a difference…”

James steps into the bathroom, closes the door.

He glances up from the knob, notices something amongst the graffiti etched in the cheap granulated wood. He stares, taking the time to compare the faded words to the fresher set of limericks and indecipherable codas. Wondering what Lucky must have been thinking when he wrote it.

Not really wondering, though.

Surrounded by what could only courteously be referred to as a lavatory.

Not really wondering, though trying his best to pretend.

Blue ink chicken-scratch reading:

 

Have a drink,

kids.

You’re a far cry from home

and the familiar

alleyways

of chance.

 

-Lucky Saurelius, 1999.

 

***

August sixth landed on a Tuesday that year.

I pushed my way through the screen door, stepped into my old haunt for the first time since Los Angeles. Saw the counter, saw the booths. Bookshelves and record bins, vinyl listed alphabetically by artist. I looked up at the skylights, catching a hazy sky through polymer rectangles. I sent my sights along the dusty floor, across the tables and chess sets, over to the makeshift stage with its rickety stool and aging upright.

Hollow sense of wonder in the small pieces that made up the whole. Sole survivor of a plane crash, looking out over the wreckage, flames and twisted metal, trying to reconstruct the aircraft with my mind. I had stepped back into all that once was, slowly discovering that, for all the similarities, it might as well been my first time through those doors. But for the sight of Chloe

seated at the counter.

The door slammed behind me, and she glanced up from her coffee.

And I don’t know how I must have looked.

Her eyes landed, free of anything resembling hatred. No anger, no resentment. None of the immediate reactions I had been expecting. Only an uncertain curiosity, the kind of expression worn while examining vacation slides, eyes narrowing on out of focus figures.

Is that cousin Al, or our luggage, or…?

Yes, I would’ve gladly stepped into her head just for one glimpse of Lucky Saurelius at that very instant. Struggling to catch up to the past, struggling with the few precious moments that denial would allow.

To my credit, I didn’t look away.

Just walked across the room, a strange continuity to my steps.

By time I got to her side, I finally noticed she was wearing a dress. Simple white flowers, floating along simple blue. Falling just past her knees, legs crossed, ankle free from yet another summertime cast.

“Hey,” I offered.

“Hey,” she replied.

“Whatever contest you may think you’re gearing up for, don’t bother…” My breath seemed to be coming from my abdomen, sentences taking shortcuts round my heart. “You’ve already won. I’m not here to plead my case. I’m not here to defend myself. I’m not here to ask for pity, so we don’t have to suit up for battle or anything. You’ve won.”

“Why are you here?” she asked.

I’d heard that one before. “I’m here because I’m here.”

“And because you knew I’d be here.”

“And also because I knew you’d be here.” I pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Shot one out of the pack with astute precision, raised the cotton filter to my lips. Didn’t miss Chloe’s puzzled expression, and I removed the cigarette from my mouth. Tossed it onto the counter along with the pack.

“I’ve decided I don’t want to say this while smoking,” I told her.

“Alright.”

“I think it would make my apology appear slight, casual.”

“Are you here to apologize?”

“Yes,” I verified. “I know I just kind of said I was going to, but now I am. I’m saying it. I apologize.”

“You apologize for what?”

“I apologize for abandoning you.”

Clara breezed by with a refill for Chloe. She glanced over at me, asked if I wanted anything. Wasn’t an ounce of recognition in her offer, no warmth. Tongues will wag, and I figured Chloe’s must have told her plenty.

And the cold shoulder suited me just fine.

I asked for a coffee, got it served up to me in a pink mug.

Took a sip, lips twitching inadvertently against the scalding brew.

“You apologize for abandoning me?” Chloe asked.

“Yes.”

“I’m not an orphan.” She repositioned herself, eyebrows meeting in a pact of bothered disapproval. “I’m not an orphan, I’m not in a basket, and this isn’t a monastery. You didn’t abandon me, Lucky, and I did manage to make it through without you.”

“Then I apologize for betraying you.”

“Do you even know what you mean when you say that?”

“I know exactly what I mean when I say that.”

“Maybe…” she nodded. “Acceptance pending.”

“All right.” I dug a book of matches out of my pocket. “I’m going to have a cigarette now.”

“You could have a seat instead.”

“I can do both,” I obliged. Popped a Marlboro in my mouth.

“You’re not just being cool?”

“You can trust me when I tell you…” I lit up, expelled exhaust up towards the ceiling, “…that I am the furthest thing from cool right now.” I stared into my coffee. Elbow propped up on the counter, cigarette pointing north.

“Huh,” Chloe said. Didn’t sound too satisfied. “Looks like she really did a number on you.”

I inhaled a stream of smoke. “Whole bunch of numbers.”

“A regular lottery ticket.”

“Losing lottery ticket.”

“Oh, Lucky… Where did you get the idea I could have possibly needed you to specify that?”

“More of a note to myself…” I picked up my coffee, swiveled in my chair and faced the room. Leaned up against the counter. “So you got my message.”

“Didn’t listen to it.”

“If you had, you’d probably still be waiting for it to end.”

“Got far enough to gather what you’d done.”

“You’re wearing a dress.”

She tugged at the neckline, adjusted the shoulder straps. “I’m seeing someone later. For dinner.”

I would have killed for that piece of news to have affected me more than it did. For the world to finally start crawling back beneath my skin. “Anyone I know?”

“John.”

“The intern?”

“Doctor.”

“So it’s you and him now?”

Chloe waved a smoke signal from out of her face. “Yeah. For now.”

I took another drag of my cigarette. An eraser head of ash dropped into my coffee mug. I watched it settle into the fluid. Miniature, gray, shredded wheat biscuit. I absently swished it in my coffee, and took another sip. Smacked my lips with joyless luster. “Are you still coming to New York?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“It’s not as thought you were just going there because of me,” I agreed.

“Fucking right.”

“You’re still going there?”

“It’s not old times anymore, Lucky…”

I laughed. “No shit, it isn’t.”

“We’re going to have to evolve, and if that’s going to happen – ”

“It’s already happening,” I assured her. “Already happening.”

“Yes, I’m still going to New York.”

“So our time here appears limited.”

“Couple of weeks.”

“Countdown.” I leaned back, put out my cigarette. A moment or so later, I helped myself to another one. Clara walked on past, did a little double take. The sight of me smoking was almost enough to ask me what the hell had happened to get me hooked. Then she remembered what I had done, and went back to not caring.

Chloe took a sip of her coffee.

I did the same, broke the pattern with a drag of my cigarette.

Acceptance to my apology pending.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

3:40 am.

 

You know, there’s a natural instinct that forbids all living creatures from learning their lesson,” James Joyce tells a couple at the next table. Balancing sips of beer with a good dose of random information that Mr. and Mrs. Random don’t quite know how to react to. “You can find cases of it in almost every living creature on God’s green earth. If a deer, for example, happens to run into a grizzly near the creek where it drinks. And the grizzly raises itself up on its haunches, roars with its massive jaws foaming. The deer would freak, of course, and go crashing back into the woods. That spot’s not safe anymore, the deer would say to itself. Keep away from the creek, it would reason.”

James pauses.

The couple glance at each other, a secret question as to whether this is it. If it’s over now, and maybe they can get back to their drinks, conversations with a beginning, middle, and end –

But eventually, mister deer makes its way back,” James continues. “Even though it saw certain death poised at the very spot that was once the source for a cool, clean drink of water. There is an imperative for all living creatures to get over their fears. If they didn’t, too many negative experiences would render them unable to do anything. Anything, anything. They’d simply stay put, certain that every last movement in any direction would be their last. But they do forget, the mind wipes the slate clean. It’s a gift, a biological insurance policy that allows all sentient creatures to go on doing just what they are supposed to do…”

Once again the couple, young couple in their twenties, try to politely assess the arc of his tirade. Holding onto their drinks, almost afraid to move for fear of encouraging any further lopsided conversation.

But what about humans?” James asks. “Us? Is it really such a gift? We’re supposed to work on reason, not instinct. Sure, it’s fine that after the World Trade Center was demolished, we all eventually left our houses and got back to work. Took our stockpiles of bottled water, and just went ahead and drank them. This imperative allowed us to keep going. But we are also philosophical creatures. And isn’t our whole existence, as human beings, predicated on actually learning lessons?” James wrinkles his nose, apparently far from learning his, and as Lucky returns to the table with a fresh drink, strikes up the lopsided conversation yet again. “Why do you think we always make the same mistakes? After the Civil War, you’d think people would never want to go through anything like that again. Then World War One comes along, and soldiers marched off across the oceans with grins on their faces. Then World War Two. Then Korea. Then Vietnam. Then the Gulf War. Now Afghanistan. Soon, maybe Iraq. Maybe it’s good that we don’t lose the guts to go to war, but is it really to our advantage to always forget how awful the previous ones were…? And, on a smaller scale, when it comes to the everyday battles you and I face… Why is it that we keep making the same damn mistakes, over and over?”

Lucky lights a cigarette and glances over at the couple: “He’s talking about me, by the way.”

It looks as though the pair might actually laugh at this revelation, but James manages to intercept: “We are hardwired not to learn anything from the traumatic.” He laughs, shakes his head. “This wonderful gift to conquer our fears turns out to be nothing more than a trap when placed in the minds of what should have been an otherwise rational race of creatures…” He turns back to the couple. “He was obsessed. Obsessed with Rebecca Demarco.”

Perhaps you’ve heard of her,” Lucky adds.

Not to say I don’t fit the same profile. I had my own little obsession, but it hardly had the grace and vision that got Lucky from one useless defeat to the next –”

James.” Lucky makes a motion with his hand. “They don’t care.”

Oh, like you haven’t spent every waking moment of your life telling your sad story to every last –”

No, kid, actually…” The male counterpart finally takes the initiative. “You’re friend is right. We just came down here for a quiet drink.”

James blinks… “Well, you stepped into the fucking wrong fucking little bar, then, didn’t you?”

Get out while you still can,” Lucky tells them.

Drinks in hand, they head over to the opposite end of the room. James watches them through narrow slits. Lucky has his back to the room, doesn’t need to turn around. Eyes on the other side of his head, he can sense Mr. and Mrs. Random signaling Zephyr, asking for the check. The exact body count, where everyone is seated, what they’re drinking, Lucky can sense it all.

Is this what you’re going to do now?” he asks. “Sit in bars and tell my sad story?”

I was actually telling mine, thank you.” James takes a pull of his drink. “And it serves them right for listening in on our conversation. This is a private matter.”

Damn.” Lucky takes a sip. Coughs. “It was never my intention to turn you into me.”

I’m nothing like you.”

How’s that?”

I came to this city looking for you,” James says. Kicks his legs up on a chair, a little more sober now that they are alone. “And on the road to Creole Nights, I wasn’t distracted by anyone I happened across who happened to look like you. There was Lucky Saurelius and only Lucky Saurelius.”

Lucky gives him a withering smile. “Only because there was no Rebecca Demarco.”

I learned my lesson and adjusted,” James argues. “What about you? When there was nothing left for you in LA, nothing left for you in Verona, after you had destroyed your friendship with Chloe, what did you have then? What did you do?”

Lucky gathers his thoughts along with his drink.

He gets up, rounds the table and unceremoniously drops himself next to James. Kicks up feet, same as the kid and puts an arm around him. “To hear other people tell it, a paralyzing, single-minded frenzy took hold of me once I got to New York. Not a bad creative liberty, granted. To hear people tell it, within the first couple of days, the sudden slew of fresh coincidence was too much for me to handle. Started popping up all over the place, and that much was true. Within the first month, I think the total stood at fifteen, so you know what that must average…”

James does the math. “About one encounter for every other day.”

Bet your ass…” Lucky reaches for his cigarette, takes a drag, and snubs it. Has a drink. “Yeah, there were some that said it was too much for me. Once again thrown into the six-degree whirlwind of Rebecca Demarco. They say it got me drinking. Skipping class. Spreading my twisted tale as far and wide as I could. Combined with the heartbreak of LA memories, the myth was one of a pure and crippling melt down…”

James reaches for the pack of Marlboros.

Takes one out and offers it to Lucky.

Lucky accepts the cigarette, and the subsequent light.

Not the case, though,” Lucky continues. “Not all at once, at least… Truth be told, upon arriving in New York, there were enough distractions to balance all that should have sent the scales sliding. I settled into my cramped cell-block of a dorm room. Paired with a young man by the name of Jake Maxwell, a brilliant kid majoring in mechanical engineering. Helping Chloe move into her own digs, uptown at Barnard. West Side, up in the early hundreds. A whole cast of new faces, from all over the country, fresh pond to swim in. Sitting on the stone steps to my dorm, cautious attempts to meet others and form some kind of connection, the bonds our elders tell us will last the rest of our lives…”

Lucky breaks away from the narrative. Removes his arm from around the shoulders of his underground protégé and turns to face him. “Thing is, James, you’re a few months shy of headed to college yourself, and what you have to understand is there ain’t nothing new about it. Rite of passage is meaningless in this modern world. When you graduate from high school and throw your little ninja star up into the air, it’s not as simple as one chapter over and a new chapter starting. The first year of college might not include parents, home, or a steady schedule. But you don’t really leave yourself behind as easily as you’d like, and in that respect, there is no real change… You follow me?”

James nods, though Lucky senses he doesn’t.

Nothing prepares you for marriage, and nothing prepares you for kids,” Lucky mutters, before getting back to the story. “So there was this brave new world to keep me distracted. Freshman orientation for film school, further reminders of our promising future. Amanda Bryce standing at the podium, reminding us of all those who had passed through such hallowed halls and established a legacy of greatness amongst Hollywood’s leading actors, writers, and directors.

Despite its intrusive presence, the pain and burning questions took a back seat. There wasn’t a single class that didn’t meet for under three hours, some lasting as long as nine. All of them gathering at least three times a week, and the long drawn out path towards film literacy was crammed with making connections. Finding the right students. Talking to the right professors, doing what had to be done in order to rent out the school’s equipment before anyone else could get their hands on it. Following the administrators’ advice, fumbling with the various keys meant to unlock all doors. The daily, nightly, twenty-four hour expressway towards the pinnacle of success.

I wasn’t sleeping.

I wasn’t slowing down.

But I also wasn’t thinking…”

Lucky leans back against the wall, props his feet up on the chair.

James follows his gaze over to a wasted couple making out by the bar. Really going at it. Drunk out of their minds, overcome with lust. The man actually has his hand down the girl’s pants, perhaps secretly thinking that there’s no way the bartender can see this. What the couple can’t know is that Zephyr and his friends are gathered at the far end of the bar, giggling and pointing. Letting the excitement build, taking bets on how far the two of them could possibly take it, how long before Zephyr has to step in and hose them down.

Lucky smiles. Picks up his drink and offers them a silent toast. “Yes, there were a good couple of weeks there, where the path to greatness went on as scheduled. If Leah had been my substitute for Rebecca Demarco, then the quest for fame was my new replacement for the both of them. I allowed myself to grow unrecognizable, James. I managed to put together a couple of plausible outfits to lend some credibility to the life I was leading. Three or four shirts, pants, jackets, ties, all interchangeable to create the illusion that I was on my way somewhere. I’d walk out of my dorm in the evening hours. Stopping for a brief chat with the stoop freshmen, all of them smoking cigarettes and not getting laid.

“Where you headed, GQ? they’d ask.

“Got a meeting, I’d say.

Never did, though. I’d walk the streets, sit in various coffee shops. Mainline caffeine, smoke cigarettes. Those were my free moments, and I’d spend them scrawling out thoughts in a black spiral notebook. Making connections. Going over the same ground, retracing my steps. Missteps. Backwards and forwards, examining every last detail. Rebecca Demarco, Genevieve Goldman, Adrian Lane, Cassidy, Germane Mercer, Amy Button, Marvin Sepparano, all the way up to Leah… and Leah was where I’d stop.”

Lucky lolls his head to face James. “Leah was where I never wanted to go, and I’d flip the page. Start from scratch. Never finding what I was looking for…”

James scoots forward and grabs his drink. He steals a glance at the couple, who have grown subdued of their own accord. Mumbling nasty nothings in each other’s ears, practically depending on each other to keep from falling out of their chairs. “What were you looking for?”

Well, Leah was supposed to be the answer, wasn’t she?”

Sure…” James shrugs. “But she wasn’t, and isn’t that it?”

Well, what was I doing before Leah?”

You were chasing Rebecca Demarco.”

Well, I had been thoroughly convinced otherwise.” Lucky laughs, bitter memories floating on bourbon fumes. “Led to believe that I had only been chasing an image, that all I’d been through was simply a path of scattered carrots leading me to Leah. Leah was supposed to be the key to everything, but there I was… Back to where I started. And if Leah wasn’t the answer, then what was?”

Rebecca Demarco.”

I’d done all I could to avoid coming back to it. I really wanted to end it all with Leah’s rejection, but you said it yourself. We’re hardwired to avoid learning from trauma. It was only a matter of time. And come mid-August, I was flipping through the Village Voice, when what do I see? A full page ad for the New York Film Festival. And what’s the movie that’s kicking it off?”

“Ice Station 1973,” James volunteers.

Also known by the title Tempest Haven, all set to premier on August the twenty-seventh.”

Hex Raitliffe.”

That’s right…” Lucky sighs. “I ran back to my dorm, took the steps two at a time, all the way to the eighth floor. Burst into my room, empty for the moment. Ran over to my desk, jerked the bottom drawer open and began to dig. Pulling out magazines, newspapers, folders filled with clippings, notes and letters. Entertainment Weekly, Premier, Interview, Teen Beat, People, US Weekly, my own massive and unorganized scrapbook of all the times Rebecca Demarco and I had never shared.

I found what I was looking for at last, holding out at the bottom of the drawer. Yet another Premier Magazine, this one from a once bright and hopeful summer. I rolled back on my ass. Settled myself against the mini fridge and flipped through the pages. Slowly, as though actually taking time to get my dose of celebrity heroine. Found what I was looking for in an earmarked photograph…”

James nods, raising his hand. “May I?”

Go ahead on, James.”

A picture of Rebecca Demarco, lips painted black over a bleached white face. The same magazine that you were reading when the TIP program started.”

Lucky demolishes the rest of his drink, grimaces before giving James a pleased smile. “You’ve been listening after all.”

And there was a phone number written along the white feathered shawl.”

Yeah.”

Brooklyn area code.”

Yeah.”

Zephyr swoops by the table, having mistaken James’s raised hand as a call for another round. He picks up the empties, whistling along with the music, and heads back to the bar.

James reaches for his beer without thinking. “So what happened next?”

What can I say?” Lucky sighs, picking up his own drink and taking a tired sip. “I closed my eyes to the roar of unwelcome memories and, for two full minutes, pretended there was no phone in my room.”

From behind the bar, Zephyr cries out

One last call for alcohol.

***

When two people decide to mend a broken friendship, it’s generally more of an unspoken agreement that things will end gradually rather than violently. Being thrust into the arms of a new city, new agenda, new life only helps seal the deal. Furthermore, going from living four blocks apart to a twenty-minute jaunt on the 1/9 doesn’t exactly make the heart grow fonder.

The only time I made that uptown trip during those first few weeks was to help Chloe move in. Her new Barnard home was a two-bedroom, four-person suite. Came with its own kitchen, shared bathroom, and volumes of closet space. Not a bad bit of luck. Most freshmen were saddled with small studio rooms; two beds, two desks, and a communal bathroom down the hall.

Her suite came with its own accessories; three sophomore girls who had put in for a lottery together the previous year. Apparently, there had been a fourth in their bid, but a nervous breakdown had taken her out of the picture. And without a vote from the other three, housing services had nominated Chloe to fill in for the Joy Luck Club’s missing member.

The natives were hostile from day one, and I decided that was the only night I would be spending uptown.

Chloe didn’t seem to mind. Encouraged it, in fact. On her own rare visits to the Village, she would paint a pained picture of three teenyboppers spread out over their beds, faces interchangeable. Painting their nails, taking generic sex quizzes, or adding to an ever growing database of classroom crushes.

And so we were reduced to casual conversations on the phone, little to talk about beyond our classes, accommodations, lack of life outside the dorms. Change, distance, the drifting quality of isolation; these were the main components of our slow decline.

Her new boyfriend was the maraschino that made it a genuine sundae.

It was mid September when John came to visit her.

Four in the afternoon when the two of them came downtown to say hello.

I was lying on the puke-colored carpet, arms behind my head. Scattered papers, magazine articles all surrounding me in a dry Kuiper belt. Ashtray chock full of butts, resting at my hip. Freshly lit cigarette counting down to its undignified burial. The lights were off, shades lifted. Weak glow of blue afternoon streamed through the window, gave me a glum aura of martyrdom.

I picked up the phone, and dialed my voicemail.

Jake Maxwell was sitting at his desk, hunched over a set of equations. He groaned, shook his head: “How many times are you going to listen to it?”

“Not even this one last time,” I said. Put the phone to my ear.

A once friendly and familiar voice filled my ear, little too enthusiastic for my taste:

Hey, Lucky, how are you? This is Hex, returning your message. Guess we’re officially playing phone tag. Anyway, like I said, I got your message. Would love to get together for a beverage of some kind. I’m going to be pretty busy the next couple of days, got something coming up. But sometime after that would really be ideal. Hope you’re doing all right, and… welcome to New York, right?

I sighed, hung up the phone.

Jake sighed. “What did it say this time?”

“Pretty busy for the next couple of days, got something coming up…” I took a drag, stunk up the room a little more. “That something’s got to be the Tempest Haven premiere. Now why would he have left that out?”

“I think you might already know.”

I lit another cigarette.

When the two of them walked into my room, I could see Chloe’s face register the kind of disbelief that comes hand in hand with not being the least bit surprised.

“Well, Lucky…” She coughed, waved her hand through the smoke. Tall, dark, and handsome was assessing the scene with confused fascination, even as Jake went about working at his desk without so much as a hello. “What are we up to on this fine afternoon?”

“Oh, just going over a few things in my mind…” I took my cigarette from the ashtray, took a drag. “And on the floor. Going over a few things in my mind and on the floor. Making a list, checking it twice… Wondering if maybe there wasn’t something I missed in all this, if maybe I just tried viewing things through a different prism, something might come to light…” I grinned, something vile. “So far, it isn’t working.”

“Lucky, you remember John…”

“Hey, John…” I clamped the cigarette between my teeth and performed a weak stomach crunch. Extending the right hand of friendship.

John tiptoed between scattered pages and shook. “It’s good to meet you, Lucky… I mean, under less strenuous circumstances.”

“Likewise…” I leaned back again, arms behind my head, cigarette resting between my middle and index finger. “Good to see you, doctor.”

John did a little shuffle, black hair falling before genuinely modest eyes. “How’s the film program been treating you?”

“Oh, it is what it is… You know anything about film theory?”

“What exactly is it?”

“You’re looking to be a neurologist?”

“Yes.”

“Then a theory class for you wouldn’t really tell you where to make an incision, so much as endlessly discuss what that incision was feeling at the time it was made.”

“That’s more of a surgeon thing, really.”

“A sturgeon thing?”

John put a polite fist over his mouth, coughed. “Either or, sounds pretty unnecessary.”

“It does, doesn’t it? Though I did hear something of actual interest the other day, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, it has to do with romantic comedies… Specifically American romantic comedies. Always the same thing, never really straying from the script. It’s the four-bar blues of American film –”

Chloe pointed to the spot just above my head: “Lucky, the carpet’s on fire.”

I barely gave a second glance to the low flame my cigarette had sown.

Jake casually took a glass of water and tossed its contents across the room.

Fire extinguished. Problem solved.

“Need a towel, Lucky?” Chloe asked.

I dragged a palm across my face. “Nope. All good on this end of the rainbow.”

“Yes, I can see you’ve got things under control.”

I pulled another cigarette. “So what have you two got planned for today, doc?”

“Well…” John managed to tear his eyes from the smoldering black spot on the carpet. “I just got here around an hour ago, so nothing planned as of late.”

“You ever been to Brooklyn?”

“No.”

But you’d have to wake up pretty early the previous day to get one past Chloe. “Uh-uh, Lucky. What are you trying to think?”

I picked up the phone and dialed my voicemail. “What makes you think I’m trying to do anything?”

“You’re conscious. Talking at the same, that’s usually the –”

I extended my arm. “Have a listen to this…”

Chloe snatched the black plastic banana out of my hand and sat down on the spread of wrinkled clothes camouflaging my bed. I watched recognition grace her eyes, pupils darting back and forth as though reading the transcript. Finally, she took the phone from her ear and stared at it, as though expecting something more.

When that didn’t happen, she tossed me the phone.

Nailed me right in the crotch.

John scuttled sideways, nudged his girlfriend. “So who was that?”

“That was Hex Raitliffe,” she told him. “He’s a writer and –”

“Is he the one you met in Florida, and then back in Verona?” John asked, a little more enthusiasm than Chloe seemed comfortable with. “Is he the one with the movie? With the actress?”

I gave an approving smile. “The doctor knows his stuff, Chloe.”

“Yeah…” Chloe wasn’t as hot on my compliment. “Lucky, am I going to regret asking what any of this has to do with Brooklyn?”

“I think Hex is holding out,” I told them between puffs. “He’s a nice guy, don’t get me wrong. But he’s also a weirdo, and that message was more than simply nice. It was just plain average. I think he knows why I was calling, and I think he was letting me know, in only uncertain terms, that the twenty-seventh is going to pass with no small favors from him.”

“Lucky… What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to Brooklyn.”

“You’re going to see him?” John asked, awed.

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do, John.”

“How did you even get his address?” Chloe asked.

Jake, still hunched over his desk, shot his hand up with a declarative: “Yo!”

“It’s amazing what this guy can do on the internet,” I said.

“Lucky,” Jake turned around in his seat. “He was listed in the phone book. Under H. Raitliffe.”

“And now…” I arose from the floor and picked up my book bag. Head rush giving me a little wobble before telling them: “Now I am going to pay H. Raitliffe a little visit and see if I can’t make him see things my way… You want to come, John?”

“Are you kidding me?” Chloe squeaked, immediately correcting her register. “What the hell makes you even think either one of us would possibly –”

“If I can’t convince Hex on my own, then I thought maybe you –”

“Jake!” Chloe called out across the room. “Why don’t you go with him?”

“I am building a bridge!” Jake yelled, back turned. “Do any of you fucking idiots have any idea what it takes to build a GODDAMN BRIDGE!?”

“I’ll go with you,” John volunteered.

Chloe stared up at the dashing voice of reason in her life.

“Well…” John tried to hold back an embarrassed grin. Keep those pearly whites in check. “I’ve never met anyone famous.”

“I think you’ll find they’re just like you and me.” I gave him a solid smack on the shoulder. “This’ll be fun, you’ll see.”

“John…” Chloe tried to pull him aside before discovering there was no privacy to be had in our little holding cell. “You’ve never been to New York. You’re only here for the weekend. Is this really how you want to spend your time? Stalking?”

“Where else am I going to get a chance to do this other than New York?”

And the sad part was, Chloe really didn’t have an answer to that.

***

Do not think I was entirely blind to what was happening to me.

It was always clear that I was coming unhinged.

We took the Q into Brooklyn, the three of us. It was a familiar scenario, heavy with a dark and unwelcomed mood. I was hot on the trail. Once more, joking and casting logic to the wind, but this wasn’t how it used to be. I could see the hard facts in Chloe’s eyes as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge, bathed in the orange hues of a setting sun. She looked out past the East River and the southern tip of New York City, Twin Towers stretching upwards, seeking admittance to heaven itself. It had become routine. Perturbing and meaningless. I could feel my feet dragging, as thought stuck in an endless desert stretch, always one last dune before the oasis.

No giddy excitement. No call to adventure. There was no trace of abandon left, no sense of the unexpected waiting around every corner. Madness had turned mundane. And I continued to dig deeper, knowing that eventually, there would be no getting out. A game of truth or dare that keeps escalating, growing more vicious in its inquisitions, dangerous in its challenges, even as all those involved refuse to speak the plain truth:

This isn’t fun anymore.

Going for a ride on the express, still trying to convince myself I was the one driving.

The subway dipped underground, deep into Brooklyn.

We came to a stop at Atlantic, and I stood with little fanfare. Leading Chloe and John up the station’s steps and into a new world.

Park Slope was an approximate reminder of what I’d left behind in Verona. My hometown translated into a foreign tongue. A bubble of tranquility far from Manhattan’s endless tug of war. The streets were manageable and sparsely populated. Stores and residential buildings blended with quaint and charming ease. These sidewalks were meant for strolling, pleasant sound of birds hypnotizing my companions into a welcomed sense of security.

Fortunately for no one, I was there to break the illusion.

“Here we are.”

I halted our tour in the shadow of a five-story brownstone. Pulled a slip of paper from my pocket and double checked. I bounded up the steps and cracked my knuckles.

John was watching from the sidewalk. Anticipating. “Do you know which apartment?”

“Nope,” I replied, and pressed one of the many buzzers.

A crackling voice popped out from the speaker. “Hello?”

“Hey!” I moved my lips close to the brass panel. “What’s up, Hex! Sorry I’m late!”

There was a moment of jitterbug static, followed by: “Wrong apartment.”

I furrowed my brow, as though someone were actually watching for a flaw in my performance: “What’s that?”

“Wrong apartment,” the voice repeated. “Hex is 2B.”

“Oh, right…” I threw John a bland wink. “Thanks.”

I slid my finger down to the list and mashed the appropriate button. I waited, took a good look around the neighborhood. Shadows growing longer, crisp air sweet with the smell of a nearby bakery. I pressed again, watched a Scottish terrier lead a middle-aged woman down the street. Saw them off, then pressed the buzzer for a full three seconds.

“I don’t think he’s home,” Chloe said. “Bit a fly in the ointment, don’t you think?”

I skipped down the steps. Glanced down the block, and saw a bodega on the corner. “Follow me…”

Beneath the awning, a double row of fresh flowers awaited adoption. Plump drops of water glistening off vibrant rainbow petals. I picked out a dozen daisies and began to peruse a few cheap plastic vases lined up on a shelf.

“You do realize this could take all evening,” Chloe said. “Hell, the writer may not even be coming back tonight.”

“How about an hour then?” John suggested. I turned to see him rubbing her shoulders. “We wait for an hour, after which, dinner’s on me. Anywhere you want.”

“I want Bolo,” Chloe demanded.

“I don’t know what Bolo is.”

“Your wallet’s going to love it.”

“Uh oh.”John laughed. Bent down, closing the twenty-eight mile difference in height and kissed her.

I felt my stomach lurch. Turned back and blindly snatched at the first vase I could. Went inside to pay and emerged with yellow flowers stuffed into a gaudy purple vessel.

“Wow, flowers…” Chloe put a hand over her chest. “Really, Lucky. You shouldn’t have.”

I didn’t bother. Just led them back to the brownstone, walked up the steps. Cradling the flowers in one arm, I mashed every last buzzer with a broad sweep of my hand. Only one or two seconds passed before the intercom was alive with the babble of a dozen voices. I didn’t answer a one, and a few seconds later, some trusting soul must have forgotten just what planet he was stationed on…

The door buzzed, and I leaned against it.

The heavy plate glass swung inwards, and I motioned for them to follow me.

John took the steps two at a time.

Chloe at half gait.

The door closed behind us.

“Congratulations,” she said. “We are now in a hallway.”

I extended the flowers. “Chloe, I need you to do something for me.”

“Any reason why I’m the lucky one?”

“Because nobody trusts men.”

“Can’t fucking imagine why…” She rolled her eyes, already red with allergies. “What exactly do you want me to do?”

So this is how it went down.

John and Lucky ran up three stories, hiding out on the landing just above Mr. Raitliff’s.

Meanwhile, Chloe knocked on the superintendent’s door. A rotund Polish man, white mustache and masking-tape glasses, answered her call. She threw on her most innocent smile. Her only innocent smile, and introduced herself as Hex’s girlfriend. His English was excellent, contrary to what most movies might have led us all to believe, and he was overjoyed to hear of their one-year anniversary. His eyes lit up at the prospect of helping their celebration.

The superintendent brought her up to apartment 2B, shuffled nimbly through a mess of keys and let her in. They entered a living room with a walk-in kitchen. As per my instructions, Chloe led him over to the first available table and set the flowers down. Asked his opinion, then promptly suggested they might look better in the bedroom. The superintendent followed her in, critical eye as Chloe positioned the vase at the center of a secondhand dresser.

The super nodded enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, John and I had run down the steps, silently pushed through the door that Chloe had failed to close all the way. From the bedroom, we could hear Chloe regretting her choice, as the two of us snuck into the bathroom and hid in the shadows. I felt John holding his hand over his mouth, summercamp giggles.

We heard them come back through the living room.

Heard the door open, close, then lock.

We emerged from the bathroom and waited. Picturing Chloe walking out of the building, waiting a few seconds, then pressing the button to apartment 2B.

And I was right there to let her in.

“That was excellent,” I gushed, throwing my arms around her. Felt her body stiffen, and pulled back. Adjusted my jacket. “You should get an Oscar, really.”

“Best female in a misdemeanor, great.” Chloe glanced over to John, standing by the window with a flighty bounce in his shoulders. “Look at you. Didn’t have a shred of life to speak of at med school, did you?”

John nodded with a proud nope.

“You don’t find this the least bit disturbing?”

“It’s exciting, Chloe.”

“After a year or so, the glow wears off…” She stalked to the bedroom, then returned with the flowers. “Now what, Lucky?”

“You’re right,” I mused. Placed the vase on the table. “The flowers do look better over here.”

“Thank God. Now what?”

“Now we wait.” I pulled up a chair, plopped down and made myself at home. “And when Hex gets back, I think he’ll understand I’m not so easy to get rid of.”

“Lucky?” Chloe looked genuinely concerned as darkness began to creep through the windows. “How long has it been since you’ve slept?”

“You know, Leonardo da Vinci used to sleep just two hours at a time, in four hour shifts.”

“Wow, Lucky… Never thought about it before, but yeah. You and the world’s single greatest inventor, that’s an appropriate comparison, all right.”

“Might as well get comfortable, Chloe.” I took a deck of cards from my book bag and waved them in John’s direction. “You play rummy, doc?”

John eagerly took the cards out of my hand and sat down.

Chloe glared at her watch, then realized there was no way out.

She gave into her chair with little joy or relief.

***

I was sitting on four threes and a five to jack heart-straight, when I heard keys rattling in the door.

The three of us looked up, suddenly remembering that this was not our apartment.

I placed my cards face down as Hex entered the apartment. Curly hair hanging in his face, humming something by The Ramones. Hit the kitchen light, not registering that a lamp in the living room was already burning bright. A deft flick of the wrist sent his keys sliding along the kitchen counter.

He was halfway through the living room, when I finally broke the ice:

“How you doing, Mr. Raitliffe?”

Hex took two more steps, turned with all the delayed reaction of bad sketch comedy.

“WHOA, FUCK!” His feet spread apart in a half crouch. One of his hands shot out in a preemptive plea for his life. Slow assimilation as he began to shake his head. Curls sifting, letting out a slow, trembling breath. “Lucky…” His voice swiftly calibrated to the situation, a sad disappointment covering his surprise. “I figured you’d be coming by sooner or later.”

“Figured you must have heard something about me you didn’t like.”

“Well, word gets around,” Hex told me. “I can’t imagine the amount of people you must have told about Rebecca Demarco for it to get back to me. How you pretty much flipped your lid after you left Los Angeles to go chasing after Leah. But then again, this is the third state you and I have shared, so why am I even surprised?”

“So you left that message in hopes that I’d call back after there was nothing you could do for me.”

“What makes you think I can do anything for you now?”

“Because you left a message in hopes I’d call back after there was nothing you could do for me.”

Hex didn’t budge. Apartment clothed in pure noir.

“I’m not a stalker,” I told him.

“Fine, you’re not a stalker.”

“I’m not a threat. I’m not dangerous.”

“You broke into my apartment to let me know you’re not dangerous?”

I gestured to my rummy buddies. “Got witnesses here say we were let in by your superintendent.”

“Ah, of course… witnesses.” His eyes zeroed in on Chloe. “Good to see you again.”

Chloe kept her head. “No, it’s not.”

John raised a star-struck hand. “I’m John, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Mm.” Hex tilted his head, checking out the extra player. “Are you the new boyfriend?”

“Uh…”

“It’s all right,” I said. “You can tell him, John. The man’s a writer.”

“Yes?” John replied, apprehensive. “How did you –”

“There’s always going to be a new boyfriend,” Hex said, heading into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator. “After I heard Lucky’s story in Florida, I figured there was something brewing between him and Chloe…” Hex took out a ginger ale and returned to the table. “Then, in Verona, when I actually saw the two of them together, I was sure of it. But there was also Leah. I figured once her and Lucky got together, the caring and unappreciated Chloe would finally call it quits. Just following the narrative thread, here, but when I got Lucky’s message, it wasn’t too forgone to assume Leah and him didn’t pan out. Otherwise, I doubt I would have ever heard from him again. Problem is, this is the point in the story where the embattled strain starts to eat away at our hero…”

Hex took down half the drink, maybe wishing it were something with a bit more magic. “He’s lost sight of where he began… Operating free of context. Doesn’t even know why he started on the road to Athens in the first place. He’s flying blind, and the heartbreak tearing away at him does little to narrow the abyss.”

“You were the one who pointed me in to Leah.”

“And it was yours to screw up, Lucky.”

“You want to know what happened?”

“I know what happened.”

“Do you know what’s going to happen?”

Hex didn’t answer.

“Don’t you want to know what’s going to happen?”

He might have been reading my thoughts with experienced ease, but I had my own little window going on. Lucky Saurelius had broken into his apartment. A kid rapidly losing all sense of reality, and Hex Raitliffe hadn’t kicked him out. He hadn’t gone for a weapon, hadn’t screamed bloody murder.

He hadn’t even threatened to call the police.

Instead, he had chosen to talk shop.

So there was no hiding, and Hex eventually walked over to his desk. Turned on a small lamp, opened a drawer, dug through its contents and returned to the table.

Holding a large, rectangular ticket.

“Extra invite,” he told me. His eyes were serious, commanding. “September twenty-seventh. Lincoln Center. Seven o’ clock. Good luck with Rebecca Demarco. And, Lucky…” He placed the magic pass on the table, leaned close. “Stay very, very far away from me.”

I placed my hand on the pass. Ran my fingers along the edges, some small part of me still able to savor the moment. “No worries, Hex…” I picked up my crackerjack prize and slipped it into my jacket. “You won’t even know I’m there.”

“To dream the impossible dream. You can leave the same way you came in.”

I stood without bothering to collect the cards.

John and Chloe followed suit, and the three of us headed for the door.

“Hey, Chloe…”

The three of us turned around. Chloe looked especially eager to get out of there. Like the morning after a callous fling, doing all she could slip away as quickly and with as little talk as possible.

“Watch out for him.”

Chloe blinked. “It’s all going to end on the twenty-seventh anyway.”

“Yeah, because it’s still about her, isn’t it?”

Thankful as I was for how the evening had gone, nobody likes being talked out of existence. “I’m leaving now, if it’ll make this little discussion about me any easier.”

I turned my back on all of them, and stepped out into the hallway.

I heard Hex calling out behind me: “Thanks for the flowers.”

I prattled on down the stairs, shoved my weight hard against the front door.

Night had swallowed the city whole, and I waited for Chloe and John to emerge.

Juvenile plans to throw the world’s three most gratifying words right at their feet.

Told you so.

***

September 27, 1996 and I was beginning to feel like my old self again.

Strangest thing. Standing in my dorm room, dressed in my best. Black pants, white dress shirt, black suit jacket. Louis Prima playing on the stereo. Chloe immersed in the closet, hunting for the final touch, firing at will.

“What if she has halitosis?” She called out. “What if her breath smells like dead possum?”

“She doesn’t have halitosis,” I informed her.

“Photographs don’t smell. How can you be so sure?”

“I met her dentist a few week ago.”

Chloe paused just long enough to realize she’d been had.

Laughter was something the two of us hadn’t shared in months, and we were transported back in time.

Chloe emerged from the closet wielding a thin black tie.

“Not very original,” I said.

“If you need a Snoopy tie to get her attention, then you might as well give me your ticket.”

“I’ll get you her autograph.”

“Please don’t.”

To Chloe. Stop being such a jerk. Yours always, Rebecca.”

“Fuck you and chin up.”

She popped my collar.

I stood at full attention as Chloe’s hands sent the rabbit around the tree and through the hole. The room had gone quiet but for the music. My arms were flat against my sides, fingers tickling invisible ivory. Right knee shuddering. Chloe concentrated on her work. Glanced up. Caught me staring. She smiled with a rare glimmer behind soft, welcoming eyes. I smiled back, felt my heart ease against the pressure of tight white buttons.

“There,” she proclaimed. Stepped back to admire her work. “I agree with what I’m seeing here.”

“All set?”

“Checklist time…” Chloe produced a scrap of college ruled paper. “Cigarettes?”

I patted my inner coat pocket. “Check.”

“Marlboros?”

“Parliaments.”

She sighed. “Where have all the cowboys gone?”

“They’re Rebecca Demarco’s brand.”

“Unbelievable. Also, lighter?”

“Check.”

“Mints?”

“Check.”

“Money?”

“Got a good looking bankroll right here in my –”

“Condoms?”

“What are you, seven?”

“I’m realistic.”

“Chloe, I don’t know how many times I have to tell every last person in the world, but I don’t want to sleep with Rebecca Demarco.”

Chloe absently touched my cheek. “You really do mean that, you strange little idiot.”

“I do.”

“But, seriously, just in case she’s got a hot friend… condoms?”

“You got me. Check.”

“And where are your tickets?” Chloe asked.

“In my wallet,” I replied.

“And where is your wallet?”

I slapped the seat of my pants.

“And where are your pants?”

“Right where they need to be.”

“And where are you going?”

“Lincoln Center.”

“Which is off what line?”

“You want to pin a note to my shirt?”

“I think you’re ready,” Chloe replied. Sighed, then nodded. “You are so ready.”

I wasn’t sure if she expected me to say a few words, or simply walk out the door. I did neither, just stood there, waiting. Anticipation taking hold of my muscles. Emerging fears of the unexplored that sent my smile hiding. I found myself stepping outside my body and wondering if there was nothing more to this than a child playing dress-up.

Make believe.

Chloe brushed imaginary dust from my shoulders. Flattened the sleeves of my jacket with three swift strokes. Stood in front of me and searched my eyes for what was in store. She smiled sadly, reached into her pocket and pulled out a silver Zippo.

“I got this for you a few days ago,” she said. Placed it in my hand, let me play with it, get the feel. “I know what’s happened between us might be…” She paused. Tugged at my collar. “But even still… I’d very much like to think it was all for a reason. I’d very much like things to end well for you, Lucky.”

I reached down and put my arms around her.

She did me the same favor, and I very much wanted to stay that way.

“I’ll lock up.” Chloe broke away, motioning towards the door. “Let’s settle this thing once and for all, what do you say?”

I buttoned my coat.

Gave her a pert nod and walked out of the room.

***

I emerged from the building and onto the sidewalk. All the usual suspects were there, and they greeted me with warm appraisals.

“Well, if it isn’t sex-man Jones!”

“Looking good, GQ.”

“Where you headed?”

I took Chloe’s Zippo out of my pocket.

Sparked a stick, hit the tip and flicked the flame out with my wrist.

“Got a meeting,” I told them, and headed for the 1/9.

Got to Christopher street. Took out my metro card. Was about to head down the steps, when I noticed the woman. Puerto Rican, somewhere in her thirties. Positioning to maneuver her baby’s ride backwards down the stairs. The wind kept whipping locks of hair across her face, dangerously close to off balance.

I walked over and pointed to the carriage, slung a little Spanish.

She nodded with a tired smile.

Squatting down, I wrapped my hands around the bottom of the buggy and lifted.

The two of us took cautious steps underground. Took the stairs with deliberate speed, back-seat thoughts of where a nasty fall might land us. Her child slept the whole way, wrapped in blue and the accustomed clamor of city life.

We set the carriage down.

She thanked me, contract dissolved, and I swiped my card at the turnstile.

Slipped through just in time to catch tail lights fading towards an uptown destination. I walked to the north end of the platform, accompanied by slideshow posters reminding me to see the latest movies, buy the latest music, sport the latest cologne.

Five minutes, fresh train, and I managed to find a seat between a priest and a rabbi. I didn’t get the joke, and three stops later, handed my seat to an elderly woman and her overstuffed, netted shopping bag.

The train filled, gradually. Capacity doubling at Forty Second.

I was barely able to hang onto the overheads. Working my calf muscles to stay balanced as the train did its best to jostle the passengers together, smells of exhaustion and a hard day’s work mingling with the squeal of steel.

66th street.

Lincoln Center, I squeezed out. Relieved some of the weight.

I rushed toward the exit along with the crowd, blood cells pumped through constricted arteries. Up and out into the streets, surrounded by construction site lights, orange and white barriers. I smoothed myself, ironing out the wrinkles, and moved south.

Less than a block away from Lincoln Center.

I crossed over to the west side, obeying all traffic lights.

Final leg of my journey, breathing the night air deep into my lungs.

Heading up along the driveway that lead towards the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Preparing myself, getting into character. Passing stretch limos, ignoring the fact that I had arrived via subway, every thought in my head urging me on, insisting I was supposed to be there.

I was meant to be there.

Caught sight of the red carpet. Bright lights of photographers and camera crews. Cream of the crop, dressed in their best, heading indoors for yet another occasion out of thousands. I let my breath ease, put on a confident stride.

I was walkin’.

Yes, indeed, I was talkin’.

I tried a smile on for size, moved in with the rest of the VIPs.

Ready to stand proud amongst the rest.

Gargantuan man with dark skin and a shaved, glossy dome blocked my path. Not a far cry from the cats I’d seen outside the Greenwich clubs and watering holes, only this one was decked out in a lavish tuxedo. Secret agent get-up, no doubt those extravagant threads wouldn’t hinder a choke hold if he absolutely had to use one.

“Let’s see your ticket, son.”

I flashed a cocky grin… “Absolutely.”

I reached into my back pocket. Slid my hand deep into my back pocket, managed to cram the entire space with my fist. My fingers slid against each other. Slick with sweat, unable to accept what my brain already knew. I sent my other hand to check the opposite. Standing there on the edge of the red carpet, basically rubbing my ass in hopes of figuring where my wallet had gone.

And in those few seconds of nausea, panic, I didn’t consider the subway ride. Didn’t think of the numerous times I’d felt the bump of another body against mine, just enough to distract while invisible fingers silently separated me from what was mine.

All I could think of was the train I had missed by just a few seconds.

All I could think of was that woman and her baby carriage.

Standing at the top of the stairs, struggling to find her way down.

I looked up at the bouncer with pleading eyes. “My wallet’s gone.”

Both of us knew how it sounded.

“You must have a list there, right?” I asked, pointing to his clipboard. “I may not have my tickets, but if you could check the list…” I trailed off. Memories falling further back, reminding me that this ticket was not under my name. Rather, the ticket I was supposed to be holding in my hand, in my wallet, in the back right pocket of my pants, belonged to Hex Raitliffe.

“You want to step aside, son?” the bouncer asked, not much of a request this time. “We’ve got some people arriving.”

I stepped aside.

I stepped far, far to the side and found myself standing by the fountain at the epicenter of the plaza. Symmetrical spouts gushing, glowing with the sheen of immersed spotlights. I looked over my shoulder. Witnessed the Tempest Haven premiere unfold from a quarantined distance.

Something that wasn’t meant to be, for me.

And so I walked back.

Casual, as though I had just happened upon all the excitement, glitter, and glam. A long line of metal barriers was set up along the red carpet, keeping members of the media from bum-rushing the celebs. A second line of barriers had been placed between the press and bystanders. Some of them, no doubt, present through pure chance, plain curiosity. Others, I’m sure, with their own brand of reservations. Trek made with specific intentions of capturing pics, possible autographs of their favorite celebrities.

A crowd of bug eyed, slack-jawed voyeurs.

Stuck behind barriers that assured no entrance to the garden.

It was my place.

Where I belonged, so why not join in?

No longer thinking about the tickets. About the wallet, the chain of events, the gruesome optimism of one hour previous. I nestled in, folded my arms over cold metal, and kept watch along with the rest. Casting my eyes over the jagged mountain range of crews and flash photographers as they called out to the passing elite, searching for the perfect shot, perfect interview, hungry magazines across the country anxious to go to press.

I watched, waiting for the moment.

A child playing dress-up.

And then it happened.

From behind a limestone pillar, Rebecca Demarco appeared.

In the flesh.

Dressed in a sliver gown, elegant and form-fitting. Jet-black hair pulled back, a displaced strand escaping down her face. Past her cheek, pert mouth, resting on her chin. As diminutive as every interview had led me to believe, eyes sparkling in the floodlights.

She had changed.

Hell, I had changed.

Hell, nothing had changed.

And I watched Rebecca Demarco make her way along the gauntlet. Stopping at each station for what would become a token sound bite. I watched, saw her lips moving, not a syllable reaching my ears. The scream of rabid fans, bloodthirsty photographers echoed in my head. Every last one of them unaware of what was happening, blind to the somber nobody in their midst, nothing but empty pockets and a sad story to tell.

Counting degrees of separation with every step in my direction, until she was finally there. Directly across from me, but for the press, fourth branch of the people.

Point A and point B. Imaginary line joining us, when a photographer jumped in front of me. Camera at the ready, miscellaneous straps hanging off his shoulders, neck, belt. Blocking my view, crying out for a few photographs.

Rebecca, could you look over here!?

The photographer’s request must have been met. He snapped off, rapid fire, an Uzi in the dark. Bent his knees, slowly, moving into a crouch. Shutter speed moments of pure disconnect, and I could already sense it.

Pages of a flip-book as Rebecca Demarco’s face appeared over the photographer’s head.

The smiling, untouched moments after an eclipse.

Full countenance. No more than five feet, just within my reach.

I looked right into her eyes.

Infinite borders of innumerable magazines and movie screens blown apart by proximity.

In person, the actual dimensions of a daydream apparition.

… And all she could see was the strobe light flash.

Never once looking past what would soon be just another photograph.

Another clipping in some loser’s collection, crammed in the bottom drawer of his desk.

Same planet, different worlds, and let’s face it…

Infinity is a hell of a distance to cram into five feet.

In one deft motion, the photographer stood up and

she was already headed into the building, out of my sight.

I felt he air rush out of me.

Turned and walked away.

Past the fountain, leaving it all behind.

I walked out into the street.

Kept walking.

Block after block, indifferent to the direction, numbers dictated by city streets.

Just another guy in a makeshift suit.

I kept walking. My feet did the walking, at least. Taking me downtown, and that’s the real miracle of Manhattan. Two blocks become four, become eight, become a fractal deposit for all those willing to keep moving. Over sixty blocks of blind ambition before the veil finally lifted.

And when it did, I was back in the Village. Wandering down MacDougal, face to face with a pair of familiar, considerate eyes behind oval spectacles. Dark skin, dark hair, mustache with traces of gray. A look of recognition in the smile of a man standing outside of a bright yellow sign that read:

CREOLE NIGHTS

“Hey, Lucky…”

I looked around, realized just where my feet had landed me, right in the presence of someone who shouldn’t have remembered my name.

“Hey…” I searched, thinking. “Zephyr, right?”

“That’s right.” he shook my hand with a pleased smile. “You’re dressed real nice, Lucky.”

“Thanks.”

Good as maybe one year ago, standing in the street with Chloe, while Genevieve and her friends invited the two of us to tag along to their Tribeca party.

“You look tired, though,” Zephyr said. “We got some live Jazz tonight. No cover as always, good people and good drinks. Two dollar Buds.”

I looked down the stairs, second time around. “Is that right?”

“You ready for that drink?”

It was a little too perfect.

But perfection was one thing I really could have used.

“Yeah,” I said. “Who’s working tonight?”

“Evan. He’s my little brother. Just sit yourself at the bar and order what you like.”

I nodded.

Shook his hand and headed down the stairs.

Struck with the same setting. The same tables, lighting, worn bar. All the sights from a time when there was something to figure out. A couple of musicians setting up their instruments in the corner. Scattered couples, loners, stuck in the business of drinking.

I wandered up to the far end of the bar.

Took a look at the red and white Budweiser clock, did some rapid addition.

Figured the premier must have been over by now.

Evan wandered over. Shaved head, bulbous features. A sly and superior grin that made him look twice his size. Recognized him from my last time there, but time wasn’t my concern at the moment.

“What can I get you?” he asked, waiting for something in the shape of typical.

I folded my arms, and said the first thing that came to mind.

“Double Jack Daniels…”

He looked sufficiently pleased. “On the rocks?”

“Why the hell not?” I reached into my jacket and retrieved Rebecca’s cigarettes. “I’m not driving.”

Evan laughed, tossed a coaster on the bar.

It slid with slick momentum, hit my elbow and rested.

I pulled out Chloe’s lighter. Slid it between my fingers, enjoying the sleek silver contours. Flipped it open. Put flint to the test of a spark, and lit a Parliament. Recessed filter stiff against my lips.

Evan returned with a glass poised with amber liquid and floating ice.

“Double Jack,” he reminded me.

“Can I start a tab?”

“Of course…”

“Someone stole my wallet –”

“Tomorrow, then,” Evan assured me, leaving me to my own devices.

I picked up my drink. Turned it round in my hand, not sure how to proceed. Remembering my first kiss, a forced event between myself and a spin-the-bottle victim. The dark claustrophobia of an unfamiliar closet, her voice telling me to get it over with.

Though the glass in my hand seemed both willing and able.

I just pressed it to my lips and let the liquid take its course.

Warm despite the ice, and it sent a solid message.

An acrid taste I couldn’t help but love.

Because for once, I’d found something that agreed with me.

I took a look around the golden shades of this underground world. Smoke-filled environment that mocked fresh air. Starburst innovations playing out amongst the tables and barflies waiting for the music to start.

I took another sip of my drink.

Went down easier this time.

Asking for reinforcements.

I drank, thinking of Rebecca Demarco.

A red carpet unfolding before my eyes, and before I knew it, I was done with this one.

Evan at the ready, sensing the last traces of Jack… “You want another one?”

I considered it.

Felt myself grow into my clothes.

“Yeah,” I told him. Feeling the pressure escape my thoughts. “Yeah. And put it on my tab will you?”

“Double Jack for the man,” Evan said.

And the world slowly fell in step.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

4:47 am.

 

And that’s how I ended up down here, James…” Lucky concludes.

James straightens in his seat. “What?”

Creole Nights has lost a substantial amount of clientele to the later hours.

Lucky has born witness to this over countless nights. After hours. No official production is made, it’s only a matter of who decides to stay behind. Doesn’t have to be a regular or staff member. All that matters is that someone has chosen to remain underground. A question of why they found themselves down there in the first place.

Although being a woman in a low-cut dress certainly doesn’t hurt.

And a group of three is always good enough to keep the festivities going.

So, while four forty-seven in the morning finds Lucky and James sitting side by side, a collection of regulars and scattered newcomers gather around at bar’s end, lavishing their attention on a trio of opulent bachelorettes. The music has been lowered, and not a single word is missed in the renegade hours after closing.

Lucky stares down at his drink. “I always feel bad asking Zephyr for a drink when he’s trying to get his girl on.”

Lucky…” James sips from an empty bottle. “What was it you just said?”

I said, I always feel bad asking Zephyr for a drink while –”

Not that. Before that.”

Oh…” Lucky takes an ice cube from his glass. Gives it a few decent crunches. “I said, and that’s how I ended up down here, James…

That’s great, except… this isn’t the story of how you ended up drinking in this bar.”

It isn’t?”

No.”

Well, what more do you want?” Lucky asks. He takes another ice cube and murders it between his molars. The sound sends James into a state of panic. “I want the rest of the story. I want to know how this ends.”

Well, what if it all ended right then and there?” Lucky asks. “Seems a good a place as any.”

No. It doesn’t. I don’t believe for a second that’s how it ended, not for a moment. I didn’t come down here to hear about how you became some drunk fucking loser. Now what about me?”

What about you?”

What about what I want!”

From the end of the bar, a chorus of laughter only serves to fluster, and Lucky can almost see the kid’s face grow red.

What’s the big deal?” Lucky asks. “Hell, you might have come down here looking for me, but maybe this is how it ends. No different from me and Rebecca Demarco. All those coincidences kept leading me onwards and upwards, and finally, maybe all I got was that moment outside of Lincoln Center. Stuck on the other side of the ropes, watching her not watching me. That’s the nature of coincidence, isn’t it?”

It’s not coincidence! It wasn’t just coincidence!”

You said it yourself. Everywhere you go you keep running into people who know me. Just the same way I kept running into people who knew Rebecca Demarco.”

That’s not how it happened!” James cries. The liquor has loosened him, and while a small part questions whether this was all part of some trap Lucky laid down, he currently doesn’t give a fuck. Too far. He’s worked too hard to find his way underground, and now… “I didn’t just run into those people, you idiot! I’ve been looking for you from the beginning!”

Lucky raises a drunken eyebrow. “Since the beginning of what?”

I never just accidentally met anyone,” James tells him. “Sure, I met most everyone on a trip to visit colleges across the country. Chloe in Minnesota, Amy Button in New Jersey. Took a bus to Sherman Oaks to try and find Leah. I even took a trip down to Pantheon University, looked up Bruce and Dan to see if I could begin to get a hold of you. But you were never there, and every little bit of the story led me in another direction, so this isn’t just some stupid fantasy where God, destiny, or whatever pulls our strings. I have earned this. I’ve earned the right to hear what you have to say, to hear the whole story.”

Beat.

Then, from the end of the bar, the crowd bursts into applause.

Hurray!”

Encore!”

I want it on tape!”

James opens his mouth, ready to retort. Catches sight of himself in the mirror, the ridiculous slope of his lily white features, delicate lips and cherub cheeks. He reaches for his beer, slams it against the bar. “I could really use another drink, here!”

More laughter from the peanut gallery, only with a bit more respect this time.

I want a drink, too!” one of the women cries out.

Me too!” another one echoes.

Zephyr slides behind the bar to ensure the six breasts at his end remain right where they are. “You need another drink, Lucky?”

Damn straight,” James says.

I’ll have one, too,” Lucky adds.

Those ladies at the end of the bar think it’s wrong to have sex on the first date.”

Lucky shrugs as Zephyr pours a symphony of drinks. “What the hell is a date?”

Zephyr calls down the bar: “Lucky thinks you three are PRUDES!”

Go fuck yourself, Lucky!” one of them shouts back through drunken lips.

It’s what I do, ladies!” Lucky calls back, brandishing his fresh drink. “It is what I do!”

All cackles held in check by the rest of the men, who don’t want to see their business go across the street.

James takes his beer and has a pull.

Burps into his mouth.

You didn’t answer my question,” Lucky says.

What question?”

You’ve been looking for me since the beginning of what?”

Oh, no…” James shakes his head. “Not yet, you don’t. I’ve got some tits that need to be tatted.”

From down at the bar, more laughter.

Even Lucky joins in. “You want to explain that to me, James?”

No,” James replies. “So now you know I’ve been stalking you. I’ve laid my cards on the table, now you tell me how this really ends. And I know it doesn’t end at Lincoln Center. Chloe told me as much before she shut the hell up and sent me on my way. So come on…”

Lucky stares James down, but at this point, the two have become reluctant equals.

Ah, shit…” Lucky laughs. “I guess you never heard about what happened after the new year.”

No.”

Lucky takes a sip of his drink. “After Lincoln Center, I pretty much moved in down here. Kicked off the slow process of losing my mind. Every night, I’d sit right about where you are right now and help myself to drink after drink. Registered myself for a new credit card, and charged it all. Big mistake, by the way. Don’t let those Master Card assholes get a hold of your neck. They won’t let go, I can promise you that much.

So the semester came to an end, eventually. I managed to scrape by with straight C’s and a single F courtesy of a pass/fail course. Chloe and I saw less and less of each other. I didn’t make any overtures, and she didn’t bother with me either. When winter break rolled around, I decided to stay in New York. I’d grown used to my cramped holding cell. The alienating paradox of a city filled with seven million people. Bye-bye schedule. So long to my finals. Students trickling from their dorm rooms. The stairs outside my building shedding their winter coat, bare steps left to wonder how it got so damn cold.”

For a moment, it looks as though Lucky might actually be serving himself some pain along with his winter memories. A good bit of Jack helps that plenty. “Wasn’t until Chloe left that it felt complete. Heading home for the holidays. A final goodbye in LaGuardia’s US Air terminal.

“You’re really going to stay here? she had asked, forgetting to add a question mark. I nodded, waiting for a cutting remark that never came. Instead, I got a hug. Something akin to a farewell. Something like a helpless postponement. I had taken the bus back to the city, a destination consisting of two solid weeks. Two solid weeks spent in a hermetic landslide.

Past sunset would find me at Creole Nights. Sitting right here in my regular seat. Getting it on with my regular drink. Smoking cigarettes, staring at the bottles. Listening to the commotion around me, living in deadlock as nights kept on kicking. A glorious lack of meaning, the simple joys of a bartender’s wink, sporadic conversation, the madness of those who came underground in search of missing pieces. Let the music speak credence, candlelight flickers growing dim as time limped along with every half second. Falling into the later hours, an environment that mimicked everything I suspected was happening above ground. Laughter, fist fights, pure happenstance bringing out the most shameful and unaccountably decent in everyone who would drop by to sit a spell by the firelight of Creole Nights.”

James realizes that all remaining people have halted their conversations. Drinks resting against their lips, smiling with the imprecise knowledge that this couldn’t have happened anywhere else.

After hours took us all well into the morning hours,” Lucky continues, holding out his arms to embrace the surrounding stories. “Nothing to hold me down other than hours of uninterrupted sleep. Two weeks worth of daylight replaced with fleeting dreams. Sometimes Chloe, sometimes Leah or Rebecca, depending on which one had clocked in more hours in my waking thoughts. Adrian Lane, Genevieve Goldman, Hex Raitliffe, all sidestepping any tangible form. Hopscotching to white noise. Waking up, never with a start or violent jerk. Just opening my eyes, watching sunshine’s last writing efforts, a fish fresh off the hook. Choking on an excess of oxygen, thirsting, praying for a return to the wet.

I was back on the street by nightfall. Wandering around, taking random left, right turns. Every night a similar reflection of the last, searching for the variables. Recognizing the reliable, saying goodbye to all that had been there the previous night. An overload of awareness that would always send me back to Creole Nights.”

Lucky takes a drag, exhales. “On and on, another night underground, looking for a strange elation. New Year’s clocking in at midnight, same as it had for while now. Champagne and a well-met countdown, Zephyr’s house was undoubtedly one of celebration. Another night ending face down against a toilet seat. Watching an evening’s worth of liquid distraction blossoming before me. Inadvertent tears from red eyes, watching that last strand of spittle hanging from my lower lip. Waiting to drop, followed by a final flush. A half-blind stumble as the world raced circles around my head. Tumbling into bed, and it was like this every night until January Eighth.

Lucky sniffs.

Just about to take a drink, when he thinks to remind them all that

It was a Thursday…”

***

Class wouldn’t start till Monday, though student bodies were already starting to filter in along with the staff and administrators.

I woke up unusually early.

An unusual notion in my head. Remembering the failing grade I had unfairly received for my freshman colloquium. A screw-up in the attendance records. Thinking to myself that maybe, if I talked to the dean, I could get my F reversed. I had tried, on one or two occasions, to make an appointment with Amanda Bryce. None of them had taken, and I decided to try to fake my way into it.

Headed up to the eighth floor of the film department and told her secretary I had an appointment. The head of blonde curls told me that Amanda wasn’t in, double clicked her mouse. Sent the Dean’s schedule sprawling across the screen. In one instant, I was privy to the inner workings of what might someday be my alma mater.

A meeting with Coca Cola. A meeting with Blockbuster Video representatives. A meeting with a couple of well-established film companies. Meeting with Summerset Cruises, there was an interesting little bit of how-do-you-like-that. A meeting with any number of companies and corporations, it read like a fundraising roster for reelection.

“Let’s see,” the blonde let her mouse wander, clicking with manicured fingernails. “I don’t think she’s got anything open for a couple of weeks, but –”

“Just put me down for the first available opening,” I told her. “Name of Lucky Saurelius.”

I wasn’t prepared for how she turned in her chair. “You’re Lucky Saurelius?”

And for one brief second, I was a celebrity. “Yeah. If you want to tell –”

“We’ve got a letter for you.”

“Huh?”

She reached into the desk and pulled out an envelope, handed it over.

Expecting to find Leah’s flowing calligraphy.

Finding a crass set of letters, addressed to Lucky Saurelius.

Care of Amanda Bryce.

New York postmark. Dated two months ago.

Under orders from my own curiosity and the secretary’s watchful eyes, I went and eviscerated.

No letter.

Just two tickets wrapped in a shred of paper reading Lucky & Chloe.

“So what is it?” she asked.

I frowned. “Two tickets for a movie premiere. Something called Sealed With a Click.”

“Oh my God, you got tickets to Sealed With a Click?”

“Apparently.”

“That’s tomorrow, you know.” she told me. “The movie premieres tomorrow, you know.”

“Yeah,” I stuck the tickets back into the envelope. “Lucky I happened to show up here.”

“I know!”

“Yeah. Was anybody maybe planning on getting this letter to me?”

“Well, Dean Bryce really wanted to…” The blonde assured me. “But she said she couldn’t remember what your real name was. We were going to get to asking around, but we never quite got to it. I mean, if she’d known they were tickets to the premiere of Sealed With a Click, I’m sure she would have –”

“Great,” I cut her off and headed for the door. “Don’t bother with scheduling that meeting. This has got to put me neck and neck with Frito-Lay.”

I made for the elevators.

A monster hangover setting in. Head throbbing, pulse amplified by the introduction of an anonymous benefactor. The doors slid open. I endured the next few floors, trapped between two grad students discussing their shooting schedules.

Managed to make it to Broadway without throwing up.

Walked back to my dorm, ice age of a brand new year. Same streets of the past two weeks, now host to daylight activity, all the while a strange voice whispering with every comforting gust of wind.

Promise of one final push towards complete annihilation.

***

That belt of Jack was still with me as I stepped out onto the steps.

The smokers, stoop kids, were all very much over the magic of their freshmen semester. It was colder than a dead penguin’s ass out there, ceaseless January cutting into my cheeks. Even the overstuffed garbage bags lining the streets couldn’t manage to keep their stench going past seven.

I turned to the doorway, struggling to catch sight of my reflection.

Special occasion.

Shaved.

Showered.

Hair slicked back.

Decked out in my Lincoln Center ensemble.

Little more than make up. Crass foundation.

It was all out there now, manifested for everyone’s benefit.

My jacket unable to hide the frightening loss of weight. An already threadbare Lucky Saurelius had shed what little there was to keep him from raising red flags. Eyes retreated into dark craters, skin pulled taught. Sallow color several shades removed from his usual olive.

Couldn’t remember the last time that the sun and I had sat down for a chat.

I grinned at my transparency. Devil-may-care, running on empty.

Turned back to the streets to catch Chloe. Freezing her ass off. Out of place as she did her best to become one with her black, strapless dress. Shoulders screaming from overexposure. Satin shining from her breasts, down past her hips and coming to rest at open-toed heels. Those three inches of height added to her mood just splendidly, hair pulled back in a bun, exposing her neck to extraneous chill-bumps.

Her very soul was crying, I could tell.

She caught me staring, arms wrapped tight around each other.

“What do you want from me?” she demanded. “It’s my first big premiere and vanity was first in line.”

“Welcome back…” I took the steps, drew her close and put my arms around her. “How’s it going south of Mason-Dixon?”

“It’s fine.” She broke away. “Starting drinking early, I see.”

“Just one drink.” I lit a cigarette, white smoke unrecognizable from the chill of my breath. “Just a wee nip of courage, as your kindred Irish might say.”

“Yes, well. You stink, my lad.”

“Damn right. And might I add, you look aces.”

“Damn right. You ready for this?”

I took her arm and began walking her towards Eighth. “Let’s get us a cab.”

“We’re taking a cab?”

“Something I learned the hard way,” I said with cosmetic wisdom. “Don’t take the subway when your pockets are lined with gold.”

“Got the tickets in your wallet?”

“Lesson number two…” I reached into my breast pocket and produced the goods. “Never carry a wallet. Too much in one spot. No good. Eggs and baskets. Got to pool and diversify, lesson number two.”

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve discovered lesson number one.”

“Which would be?”

“Don’t go chasing famous celebrities.”

“I guess if I had to do it all again, I would’ve set my sights on the vast number of unknown celebrities plaguing our movie screens, but point well taken.”

“Look…” She threw her arms back around her shoulders. “I’m… I discovered over the break my… the absolute depth of how miserable I am here in New York… my absolute resentment, the rage of where you’ve taken us.”

I nodded, tongue jutting against my cheek.

“And yet, here I am… So I guess I’ve got one last battle in me… But I just thought you should know, I’m certain now. Ninety percent certain that come tomorrow, I’m dropping out of Barnard and heading back home… I’m going to enroll at UNC, or anything I can find to be close to John… and away from you.”

I nudged a trashed styrofoam cooler with my shoe. “You know what I am, Chloe?”

“What’s that?”

“Typical. I am so goddamn typical. I live in my brain, in a world where men chase after women, and the urge for reward is something to be rewarded, and persistence is something to be proud of, no matter what the goal. No matter anything other than wanting something to be yours. I live in a fucking movie, I believe in everything this world, the world has told me.” With a few quick shakes of the shoulders, I took off my coat and wrapped it around her. “Thank you for being here.”

Chloe nodded, swallowing in assent.

“Here’s our cab.”

So we said very little on the way to midtown.

My attention divided between the traffic and nervous bounce of Chloe’s left knee.

Methodical chewing of fingernails.

We slowed on our approach to the Ziegfeld, block-long stretch of limos and private cars already plugging up the works. In the distance, a spotlight cluster of flashing bulbs awaited.

Someone knocked on the window: young volunteer, all bundled up against the cold, scarf tucked in safely beneath his goatee. Clipboard held in gloved hands, headset microphone floating inches from his lips. Laminated credentials hung around his neck, tapping against the glass.

I stepped out of the car. Presented my tickets to the young hopeful, visions of future film projects dancing in his head like well-scripted sugarplums. He waved us on, darting towards another vehicle.

Chloe and I stood some twenty yards away. She disengaged my coat from her shoulders, slipped it over my ragtag frame. Buttoned the front.

“Ready?” I asked.

“You’re the one that’s done this before… was this what Lincoln Center was like?”

“This is ten times that. If that… if anything at all.”

“Let’s go.”

We wandered over to the carpet.

Massive security guard already preparing to crack our skulls.

“Great, this guy…” I flashed the tickets.

Death grip, presented like a shorn bouquet.

Big bad took a look at them.

Eyes concentrating under a dark, inexplicably sweaty brow.

Handed them back, instantly stopping our advance.

“You’ve got to stay here for now,” he ordered. “Tad Banks is on the red. Can’t have you sharing the carpet with him. Press being what it is, you know?”

I did my best to glance past this colossus.

Sure enough, Tad Banks, one of Hollywood’s most affable leading men, was standing alone on the red sea. Smiled his million-dollar smile, spread his classy aura among the paparazzi and loyal fans alike. The air filled with scimitar shrieks, and had my eyes been closed, I would have broke down, tears on the red carpet, mistaking those cries for mass extermination.

Tad Banks entered the theater. Another limo pulled up. The bouncer swept us along with an effortless shove, gigantic hand never actually touching us: “We’ve got others coming in, so get inside quick. Don’t fool yourselves.”

Chloe and I made our way along the carpet.

Flashbulbs dead to us.

We made it inside, up a set of curving, carpeted stairs. Thick silver-plated guardrails guided us to the mezzanine, packed with aristocratic socialites and bowtied servers carrying trays of red and white.

Chloe and I synched up, snatched at the first available glass of cab.

Our toast resounded with a chime of unfounded entitlement, and the wine was gone on first tilt.

“This isn’t quite what I imagined,” Chloe said.

“This is exactly how I imagined it.” We placed our glasses on a passing tray, simultaneously procuring two more. “I just never imagined it quite like this.”

“Brilliant, Lucky. You ought to be a writer…” Chloe motioned towards a graying woman, wrinkles peeking out from beneath a sequin dress. “When did Mrs. Havisham move to New York?”

“Someone’s got to be in charge of the cake.”

“Is she wearing an actual tiara?”

“I actually think she is.”

“How many children do you think it took to mine all those diamonds?”

“Let’s think about that a whole lot more.” I raised my glass. “Cheers.”

Second helping of wine gone to join the first.

“You want to get me some gummy bears?” Chloe asked.

Noticed popcorn bags in the hands of empty tuxedoes and Vera Wangs.

People magazine was right about them and us after all.

“Let’s just find our place.”

Nearest door presented us with a brigade of seats spilling down towards more silver than I had ever seen on a screen. All heads trapped between sitting and standing. Shaking hands. Backslapping, wheeling them deals. I took a closer look at the tickets, certain our seats had to have been somewhere in the janitor’s closet.

Did Ziegfeld have a basement?

“Lucky, Chloe…” An unnecessary introduction appeared alongside us with a smile and wink. “Permit me the honor of leading you to your seats.”

Maybe it was the fact that Cyrus Sparks was standing on dry land. Maybe that’s what accounted for that split-screen second. Before and after, side by side. One year and fifty cents past last sighting, running along the sand, arms flailing. Hawaiian shirt and sunburned nose now replaced with tan and tux, maybe that was it. Or could be it was just one coincidence too many and I had simply forgotten what it was like to be caught unprepared.

“Surprised?” he asked. Voice of a velvet blanket, spreading with brazen panache along his black Armani and down to thousand-dollar shoes.

“Cyrus…” I caught up with the moment, drunken cool. “Last time I saw you, I believe you were –”

“We don’t have to talk about that.” He reached for Chloe’s hand. Met her winter-beaten fingers with a reverent kiss. “I’m glad you could make it.”

Chloe made no bones, wiped the back of her knuckles against her dress. “I suppose you’re just dying to tell us why you’re here.”

“Follow me…” Cyrus led us down the aisle, waving left and right. “Funny to think, Lucky. That if we hadn’t switched bags, you wouldn’t be here right now. Not a lot of people know this, or ever will, but every minute I spent on that boat is just a… fuzzy memory of pure hell. Excuse me…”

Cyrus leaned over a row, shook the hand of a portly man, thinning hair and budding wife. Or escort, whatever. Chloe and I were left to wait it out. Standing at attention, a pair of freshman pledges, dread and uncertain expectations.

Another handshake, oral contract signed, and Cyrus kept the engine running. “So yeah, the switch. I had failed my responsibilities, failed myself. Pink slip, that’s what I had to look forward to. Blacklist, better still. You’ll never work in this town again, it’s a real thing, Lucky. But I did have your footage, and so, I laid low. Rented out an editing studio, and, undertaking several sly maneuvers, managed to procure preexisting footage of Summerset Cruises. I fused it with what you had taped. Set up a fake address in NC, had someone mail the results from there a month or so later. I returned to my job, pretending everything was hunky dory… and then I was called out. Caught in my lie.”

Cyrus stopped near row G, prime real estate for all those in the calm of Hollywood’s happy palm.

“There I was. Thinking that’s it. Done for. For your parting gift, Cyrus, we have a lovely job teaching communications for the rest of your life at some loser community college, but… it turns out just the opposite. I mean, if show business had a presidential medal of honor… My handling of the situation you put us in, the video I put together… Well, that’s just the person they were looking to slide right beneath head of production at Gemini Pictures. I was already trying to get involved with this project you might have heard of: Sealed With a Click. And after I brought them their star –”

“Cyrus. You want to reveal the twist, or am I going to have to write the goddamn movie for both of us?”

Cyrus laughed. Rowdy, decadent, at the top of its game. Nearby parasites joined in with their own grins, eyes begging to be let in on the joke. “Well, who do you think sent you those tickets, Lucky?”

A defeated, inescapable grin began to bridge the gap between my nose and chin. “Any of those girls with the wine trays coming by here anytime soon?”

“Later,” Cyrus assured me. “For now, please join me and my fiancée on the occasion of this fine motion picture event.”

“Produced, from what I gather, by Mr. Cyrus Sparks?”

“Co-produced.”

“Fiancée?” Chloe asked.

And there was Genevieve Goldman by his side.

Festooned in an emerald green dress.

As though her body really needed the help.

“Hey, guys!” She waved with wide, sweeping gestures from three feet away. “Glad you could make it.”

“Genevieve didn’t want me to invite you,” Cyrus said. Put an arm around her waist and drew her close for a bristly kiss. “I had to put it into context for her, put the rivalry between her and Rebecca to rest.”

“I was wrong,” Genevieve confessed, rolling her eyes. “I told him I was wrong, and jerk-face here said he wouldn’t mention it. Seriously, Lucky… without you, I wouldn’t be here.”

“The footage,” I said, doing all I could to remain level headed and unimpressed. “The footage I took of you on the cruise, right?”

“I knew Genevieve would be perfect for the lead,” Cyrus said. “I tracked her down, got her signed, and what do you know… two months later, we’re engaged.”

“Sorry about all the trouble I caused you,” Genevieve said.

“Not a problem,” I managed.

Chloe shrugged. “Wish to God it had actually worked.”

Genevieve’s smile faltered.

Wasn’t much of a victory, and the moment was broken as

the lights began to dim, and Cyrus led us to our seats.

Right next to him and his fiancée.

“Lot of people here tonight,” I heard Cyrus whisper as the crowd kept talking, talking, talking. “We even tried to get Rebecca Demarco to show. Thought it would be perfect, seeing as how we kind of also have her to thank for this evening. Sadly, she was on a shoot and couldn’t make it.”

I stared at the screen, only one bothering to place my eyes where they belonged. “What makes you so sure I haven’t met Rebecca Demarco yet?”

“Because I would have heard about it.” Cyrus laughed, as though I were a three-year-old asking if God was like those golden arches above the McDonald’s sign. He clapped me on the back, doing little to dislodge the lump in my throat. Gave me an affectionate shake, adding: “No worries, though. I wouldn’t have invited you if I didn’t think there were plenty of fish to shoot. Fat fish. Whales, Lucky. Whales.”

Chloe threw me a glance.

Fading into darkness as the screen caught fire, reels spinning in an unseen projection booth. The applause swelled, even as stragglers continued to search for their seats, unwilling to adjust their egos to Eastern Standard Time.

We settled in.

No commercials.

No requests to remain silent.

No previews.

No gummy bears, no Twizzlers, and I felt Chloe’s hand wrap around mine.

I held on tight, and came to a lonely little realization.

It was our first movie together.

This was our first big-screen movie together, since Ghost Girl, that didn’t star Rebecca Demarco.

Like a glass slipper, all hopelessly fitting.

***

Until I found myself sitting at a table with Rebecca Demarco’s best friend, the strangest part of the evening was that first cigarette.

Sealed With a Click turned out to be a textbook example of romantic comedy; double coat of sugar frosting, not a single frame to offend the mind. Superbly executed, well-intentioned fluff guaranteed to warm hearts across the board. Certainly did the job of distracting me for the next two hours.

And wouldn’t you know it, Genevieve wasn’t bad up there on the screen.

Kind of better than that, she was well past pretty fucking good.

Come credits, the entire audience was brought to its feet with delighted applause, joyous whistles, and so

I stood and applauded with the rest. House lights on high.

Gaggle of privileged babble, echo chamber.

I turned to shake his hand

“Good on you, Cyrus,” I told him. “This’ll play like gangbusters, isn’t that what they say?”

“Number one, opening weekend,” Cyrus agreed. “I’ve got a feeling.”

I reached over and tapped Genevieve’s bare shoulder. “Congratulations, you.”

Genevieve smiled. “Thank you, Lucky.”

“You’re welcome.”

“We’ve got the party going on at the Museum of Natural History,” Cyrus glanced past me. “You two want to ride in our limo, Chloe?”

Chloe nodded. “Sure.”

We followed the betrothed through crowds of energized friends, associates, investors, studio heads, and scheming barnacles. Slow going. I tried to shoot Chloe reassuring glances, holding my tongue as people jostled her left and right, practically trampled her feet to sidle up to Cyrus and Genevieve.

All the way out into the wild.

The press had weathered the cold this whole time, equipment at the ready. Flashbulbs popped, meteoritic. Blinding. Had to marvel at how our celebrity counterparts soaked it all in. Drew strength.

Genevieve was hailed by a crew from Sky News.

Chloe and I took uncertain steps, before Cyrus pointed towards the end of the carpet. “Go on ahead to the limo, we’ll be along in a minute.”

We ducked into the back, cushioned seats at the end of a purple and white florescent tunnel. Entertainment system embedded alongside the sunroof. Mini bar awaiting our orders. Through the tinted windows, I saw Genevieve and Cyrus, no closer than before. I shifted my sights back to the booze and caught a pint of Black Label sending a seductive wink my way.

“So…” I picked out a glass. Opened the ice bucket. Turns out the laws of thermodynamics favor the elite, and I picked out a couple of large, pristine cubes. Dropped them into my glass with silver tongs and poured myself some scotch. “Matchmaker, matchmaker, bring me a cat. How about it?”

Chloe crossed her legs, arms. “I didn’t think I’d feel this uncomfortable in a limo. Around this whole scene. Do you feel it Lucky? Please tell me you –”

“Oh, I’m just sick about this.” I raised my glass. “But I believe this glorious stuff should take care of that right quick.”

I took a drink, didn’t have to pound it.

Let the scotch have its way with my tongue and sent it trickling down my throat.

I smacked my lips… “Here’s to Deus Ex Machina.”

“Maybe fate’s not such a crock,” Chloe said, taking the drink from my hand. “Seeing Cyrus and Genevieve, I can’t help think… I don’t know, like Nietzsche postulated. Maybe there are some people who were destined for greatness and then there’s the rest of us.”

The bungled and the botched…” I let Chloe take a sip and took back the glass. “You don’t belong here. You don’t, and thank God for it.”

“What are you talking about?”

I took down the rest of the drink.

Looked out the window, avoiding her question.

“Screw it…” I put down the glass and picked up the pint. “I’m not waiting for this Goddamn hearse to get me to the church on time. Let’s enjoy ourselves for what we are, Chloe. Seriously. Just walk to the party, what do you say?”

Chloe nodded. Uncrossed her legs and reached for the door in one go.

I slid the Black Label into my pocket and followed her out.

We told the chauffeur to pass the message on to Cyrus Sparks.

It was a twenty-minute stumble that took us past Lincoln Center.

Not a lot to say about that.

To each other or the homeless masses huddled around Columbus Circle.

Wasn’t until we crossed those double doors, that it struck me the party was actually taking place inside the museum. We flashed our passes. Followed the crowd through a long corridor lined with empty suits of armor, guardians, protectors, watchmen, leading us into the Whale Room.

From the top of the stairs, Chloe and I looked down on loneliness. Half a football field, filled with catered booths. Each one serving up food from landmark sites along New York’s Upper West Side. Even Gray’s Papaya, famous for their seventy-five-cent dogs, had joined the party. A polka pattern of tables surrounded the buffet, each seating six to ten people. Music blared through imported speakers, mixing in with the crowd down below. A-listers coupled with drinks from four separate bars at each corner of the room.

All under the purview of a life-sized, ninety-four-foot whale. Floating in mid air, model suspended from the ceiling by industrial strength wires. Gargantuan mouth frozen in an eternal grin, tail poised on the brink of a powerful thrust that would never quite propel it from its place.

The big blue uninvited guest.

And I guess we had something in common.

We made our descent in slow measures. “I’d punch my own face for a cigarette.”

“Well, it’s a museum, so take it outside, Marlboro Man.”

“What do you say we hit the bar and get blitzed?”

“You only live twice.”

“Nancy Sinatra, as I live and breathe.”

“Best Bond song ever.”

“Tally-ho, then.”

“Maybe we should get something to eat first, though.”

“Sure.”

We went wading, honestly weighing the merits of a free meal. Every time I got close to one of the booths, my throat would clench. Smell of food clashing with history, presence of all that came before us.

Don’t know if this was what Chloe was thinking, but I couldn’t help notice she wasn’t exactly helping herself to anything.

We approached the corner pocket, and the tender gave me a knowing smirk.

“What’s happening?” he asked, toying with a trimmed beard adorning onyx skin, eyes in their late twenties.

“Got separated from my band class,” I told him.

He motioned towards Chloe. “Is this your girlfriend?”

We would’ve done wonders in synchronized swimming: “No.”

“Time for a drink then?”

“Something in a Jack, please,” I told him. “Something with some ice.”

“Same for me,” Chloe said. “And add a little cola to soothe the sting.”

“Right away.”

He scooped, poured, mixed.

Handed the results wrapped in twin napkins. “Made it a double.”

“Hell, yes.” I took the drink and halved it in a single go.

Held it up to my eyes with playful curiosity…

“You’re some piece of work, man…” He topped me off. “What are you doing here?”

“Don’t ask,” Chloe slurred, some damage done on her own.

“Looking for answers,” I said. “I suppose.”

“Sorry to hear that, man. Museum’s closed for a party tonight.”

I took a swallow of Jack. “Is that what all this is?”

“Not a place for answers, no matter what your problems are.”

“What makes you think I have problems –”

Bartender cut me off with a finger, pointing towards my glass.

What was once a double of Jack, now empty.

Nothing but naked ice cubes waiting for reinforcements.

Chloe burst out laughing, already well on her way to being drunk. “I’m going to look for Cyrus.”

“Really?”

Chloe accepted a refill from the bartender. “I still don’t believe I’m here.”

“Maybe that’s why I’m staying at the bar and you’re still looking for validation.”

“Calling the kettle black, are we?”

“World’s gone to pot.”

“See ya,” Chloe sang, and disappeared into the crowd.

I found myself missing the anonymous walls of Creole Nights. “I’ll have another one, Andre.”

“You’re the first person to call me by my name tonight.”

“You’ve got a tag…” I informed him, pointing to his breast pocket. “Right there. Andre.”

“You’re still the first.” He poured me my drink. “Now leave me alone. You’re scaring away my customers.”

I wandered off.

Drink in hand, strolling through the crowd.

Stranger in a strange land.

Found a place to stand on my own.

Sparsely populated corner, right next to a table of elderly couples. Drank. An evening that shouldn’t have been, unfolding. Index finger tapping against my glass.

Really jonesing for that cigarette.

So bad I could smell it. Took a breath. Inhaling the jagged aroma of burning tobacco, from my nose, deep into my lungs. Whetting my pathetic need, certain I must have been imagining things, before I glancing down and leftwards.

Saw Mrs. Havisham puffing away on a cancer stick.

Tapping her remains into a glass ashtray.

I came close to telling her she couldn’t do that. That we were in a museum. Surrounded by preservation, links to the past, evidence of our existing and present condition. Hallowed ground. Seemed like a sure bet that she must have simply forgotten where she was. I came close to telling her all of this, when I caught a flicker from the corner of my eye.

From across the way, and saw someone sparking a Dunhill, right next to Gray’s Papaya. Full drag, and I realized, yes, that was an ashtray at the table next to me. Waking up, twelve step program in reverse, I was able to positively identify a dozen or so smokers spread across the room.

Childhood memories of the basic rules for our field trips.

No food.

No drinks.

No smoking.

They were smoking in a museum.

Smoking in museum, pissing in a church.

Setting fire to the atmosphere and sunbathing in the fallout.

There really was no door that couldn’t be opened.

I reached into my coat.

Fumbled past the boosted bottle of Johnny Black and took hold.

Pulled out my pack of Reds.

Dug into my pants pocket, retrieved Chloe’s Zippo.

Sparked a flame, secretly hoping this was all imagination.

I lit up, took a drag.

Nobody noticed.

I blew smoke out into the air, begging to be called out.

When I heard someone calling my name, I silently thanked God that there was still some semblance of civilization to be found. Waited with joyous surrender for someone to throw me out of the room. Out into the streets. Face first where all of us belonged.

Instead, I got Cyrus.

Cyrus Sparks, a glass in hand to match my own.

Cigarette in his mouth as he slapped my shoulder, brought me back to the ugly truth.

“Lucky, you son of a bitch!”

“Cyrus, you same exact thing,” I said. Went ahead and kept on smoking. “Did your chauffeur –”

“Yeah, sorry it took so long, but hey…” He looked out over his kingdom and leveled it all with his hand. “Even the slightest disturbances can set the ground for future successes.”

“That’s really not at all how the butterfly effect works.”

“Hey, I’ve got Chloe sitting at a table with some people you should meet.”

“Lead the way.”

Cyrus made his introductions, the very model of a modern major power player.

Genevieve, I already knew.

Serena Sterling; recognized her as the director. Middle aged, streaks of gray in a well-fashioned haircut, smiling through her lipstick, comfortable overbite. Living high off the hog in a world of pigs who would rather die than let a woman tell them what’s what.

Cyrus took me around the block –

this is blah, that’s blah, you might recognize blah from his appearance in blah, and blah, who discovered blah, when blah found blah

– before settling on Gracie James. Dark hair trimmed into a pixie cut, pressed flat against her head with molding wax. Skin the very picture of perfect. Not a single blemish along her pale features, mascara eyelashes stretching into beautiful escapism.

Recognizable to any lunatic with a death wish as Rebecca Demarco’s best friend.

And next to her was Chloe.

Staring at me with wide, tipsy eyes.

I sat down with a laughable grunt, and continued to drink.

“So how do you know Lucky?” Serena asked. Aiming her question at Cyrus, eyes on me. “It’s good to have someone new at the table.”

“If it weren’t for Lucky, we wouldn’t even be here,” Cyrus told her.

“Oh!” Serena took a sip of her red wine. “Is this the Lucky who –”

“The very same.”

He went on to tell the entire story for the benefit of those not in the know. No mention of his ocean phobia, no mention of Rebecca Demarco. Amazing as it was, he took every key element and found a way around it. Replaced it with simulated situations, easily resolved contrivance.

Nice little companion piece for what I had been doing all these years.

I stole a glance at Gracie James.

Felt as though it should have meant something more to me.

But I was just so goddamn tired.

Noticed a server walking past, and brought her close. Asked for another Jack on the rocks, please, and dropped Andre’s name. Delivered post haste, and I continued to become one with the spiral. Focusing all thoughts on my drink, when I noticed that Cyrus was done relaying the producer’s cut.

All capped off with a question from Serena.

“Huh?” I asked.

“What do you think, Lucky?” Serena asked. “One event setting the stage for everything that follows?”

I frowned. Dipped a finger into my drink and stirred the ice, watched it melt.

“You were the one that directed Sirens, Serena…” I removed my finger from my drink and sucked on the tip. “You’re first time directing, breaking out from just screenwriting. Am I right about this?”

“Yes…”

“So think of it like this…” I thought about it myself. Not a clue that I was about to slip a key into the lock. Just wondering. Just trying to decide what I really believed. “Sirens was Rebecca Demarco’s first movie, right?

Honestly just a way to get Gracie’s attention.

Though, honestly, I couldn’t have known what I was stepping into.

“That’s right,” Serena agreed. “She was just a baby at the time, you should have seen her.”

“Well, she’s not a baby now,” I said, slurring my sentences. Not caring. “She’s an established star, and when you think about it… well, that was your decision, wasn’t it?”

“It was.”

“So you see, it was you that –”

“But it was a bit of a coin toss,” Serena interrupted.

“Huh?”

“A coin toss…” Serena was suddenly very excited. “See, Rebecca’s role was open casting. Hundreds of little girls, I swear, those kinds of calls can be the worst. It’s not like any of them get to just go to their agent and line up their next deal. It’s process of elimination…”

Everyone at the table nodded with knowing looks.

Whether they had ever had any skin in the game was up for grabs.

Didn’t make a difference, and Serena kept on with her half of the story: “I don’t know what it was about Rebecca. Because, after the process of elimination was over and done with, it was her. It was Rebecca and the runner up. Both sitting before me, in my office. And I let one know she was very talented, and the other that she was going to be in a movie. Had to go with Rebecca, let the other one go.”

“Yeah, and who remembers that girl’s name?” I asked, believing my point to have been completely proven.

“I do,” Serena said. “I remember, because the two of them were dead ringers for each other. That’s why I say coin toss, it was fifty-fifty. But finally, I did what I had to. It was my first time making that kind of decision, but I turned to the runner up and said… Leah, you’re very talented, and I think you have a lot going for you… But I’m going with Rebecca.”

A black, sackcloth hole tore open before my eyes, and the invisible hand of God shot through my eyes. Plunged elbow deep into my brain, reaching all the way to the back of my skull, and I was going to have to ask Serena to repeat that last part, please.

I saw Chloe’s eyes register the same volatile understanding.

But above all else, I saw Gracie James.

Eyes reflecting our surprise as she dug into her purse.

“You actually…” I did my best to keep it cool. “You actually had Rebecca Demarco and –”

“Is Lucky a nickname?”

All of us turned to Gracie James.

Sitting in her seat, eyes open.

Positively planetary.

Holding a wallet in her hands.

“I’m just saying this because…” Gracie paused. Only for a moment before she turned to Serena. “Did you say her name was Leah?”

“Yes,” Serena said. “Her name was Leah. Leah Herschel.”

Gracie removed a 1 × 1.5 inch photograph from the wallet.

Gave it an intense once-over before handing it to Serena.

Serena, who brought it in close.

Holding it with both hands, despite the its wallet-sized dimensions.

Recognition, confusion, even fingerprints of paranoia.

She glanced up, over to Gracie.

“Is that her?” Gracie asked. “Is that the same Leah?”

Serena turned the picture on its back… “Well, I doubt I could’ve told one from the other, but judging from the inscription on the back… Yes, I think this is the same one.”

So goddamn damn tired, didn’t want to see for myself.

But I held out my arm, Regardless. Palm up, asking if I could have a look. Not that I needed validation. This particular mystery was coming together somewhere at the end of the universe.

One last look.

I took the picture from Serena, and held it close to my face.

Found myself looking directly into Leah’s eyes.

The yearbook snap she had included in the letter she’d left behind. The first of two goodbyes. The one I had refused to accept. Shoulders slouched under a red and white striped sweater. Modest and uncomfortable grin captured against the backdrop of an artificial sky.

I traced the circumference of her face with the tip of my thumb.

“Lucky’s just a nickname,” I said. Didn’t stop looking at the picture, just reached out. Felt the wallet weigh into my open palm. Set the photograph alongside the ashtray, and unfolded the flimsy, mock-leather.

No money to be found.

Miscellaneous phone numbers, membership cards and receipts, all gone.

Just my student ID, nothing but my picture, name and expiration date.

Just my student ID and a lonely looking ticket.

TEMPEST HAVEN: ADMIT ONE.

I held onto the wallet, open book with no pages.

Met Gracie’s expectant eyes and asked, “Where’d you find it?”

“Under a tree in Central Park,” she said. Strangely apologetic, as though accusations of theft might follow. “Maybe a month ago. I was going to return it, but there was no address on the ID. Thought about stopping by the university, see if I couldn’t talk to someone, but… After I saw the picture, and then the ticket to the Tempest Haven premier, I just kind of thought I’d keep it for a while.” She sent a quick look around the table. “I guess I just wanted to hang onto the mystery. I didn’t want to give it up…” She went back to addressing me, no idea there was nothing to admonish or forgive. “I don’t know if that makes any sense.”

I reached for my drink and had a tasteless sip. “You did the right thing.”

“I was hoping to show Rebecca, but she’s been away on a shoot, and –”

“Ms. James…” I gave a hopeless little laugh. “You did the right thing.”

Followed up with a reassuring smile.

Gracie James returned a nervous interpretation of the same.

Cyrus couldn’t help it: “You went to the Tempest Haven premiere, Lucky?”

I stared him square. “You know I couldn’t have, Cyrus.”

“But you’ve got the ticket…” He gestured with his drink. “In your wallet. How did you get –”

“How did you end up with Leah’s picture?” Serena interrupted. Spell broken. Needing more. “You obviously must have met her, but… To think, you have her picture in your wallet. You’ve got a ticket to a movie Rebecca was in, it’s as though you’ve brought them together somehow, these two girls who’d… I mean, they were in my office and I picked…” Information overload, and I could only sympathize with the breakdown of continuity as she simply asked, “What are the odds?”

I agreed, folding my wallet and shoving it in my pocket.

“So…?” Gracie leaned forward, expectant. “How did it happen?”

I hesitated.

The smell of cigarettes thick in the air of Manhattan’s Natural History Museum.

I looked over at Chloe.

Sad and beautiful.

Black dress covering a body that seemed to beg for misfortune.

She graced me with a smile of pure surrender, eyes telling me what I already knew.

Perfect person, really.

I smiled back, nodding.

Picked my Jack Daniels from the table and killed the rest.

Stood ungraciously, all eyes following, elevating with comic timing.

“Have a good evening, everyone…”

I didn’t wait to see their reactions. No need for a second glance. My glass was dripping, frigid little drops tapping against my shoes as I stumbled over to the bar.

Andre seemed pleased to see me.

He took my glass, filled it to the top hat.

“They want me to tell them my life’s story, Andre.”

“Is your life’s story any good?”

I drank my Jack and nodded with fearless reconciliation. “It is… small.”

“You going to go back there and tell it?”

I looked into my drink… “I think I’m going to go home.”

“Where’s home?”

“I’m starting to think it’s a little piece of underground on MacDougal Street.”

I drank, three consecutive gulps, wondering if I wasn’t unconsciously working on a suicide note. I took two more gulps, drained my glass until the ice cubes rested against my teeth.

Andre nodded. “I think I can be of some service.”

Even my breath was slurred, and I didn’t bother to ask.

Just handed him my glass.

Andre set it down behind the bar and remained motionless.

Just staring at me.

“Get some rest before moving into your new home,” he told me.

I replied with a diagonal nod, cut off for the evening. With my coat buttoned, I pointed in what I believed to be Andre’s direction. Winked with both eyes, and lurched across the room. Took the ascending stairs with considerable help from the guardrail.

Paused at the top.

Looked out over the indulgent promises.

A near bird’s eye view of the table I’d absconded from.

Empty seat with my name on it, all mine for the taking.

I felt Chloe’s hand on my shoulder. Didn’t have to look to know it was hers.

“Lucky?”

“Enough,” I mumbled, sour mash sticking to my breath.

I turned and made my way down the corridor.

Chloe caught up with me, her own steps well under the influence. We linked arms, stumbled onwards.

And with thoughts under construction and vision swimming, I found the exit and left the party behind.

***

I don’t remember the cab ride home.

Best educated guess, neither one of us spoke about what happened.

No talk of the past, false futures. Whatever words we had shared, they must have been have been damn funny, as next thing I knew, we tumbled into my room sometime around two in the morning, wracked with hysterics. My knees gave out, and I held onto the knob as we dipped backwards, elegant tango before righting ourselves. Took a few steps into the room. Matching grins, petrified in anticipation of eventual sobriety. Reduced to a mess of giggles, and I remember thinking that we both must have finally tipped over into complete madness. “Jake isn’t even here,” I said, shaking my head. Jacket sliding off. Steadying myself on a chair. Reached for the stereo and pressed play. Pumped up some Dolly Parton, and began to search the room with zigzag steps. “Where you at?” Making Chloe laugh. “What are you looking for? Jake’s not here, Lucky.” No. “I’m not looking for Jake.” Chloe asked, “Then who?” Leading into a reply, saying, “A friend of mine…” A drunk light bulb lit up above my head. “Oh, that’s just funny.” I stumbled into the bathroom and laughed, wondering what my bottle of Wild Turkey was doing in the bathtub. I bent over to retrieve it. Steady as she went, until I slipped and did a half gainer into the stained ceramic. Stretched my legs. Getting comfortable, began talking nonsense to the feathered mascot on the label as Chloe swung into the bathroom. Threw back her head, and cackled. “You look like an idiot.” Got me to kick one of my feet up onto the faucet. Unscrewed the cap and took two tugs. Getting to the point where it was starting to taste like water, never a good sign. I took another swig, just to be sure, then motioned for Chloe to join me with a light jiggle, sloshing the liquid around, pure alchemy. Brought Chloe down on the lip and took the bottle. Helped herself to a few swallows to match, slowly sliding into the tub. Not realizing it until it was too late. Mouth puckered, cartoon eyes as she landed between my legs. Skirt falling down around her thighs, revealing black silk underwear, length of her legs hanging over the rim like spaghetti strands. She snorted, and the sound propelled us both into stitches. Snatched the bottle back, only now realizing that the light was off, nothing but a lamp in the next room illuminating our cramped little vessel. “Hey, Chloe.” Chloe skewed her head in my direction… “Yeah, Lucky?” Shot out my foot. Shoes somewhere in the next room, and with a quick twist of my ankle, I turned the shower on, full blast. Had her screaming as water sprayed down, an ice-cold calamity, joined in with my own surprised yelp, suddenly aware of the major flaw in my plan as our Sunday best turned damp in one cold instant. No way to get a grip on anything around us, all slippery, no traction as the two of us began to scramble, Chloe’s fingers hooked in, arms pulling us together, screeching over the whine of overworked pipes, landing in my arms, and our laughter never had a chance to meet its natural death.

Mouth to mouth, we were suddenly kissing.

Technically kissing. No actual word for what we were doing. There was too much water, too much liquor in our bloodstream. Eyes ignorant, no telling what the other was doing, wet skin leading our mouths all over each other. No point of reference under the shower’s steady stream, and we ran our hands all over, practically licking each other’s faces. Chloe’s hands clawing my neck, tongue heading from the corner of my mouth up towards my cheek.

I imagine that’s when she tasted it.

Tiny inconsistency on the very tip that stopped her cold.

I opened my eyes in time to see her staring at me.

Shoved herself away, both hands, enough

to propel Chloe to her feet.

Stared down at me, outfit clinging. “You have got to be kidding me.”

I blinked, eyeball filling with water. “What?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” She lifted her dress and stepped out in two long, flamingo strides. “You’re crying? You’re crying, you jerk?”

“I don’t know…” I struggled to my feet, left hand choking the bottle of Wild Turkey. I reached up to touch my face, almost certain Chloe was wrong. But not one hundred percent, and it must have shown. “I wasn’t crying, I was just –”

“I just licked a tear off your face!” she screamed. Put a hand to her stomach. Retched a little. Recovered. “You’re feeling me up in the shower while you’re thinking of Leah, you asshole!?”

Turns out the truth didn’t matter.

A little too obvious to Chloe that I’d had the good sense to cover the top of the Wild Turkey with my thumb to keep the water out.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

“Well, I’m sorry, then!” The evening’s revelations came back around like a steel boomerang. “So you’re screaming, teeming with repressed emotions, taking this out on me because you can’t stand the thought of competing with a girl who, as of last year, is no longer part of my life!

“I am not screaming –”

“Same thing with Rebecca Demarco, same story, always!”

“It’s the same story always, Lucky, because with you it’s always the same story, Lucky!”

Chloe stormed out, and I followed her into the next room. Socks made squeamish, water dripping everywhere. I caught up with Chloe at my desk, digging through her purse, arms all conniptions.

I dipped in, grabbed her arm. “In case you didn’t notice tonight, I walked the hell out of that peacock farm without so much as trying to tell my story. I had Gracie James right in front of me, right there, and I walked the hell way. It’s over.”

“It’s never over,” Chloe spat through seaweed strands. “You said it was over once. Right after the ice storm, you said it was over. And what happens six months later? Along comes Leah, and suddenly she’s the goddamn holy grail. Only she wasn’t, and after she was done with you, Lucky Saurelius goes crying back to Rebecca Demarco!”

The good thing about a drunken argument is that it makes you feel sober again.

The sad thing about it, is that you really aren’t.

Chloe tore herself from my grasp and charged past me.

My throat was dying, vocals stretching. “Ask me something, would you?”

The question stopped her short of the door.

Reeled her back into the room. “Why is it over now?”

“I don’t know. Ask me something else?”

“Ok. Rephrase.” Chloe held up a hand. Closed her eyes. Settled. “What makes you think it is over, now?”

“Because I walked away.”

Chloe plunged a hand into her bag, one last time.

Came back out with an envelope.

Took me a moment, but I recognized it as the same embroidered envelope that had come with my tickets.

Reached out without being told.

Elegant calligraphy spelling out the name of Rebecca Demarco’s best friend.

“Who cares what she was doing with it,” Chloe said. “It’s what’s inside that counts.”

“What’s that?”

“When it was clear you weren’t coming back, she asked for your number, email address.”

“You give it to her?”

“Not my call.”

Fat drops of water fell from my hair. Doting the I’s crossing the T’s. “So this?”

“So that’s hers,” Chloe said. “Gracie James. Her email address and phone number. Maybe even her agent’s number, I think she mentioned something about that.” Chloe shrugged. “Keys to the kingdom, Lucky, you drunk fucking narcissist, now you look at me and tell me it’s really over.”

I turned the envelope over in my hands.

“In fact, don’t tell me, Lucky.” Chloe took another step forward, lips already turning blue with the cold. Trembling, eyes daring me with hazel rage. “How about you just rip that envelope up right now? You say it’s over, then do it.”

I didn’t move.

“Or go ahead and open it. Right now, Lucky. Open it or tear it apart, but do some damn thing, Lucky. Show me that this is in fact over, one way or another.”

The CD began to skip.

Working nine to five.

Nine to five.

Nine to five.

Chloe laughed. “That’s what I thought. Goodbye.”

“In case you didn’t notice, you’re soaking wet.” I said. Sent a hand back towards the window. “It’s below freezing out there, and you’re soaking wet.”

“Fine.” Chloe snatched at my jacket. Made a nice little wrap for herself. “There. Now I’m invincible.”

“You’re going to have to return that to me, someday!” I called after her as she stalked to the door, opened. “Someday, you’re going to have to give that back!”

“Yeah, Lucky.” She turned and waved. “Because if there’s one thing you’ve always been right about, it’s always been about someday.”

She stepped out and slammed the door behind her.

Enough force to knock the CD back into play.

Along with the sound of the shower. Wind rushing through the cracked window, chill of a new year sent down my spine. Wild Turkey tucked into my armpit, and its contents were slowly tipping sideways. Pungent liquid pouring onto the carpet in small stream. I let loose, let the whole bottle fall to the floor. Glanced around the room, taking stock of the clothes, papers, cigarette butts, empty liquor bottles, the whole mess I had built up around myself.

At least the clock on my nightstand still had the right idea.

Five to three in the morning.

Brand new year, and I stood alone in New York City.

Staring down at the envelope.

All that remained of Chloe, Leah, and Rebecca Demarco.

Fairly certain I wouldn’t be seeing any of them anytime soon.

 

 

In the Now.

February 12, 2003.

5:30 am.

 

The well has run dry, and the settlers have moved on.

Out the door and into the streets, curtain drawn on another night.

All remaining evidence of what came before in the form of empty glasses, half-filled bottles of Red Stripe and ashtrays engorged with marathon remnants. Music, done. Gone into hibernation. Leaving behind a momentary vacuum, where one can actually hear the sound of ice melting. The occasional car, speeding along MacDougal. Zephyr’s feet, shuffling in dry strides as he walks behind the bar, hardly winded.

He pours himself a solid dose of rum.

James stares at Lucky, waiting for more. “What did you do with the envelope?”

Lucky doesn’t answer, as Zephyr has tilted the bottle of rum in a silent offer.

Lucky nods, nearing the end of his cigarettes, one out of four burning between his lips.

Zephyr lays five fingers of drink on him, offers some to James.

James shakes his head, turning back to Lucky. “The envelope?”

It was quite a night,” Zephyr comments.

Thank you for letting us be ourselves,” Lucky says. “Again.”

Zephyr winks and heads back into the kitchen.

Leaving James and Lucky to deal with the residue; empty bar, an entire space dedicated to apparitions and fading recollections. All the signs of an abandoned building, and the young pair appear as lone survivors of an incomplete catastrophe.

Lucky…” James prods him. Hands shaking a little, eyes fighting exhaustion. “What happened?”

Lucky sighs. “I followed Andre’s advice, and remained in my dorm for the rest of the weekend. Didn’t drink, didn’t light a single cigarette. I knew it wouldn’t last, but in the meantime, there it was.”

Lucky –”

Shhh…” Lucky puts a finger to his lips. Continues to talk through that one index, lips mashed. “Sleep had figured heavily in my plans, but there wasn’t much I could do about enforcing that. Hour after hour, it was mostly from my bed to my desk, to the bathroom, to the floor in a dazed succession. I played some music from time to time, but every album came to its close without notice, and times were that an entire afternoon would pass before I remembered to hit replay, change disks. Jake still hadn’t made it back from winter break, and every now and then I’d sit at his desk. Stare at his sketches, the bridge he’d obsessed over all of last semester. Calculations staring up at me, the meaningless jumble of what it took to…”

Lucky puts out his cigarette.

Pale morning begins to fill in for shadows.

I’d lie in bed, aware that very little was happening. Inside and out, I remained waiting; not for sleep. Sleep never came. Holding out for something just within my grasp. Aware, somehow, that all conclusions had already been reached. Nights trading places with daylight, until I glanced at the clock on my way back from the bathroom and saw that it was seven thirty, Monday morning.

January 12th of a brand new year.

I didn’t shave, didn’t gather my books. Didn’t even look for my bookbag. Just left my room. Left the dorm and headed up to Broadway, eyes oblivious to the limestone light. Hardly aware that I was outside. The same haze followed me into the lobby of the Arts Building, up a short spiral staircase. I found room 102 and walked into the same familiar fall semester, turned winter. Rows of chairs, fitted desks joined by an iron-wrung underbelly. Stationed at a slant, two sides divided by a wide digression of beige steps. Projection screen taking up most of the front wall. A smaller unit by the professor’s desk, blue screen monitor fitted with a VCR and Betamax player.

A good deal of students had already filed in. Seated in Galapagos groupings, the rapidly forming cliques of competing crews. Talking shop, the latest cinematic gossip. Sipping on coffee with bleary alertness, notebooks at the ready.

I found a seat near the aisle, noticed a few stares. Looked down and saw that I was wearing the same suit from the premiere. Long since dried, leaving behind a nest of wrinkles. And when the professor came in, started taking roll, I sent my eyes from student to student. Ambitious dreamers, each one with a story to tell. Trudging uphill in the hopes of someday having the whole world know their names.”

Lucky picks pulls out another cigarette, lights it.

Lucky…” James picks at his undershirt, as though wondering where the rest of his clothes have gone. Nerves shot, head pounding. “Please don’t hit me with another coincidence.”

Lucky smiles. “Shit, James… I’m just telling you what happened. Half way through the roll call I stood up and began to walk right back up the steps. Towards the exit. The professor stopped me, asked where I was going. And I told him I was going home to get some sleep. That whole class stared at me, stunned, and I thought I’d do something to make someone’s life just a bit better.

Anyone here on a waitlist? I asked. And a rather round, sweet-faced girl raised her hand. I think she might have been from India. Had parents who were Indian, anyway. Her name was Anna it turns out. I gave her a tired smile and said, Congratulations. You can take my place.

Lucky coughs, drinks… “And with that, I made my final exit. Took the stairs with light steps, and walked out onto the streets. Breathed in. Utterly mystified by my own behavior, feeling the weight fall to the sidewalk with every passing face, unrecognizable tangle of strangers. Sun shining, doing its best to make amends for a necessary tilt… I went straight back to my room and tumbled into bed, surrendering to the uncertainty of sleep.”

Lucky!” James gives the storyteller a slight shove.

What?”

What happened with the envelope, Lucky?” James demands. “The envelope, what did you do?”

I think you must already have some idea…” Lucky says, blowing smoke. Shoulders hunched. “I think you must know.”

No, I don’t.”

Seriously, James. Why don’t you tell me?”

James stares. Terrified that he may have very well have been strung along, this whole time, taken for a ride on the back of some fabricated shaggy dog. “Tell you what?”

Lucky continues to smoke.

James shoots from his seat. “I’m not fucking around, Lucky!”

Barstool comes clattering to the floor.

Lucky takes casual stock, sees that his protégés hands have turned to fists.

Why don’t you tell me one last thing, James?” Lucky asks. “Why don’t you tell me the truth, and then we can finish this up.”

Don’t FUCK me, Lucky! What more do you want?”

Let’s start with your real name…” Lucky suggests. He gets up and brushes past James, stumbles to the end of the bar. Around the bar, behind the bar. He picks up the bottle of rum. Haitian rum, gift from yet another regular. Imported from the land of far away. No price tag attached.

Lucky sets up a sizable glass for James. “Come on. What’s your real name, James Joyce?”

James doesn’t reply. His mouth is open, but all that comes out is a peculiar rattle, throat dry from too many arguments. The night has finally left its mark on him. The drinks, the stories, the cigarette smoke, the endless music trapped in his head, and finds himself, finally, broken.

My name is Lucky,” James says. He takes a deep breath and adds. “My real name is Lucky Kristiansen.”

Yeah…” Lucky rests his cigarette on the edge of the bar and pours a glass of rum. “Couldn’t help notice that every time someone called out my name or addressed me, your head would shoot up like a trained puppy…” He slides his drink across the bar. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just keep calling you James, James.”

James doesn’t argue. He takes a few steps towards the bar.

Come on…” Lucky urges. “Just tell me, James. Tell me how you got here.”

And James pulls up Lucky’s seat. Sits. He takes the glass of rum and holds it between his hands in a kind of prayer. Babyface looking into soft liquidity, fumes rising.

You asked me earlier,” James says. “You asked me at the start of the evening, about what I felt the first time I saw Rebecca Demarco. You asked me what it was like?”

Lucky nods, hands on the bar.

It was like watching the crowds part, I told you. And that’s because… That is because it really was a crowded party. Something my dad had dragged me to. An entertainment lawyer, he does the rounds as often as he can. Not that I ever get a chance to go with him. Anywhere, in fact; I’m kind of second tier as far as priorities go. And it had to be this one time, I guess. This one time I was at this party, filled with those Hollywood types, to borrow a phrase. And like I told you earlier, I looked across the room and saw this girl… Well woman, I guess, would be more appropriate. I was sixteen, which I guess would make her twenty-one. So it was idiotic to begin with… So idiotic, what I felt…”

Lucky takes a drag of his cigarette, eyes agreeing.

And the crowd did part, Lucky…” James, picks up his glass. Takes a small sip, wincing. “As though it had chosen that one moment. Like a perfect little present, you know? I remember looking at Rebecca Demarco. Dark hair, those impossibly giant eyes. She was wearing a shiny silver kind of dress that fitted her form nicely…” James laughs nervously, as though glad to finally have someone to say it to. “I mean, what a form, huh?”

Lucky smiles sadly. “Sign on the dotted line, yeah.”

James chokes on his laughter, amazed to find his eyes wet around the edges. “Yeah. Elegant shoulders. Spaghetti straps, right? When she turned to the side, I caught a flash of a tattoo on her right shoulder blade. She was beautiful, sure, but… it was more than just beauty. My heartbeat got all fast, stupid, insides turned upside down, and there was a sudden… awareness of my skin. And before I knew it, I was walking over towards her. Making my way across the room, God help me. Not my head, not my heart, but something was telling me this couldn’t be ignored. A question that needed an answer, and then I was by her side.”

James takes another pull of rum, shakes his head. Unaware that a tear has already spilled. “Christ, Lucky, I don’t know if you know this or not, but to stand right next to her. It’s no wonder she made it to where she did. When she turned to me, I almost collapsed. I was holding a celery stick stuffed with caviar, and now that I think about it, I really wish I had thought to throw it away before approaching…”

What did you say?” Lucky asks, the same way someone would about a near-death experience. “What did you say to Rebecca Demarco?”

I said, Hi…” James laughs. “And she said hi right back to me. And I held out my hand and introduced myself, I said… My name is Lucky…”

And then what?”

And she stopped. Stared at me with this kind of amazement. I thought for sure, that this was it. The kind of moment they tell you about, that she had decided right there and then that it was our destiny to meet. She kind of looked as though she was about to reach out and touch me. She didn’t though, but with that same startled look, she asked me… You’re Lucky Saurelius?

James hiccups into his drink. “And it before I could even understand the question, I told her I wasn’t. I told her my name was Lucky Kristiansen… And she began to laugh. Awkwardly, as she told me, Oh, Lucky Kristiansen. The magic left the moment, and all I could think to say was, Yeah, Kristiansen… it’s Norwegian.”

James giggles.

Lucky watches on , eyes sad.

And what she said next…” James continues to giggle. “What she said next was… Sorry. Sorry, Lucky, I thought you were someone else…

All around them, the emptiness continues to beg for attention. The details of a night that will repeat itself, library of Babel, without fail and without a single detail matching the last, results that may or may not find their way back someday.

Simple math written out on the red-brick floor, dotted with cigarette burns.

It’s not like she was being dismissive,” James insists, quick to come to the aid of the woman who had changed both their lives without ever trying. “She seemed quick to make up for the mistaken identity, like she was actually going to go ahead and have an actual conversation, but… That moment. Seeing her eyes light up at the sight of me, and then shut down the instant she realized she’d met the wrong Lucky… Well, I just walked away. Holding that stupid celery stick, and I don’t think I’ve stopped walking since…”

Yeah.” Lucky sighs, raises his own glass of rum. “What, do you think I didn’t know you were looking for me?”

James looks stricken, growing pale, even in the dim outlines of the bar.

I may have lost a lot of friends along the way, James,” Lucky informs him. “But there’s a few that check in on me, time to time. People tell me things, too. What did you think? If Rebecca Demarco’s heard of me, why didn’t you think I would eventually hear about you? The kid named Lucky, looking for Lucky, obsessed with Rebecca Demarco… Just like you, though, nobody could tell me what it was that got you to where you are today.” Lucky raises his glass one last time. “And now that we both know how it’s all ended, let me be the first to say welcome to my world…

James watches as Lucky downs the shot. His fingers tighten around his own glass, knuckles white with a sudden flash of anger. “What do you mean, welcome to my world?”

The bartender pro-tem sets the glass down, begins to refill it. “I mean now you know what it’s like to be Lucky.”

Bullshit!” James slams his hand against the bar. “That’s BULLSHIT, Lucky.”

You’re the Lucky that got to meet her.”

At least you had a chance, had the opportunities.”

Leading where?”

Maybe you haven’t been listening, but Rebecca Demarco knows about you! And gives a good damn, apparently! Meanwhile, I was stuck. Staying up nights, eyes glued to the ceiling, knowing that somewhere out there, another Lucky was wandering around, another Lucky who stole my moment from me, Lucky, you stole my goddamn life!”

You want it back?”

I want to know why.”

And what if there had never been a Lucky Saurelius.”

Well, what if?

Lucky looks as though he could reach across the bar and take a hold of James. Squeeze his shoulder, maybe even give him a warm, sympathetic embrace. Wipe the tears clean and tell him it’s all right. Instead he just takes a hit of rum and shrugs.

What if?” Lucky asks. “What if Leah had gotten that role in Sirens instead of Rebecca? Because it’s funny to me, that the two didn’t just look alike. They sounded alike, shared the same gestures. Even that punctuated, four-syllable laugh, what could possibly account for that…? If it turns out life is the result of some sleeping giant’s imagination, maybe the problem is that his imagination ain’t so great…” Lucky pours some more rum, just going with what’s left to hang onto. The dawn is starting to bloom, and even the sounds of birds can be heard, filtering down into the underworld.

I was always one step off, James…” Lucky’s eyes tell little of what’s to come, but there is a small suggestion. “And maybe it all started with Serena Sterling’s decision. And as of that moment I was always almost within grasp. Screaming backwards, struggling against the current, almost ready to bridge the gap between the two possibilities, almost where I should have been, almost the person I should have been… Same as you, James.”

I’m not going to let you boil down everything that’s happened to me as just chance!” James turns, hurls his glass back against the mural on the far wall. It doesn’t shatter, just bounces off, rolls on the ground. The very fact seems to add insult to injury. “Chance is just a cheap excuse, Lucky. I want you to tell me something, I want an answer.”

Lucky waits.

Zephyr walks back in, arms brimming with paperwork. He sets the tangle of receipts and bar tabs on the far end and casually lets himself behind the bar, hardly noticing Lucky had made it his second home.

Hey, Zephyr,” Lucky says. “You still got that thing I gave you, way back when?”

Zephyr casually opens the register, reaches beneath the cash drawer and pulls out an envelope.

Tosses it onto the bar.

Well,” Lucky takes a look at it. “That wasn’t very dramatic, was it?”

Got work to do, Lucky,” Zephyr tells him, and retreats to the end of the bar. Pulls out a pocket calculator and begins to do the numbers. “You go ahead and settle whatever it is you need to settle.”

James leans in close, points to the envelope. “Is that it?”

Yeah…” Lucky hands it over to James. “Turns out I could never really open it. Couldn’t really destroy it, either. Conclusion takes time, realization takes time. The very day I dropped out of class, I woke up. Eight in the evening, and I came down here. Spent a good couple of hours drinking, smoking. Staring at that goddamn thing. I knew I didn’t have it figured it out just yet. But I knew I had begun, and so, I handed the product over to Zephyr. Told him to hold onto it for me. Months went by, and the years have gone by, and what do you think happens now?”

James looks down.

Doesn’t think to check for the name, flawless cursive interrupted by forgotten splotches of water.

That’s right…” Lucky takes the envelope back. He gives it his own due respect, eyes drooping. Reaching out, he grabs hold of a stout candle, flame peeking out of its sunken hideaway. Purple tip jumping out towards the sky, baby bird.

James watches in a bit of a trance as Lucky places the envelope above the flame.

Brings down a single corner to meet its fate as the flames devour that aging connection, all traces turning to ash, falling along the overworked bar or curling into the air in dying, jet-black plumes.

There’s my answer to you, James.”

Is that really your choice?” James asks, watching the last of the letter turn an arthritic gray. “You say it never was, for either one of us. If Gracie James wanted to find you, she could.”

She would’ve found me by now.”

What about Rebecca Demarco? She could just as easily come looking for you. Come wandering right through that door –”

Rebecca ain’t coming down here. And if she does, then that’s her own problem.”

But what if?

The light keeps pushing through the door of Creole Nights. Bluish hues giving new dimension, both of them wandering an abandoned amusement park. Lucky takes his drink and wanders back up the bar. Past Zephyr, who hardly pays him any mind.

James watches as Lucky comes back towards him. Picks up the seat James let fall to the floor and sits down. Shoulder to shoulder with James, each one sitting in the other’s seat.

You know what Dōgen said?” Lucky asks.

James does what he can to get the pronunciation right. “Who’s Dōgen?”

Eleventh century Zenji, Zen master.”

What did he say?”

He said, In order to achieve a certain goal, you must first become a certain man. But once you have become that certain man, you will find that you no longer want to achieve that certain goal.”

Meaning?”

Meaning what if? What if Rebecca Demarco walked into this bar and had a seat right next to me? What if, do you really want to know?”

James waits.

Nothing,” Lucky tells him. He pulls out his last cigarette and lights it over the funeral pyre. “I would do nothing. I would sit, have a drink. Have cigarette. I wouldn’t tell her a thing, because she may be Rebecca Demarco, but I’m something she’ll never be…”

And what’s that?”

Nobody…” Lucky picks up his glass. Smiling now, though not with any real sense of triumph. Just security, the beauty of a side-by-side existence with an empty, anonymous bar. “I am nobody. And, James, as long as I am… Well. I suppose I could be anybody then, couldn’t I?”

Lucky sends it all down his throat in one solid decision.

And James gives himself enough time to nod.

Lucky gets up. Throws on his jacket and picks up his cigarette. “So what are you going to do with yourself, James?”

I don’t know.”

That is an excellent start.”

Go fuck yourself, Lucky.”

Lucky reaches out to ruffle James’s hair. “You’ll find your way back.”

Going to be a while though…”

Lucky nods.

Doesn’t even say goodbye to Zephyr.

Smoke tailing in a rapid exodus.

He opens the door, stops and turns.

It doesn’t belong to us.” He says, gives a little wave.“We’re all just making this up as we go along… Lucky.”

And then he is gone.

Disappearing up the steps and into the unknown.

Zephyr is behind the bar again, looking to help himself to another hit. “Where did your friend go, buddy?”

The young Lucky Kristiansen shrugs. “I’ll tell you about it some other time.”

Zephyr seems to find this answer satisfactory. He pours himself a shot, then, without thinking, pours some rum into the empty glass before this young nobody. Goes to the end of the bar, bottle in hand and continues to work on the business side of things.

Lucky Kristiansen is left alone. No escape from the morning light, even in the happy depths of Creole Nights. All objects covered in a thin layer of volcanic ash. He turns to the mirror, drink in hand, and gives his reflection a good, solid dose of quiet judgment. This image follows suit, and the two of them share a silent toast.

Tables free of life.

Wooden seats scattered along the edge of the bar.

Lucky has a drink.

Watches Zephyr adding up the evening’s results.

Puts down his glass and picks up a pen.

Gets comfortable in his own little nowhere land and reaches for a napkin.

Lays down the tip and scrawls out…

This is the true story of a famous actress, a young man, and another who shared the same name.

He regards the work. Realizes it still isn’t his own, frowns to the beat of a calculator.

Crumples the napkin, tosses it aside and begins again.

Settles in with every intention of finishing the job.

So there you have it…

And if any of you feel like hearing the rest, you can find Lucky in the bar across the street. Sitting with his temporary companions, mirror image keeping watch and waiting for you to walk through the door.

…That, I don’t doubt for a second.

 

###


Almost Lucky

- join Lucky for an evening underground and a classic tale of Boy sees famous girl, Boy doesn’t meet famous girl, Boy keeps trying to meet famous girl, Boy searches for meaning amongst the stars, Boy keeps chasing, Boy follows the white rabbit of fame, Boy loses his friends, Boy loses his mind, Boy meets fate, Boy ends up drinking in a bar with no doorknobs, ready to join Lucky for an evening underground and a classic tale of Boy sees famous girl, Boy doesn’t meet famous girl, Boy keeps trying to meet famous girl, Boy searches for meaning amongst the stars, Boy keeps chasing, Boy follows the white rabbit of fame, Boy loses his friends, Boy loses his mind, Boy meets fate, Boy ends up drinking in a bar with no doorknobs, ready to join Lucky for an evening underground and a classic tale of Boy sees famous girl, Boy doesn’t meet famous girl, Boy keeps trying to meet famous girl, Boy searches for meaning amongst the stars, Boy keeps chasing, Boy follows the white rabbit of fame, Boy loses his friends, Boy loses his mind, Boy meets fate, Boy ends up drinking in a bar with no doorknobs, ready to join Lucky for an evening underground and a classic tale of Boy sees famous girl, Boy doesn’t meet famous girl, Boy keeps trying to meet famous girl, Boy searches for meaning amongst the stars, Boy keeps chasing, Boy follows the white rabbit of fame, Boy loses his friends, Boy loses his mind, Boy meets fate, Boy ends up drinking in a bar with no doorknobs, ready to join Lucky for an evening underground and a classic tale of Boy sees famous girl, Boy doesn’t meet famous girl, Boy keeps trying to meet famous girl, Boy searches for meaning amongst the stars, Boy keeps chasing, Boy follows the white rabbit of fame, Boy loses his friends, Boy loses his mind, Boy meets fate, Boy ends up drinking in a bar with no doorknobs, ready to -

  • Author: Joaquin Emiliano
  • Published: 2017-05-07 16:05:18
  • Words: 109750
Almost Lucky Almost Lucky