I awoke and the void filled.
Someone, a woman, was screaming.
I opened my eyes but the light blinded me. I closed them again.
I smelled stale cigarettes, musty cardboard, and artificial floral air freshener.
The screaming didn’t stop.
I was aware I was cold. Naked. There was rough shag carpet under me.
I opened my eyes again, blinking.
This time I was looking up at a round, frosted glass ceiling light. There was a crack in it. The light coming from it seemed ineffective, diffuse, casting faded shadows over a popcorn ceiling.
Around me was a dim, low-ceilinged room cluttered with dilapidated furniture, knickknacks, and tall stacks of cardboard boxes and magazines.
There also was the globular form of a woman rolling beside me. She was struggling to get away from me, limbs outstretched. Her mouth was a round “O”.
The screaming was coming from her.
She was perhaps in her fifties or sixties, with grizzled hair imperfectly dyed a dark red. She was wearing too-tight knit clothes decorated with sequins, the fabric bunched up and showing white mottled bulges of flesh.
She bumped against the nearby coffee table and started grabbing at objects and throwing them at me, several soda pop cans, junk mail, a remote control, a pizza box with leftover crusts in it, and crackling plastic cookie packaging.
Her aim was terrible.
Her screaming became ragged and choked, merging with the sound of other voices arguing with each other, coming from a television.
Once she was out of ready objects to throw she collapsed on her back.
She was panting now, trying to catch her breath. Her face was a purplish red.
I shakily pulled myself up so I was sitting.
As I did, the woman also attempted to sit. She knocked over a stack of magazines with a groping arm, which in turn upset a brass stand. A number of tiny glass and porcelain figurines, paperweights, and vials rained down.
She fell back again, arms and legs flailing helplessly, grinding some of the fallen pieces to powder beneath her bulk.
After some minutes she stopped trying to move, lying belly-up, looking helplessly at the ceiling.
I could see her eyelids fluttering. She was blinking away tears.
“Are you injured?” I asked her, my voice unrecognizable to my own ears, the act of speaking awkward.
I made myself struggle into a standing position.
My legs were wobbly and uncertain but held.
I took some tentative newborn calf steps and the space around me wobbled.
“Don’t you come near,” the woman choked out, looking up at me with the whites of her eyes showing.
“I won’t,” I told her.
I pulled my arms over my exposed breasts.
When I didn’t do anything more, she cautiously started moving her arms again.
One arm collided with the coffee table this time. She used the table for leverage, pulling herself up so she was sitting. She spluttered as if emerging from water. There were beads of moisture glistening on her forehead and upper lip.
Then she shifted and a glass figurine escaped from the folds of her skin and bounded onto the beige shag carpet.
“My treasure. All my treasures,” she cried, eyes locking on the figurine. “You made me break them. You have to pay for them.”
My eyes followed hers to the figurine. It was a horse.
No, a unicorn.
But it had lost most of its horn.
My eyes swept over the rest of the damage, over the crowded, dim room.
I didn’t know what to say.
The voices on the television continued to drone on, an argument over the husband’s sexual trysts. An audience clapped.
I hugged myself, wrapping my arms tighter against my exposed breasts, self-consciously aware of the woman’s distrusting, fearful eyes as they presently raked over me.
“How did you get in here? Where’re your clothes?” she finally said.
“I don’t know,” I told her.
“Don’t know? You a prostitute? To get drugs? One of those lotus eaters?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated.
“Don’t know. Well, I’ve seen you before,” she said speculatively, dragging her eyes over my face and my naked body again. “Maybe it’s because you look like one of those lotus eaters. I don’t have any lotus tea or money, if that’s what you want. You need to leave. I’ll call the cops.” She paused, her eyes on me again, studying my face more intently. “Do you have anyone you can call, someone who can come and get you?” she asked a little more kindly.
“I don’t know that, either. I don’t have any memories.”
“What do you mean? You have amnesia, you’re saying?”
“Yes. Though,” I said, hesitating, “I seem to remember you a little. But I’m not sure.”
No doubt she found this comment as unsatisfactory as I did.
Then something at my feet caught my eye, a small crystal box with a hinged lid. It was open, tipped over on its side.
One of its faceted edges caught what feeble grey light was coming in from a crack in a draped window.
Next to its open mouth was a single glossy black stone or perhaps some sort of odd seed, almost the size and shape of an almond nut.
The box and the dark seed both seemed more familiar to me than anything else, stirring the faintest memories of a narrow, high-ceilinged room with creaking wood floors, and furnished with ornate cherry wood furniture.
I remembered there was a woman in the room, flitting about now and then, at first young then growing old and feeble.
It definitely wasn’t this room or this woman before me now.
But even this one recollection eluded me the more my mind tried to grasp at it.
“You don’t even know your name?”
“No,” I told her.
“How’d you get amnesia?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
“You got hit on the head?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”
I moved my head slightly, experimentally. It didn’t appear to hurt.
Then I drew a hand up tentatively, keeping my other arm carefully crossed over my breasts, and felt my hair and the skull beneath.
Everything seemed intact.
The sensation of my hair, which was straight and fine, falling down my back, felt strange, unfamiliar as everything else.
I drew some strands forward so I could see what color it was.
It was a very light blond, almost white, paler than my pale skin.
“You’re not very old,” the woman said slowly, watching me. “You’re just a teenager? You’re too skinny. Are you anorexic?”
“I don’t know how old l am,” I told her.
But I didn’t think I was very young.
“How do I know you’re not just pretending you lost your memory?” she said, her eyes narrowing to wary slits.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you’re not getting anything from me.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “How long have I been here?”
“You don’t know that either?”
“I only remember waking just now. You were screaming.”
She frowned irritably, as if not wanting to be reminded.
Then her eyes found the fallen box at my feet. I looked back down at it, too.
It gave her a new idea.
“Were you trying to steal that?” she demanded.
“I don’t think so,” I said uncertainly. “It looks familiar.”
Suspicion flared up in her eyes, and the slits momentarily widened.
“Well, I’m going to call the cops.”
“Yes,” I said with enthusiasm, because it seemed better than me just standing naked before this woman.
She struggled to stand, using the coffee table again for support. The table made ominous cracking sounds but held.
She was panting and her face returned to that purplish-red color, but she was successfully up now.
She was quite short compared to me, her head no higher than my chin. Her sagging apple-shaped girth almost matched her height.
“I have chronic pain,” the woman told me after mostly catching her breath.
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Well,” she then said, her eyes again on my face, again lingering over my crossed arms and down the length of my body, “I guess I’ll get you something to cover up.”
She didn’t move immediately, as if second-guessing this idea, but then turned and moved with cumbersome, plodding steps into the adjoining bedroom. She was mumbling something more about how much pain she was in.
She took what felt like an extended amount of time in there. I could hear a book or papers being shuffled, then drawers being opened and rifled through.
My eyes drifted around the cluttered space, on the scattered figurines, and back to the box and the seed at my bare feet.
I bent down and picked them up, holding them in my open palm.
Both were cool to the touch. The box appeared to be carved out of translucent crystal, as light and fragile as china, with no seams but for the filigree metallic edging around the opening and the hinge.
It seemed to be a work of great craftsmanship, out of place amidst all the cheap plastic and glass knickknacks everywhere.
Had I been trying to steal it? I wondered.
It was so familiar, it almost seemed possible.
I closed the lid. It clicked neatly shut.
Then I bent and set it carefully at the edge of the coffee table.
I examined the seed next. It felt like polished stone, only it wasn’t heavy enough to be stone, and one side wasn’t smooth; it was covered by a tangle of fine ridges that twisted and crossed each other. At first it looked like a random jumble.
But it was strangely compelling, strangely disturbing, and too deliberate to be natural.
I traced over the ridges lightly with a finger, following a sequence as if by rote.
Around me the air seemed to shudder and fill with a buzzing sound, like a swarm of flying insects.
The buzzing grew more intense, and I felt an electric shock prick me, go around me and through me.
Then everything became pain and light, till I wondered if I was even corporeal.
I still had fingers, nerveless though they were; they dropped the seed.
It disintegrated before it could reach the carpet.
And then pain and light dissolved into nothingness, even as the seed had dissolved and was gone.
There was only the sound of a commercial jingle and cheerful voices selling something, coming from the television, and a drawer being closed in the adjacent bedroom.
Then the woman appeared in the doorway. She was holding a shirt similar to the one she was wearing.
She appeared oblivious to what had just happened, not even looking at me. She was preoccupied with the shirt, frowning down at it, looking dissatisfied with her choice.
She also clutched at something else, half-hidden by the shirt, a postcard or a photograph.
After a long pause of indecision, she left the doorway and came back into the room. She didn’t seem to notice that she had stepped on more of her treasures, turning them to powder.
She returned to me, warily holding the shirt out from the distance of her arm. She kept the card against her chest with her other hand.
I noticed she had an assortment of rings on all of her fingers, all half-buried by folds of flesh.
“Here, I guess you can wear this,” she said unenthusiastically.
“Thank you,” I replied, leaning forward to take the piece of clothing.
The woman quickly released the shirt, her own fingers wiggling as the fabric stuck either due to the static electricity or the pilling fabric.
I took it in both hands and unfurled it. It was made of textured polyester and smelled heavily of scented laundry detergent and the all-pervasive cigarette smoke.
I found the neck opening and hastily pulled the shirt over my head.
It settled like a parachute down to my knees.
The woman made a snorting noise, which I took to be laughter.
“It’s too big on you,” she observed, frowning away any mirth. “It was too small on me. You’re too skinny. You look anorexic.” Then she added defensively, as if in reply to a comment I made about her weight, “I gained weight because of my cortisol levels.” When I still didn’t say anything, she continued, her words quickening, “My doctor says I should lose weight. But I hardly eat anything. And I can’t exercise because I have chronic pain, and she won’t give me enough pain medication. She doesn’t listen to me. I’m not an addict. I don’t believe in drugs to get high. I don’t even believe what the lotus eaters say. It’s a drug, too.”
“What do the lotus eaters say?” I asked, seizing upon the term she’d earlier applied to me.
She looked at me disbelievingly or as if she thought I was stupid.
“Don’t you know? Don’t you know about lotus eaters?”
“Everyone knows about them. The rich and beautiful,” she said sourly. “They already have everything. It takes lots of money to pay for black lotus tea. It should be illegal. It’s a drug, not an herb. They say they have eternal youth, but of course they’re lying about it. It’s all Botox and plastic surgery. They don’t want to admit they’re just drug addicts.”
I involuntarily thought of the seed and looked back down at the crystalline box, so ominously familiar.
But it conjured no further memories.
The woman’s gaze followed mine to the box, then back to me, her eyes narrowing with suspicion and speculation again.
“You thought about trying to steal it again, weren’t you?” she demanded.
“No. I wasn’t. Why were you screaming earlier? Was that when I was trying to steal it?” I asked.
“Of course I was screaming,” she retorted, her hand clutching the photograph against her chest, fingertips pressing into it. “You came out of nowhere. I thought you were going to attack me.”
“Oh,” I said.
“You say you don’t remember anything.”
“Then explain this,” she said, thrusting the photograph my way, the pressure of her fingertips bending the edge of it.
I said, surprised, “I’ve seen her before.”
It was a black-and-white photograph on yellowed paper, showing the studio close-up of a young woman’s face. She was perhaps in her late teens or early twenties. She looked like she might be an ingénue from a bygone era, big-eyed and delicately-featured, almost fairy-like with her very light hair and porcelain complexion. Her hair was pulled back simply and her eyes were arrestingly dark. On the corner of it was written, “All my love, Bia.”
She was the woman in the narrow, Victorian room, the woman who came and went, who aged before me, transforming from the girl in that picture, full of dreams and hopes, to a frail, bent old woman with sad eyes dimmed by cataracts and disappointments.
The fat woman before me now made a snorting noise, waving the photograph at me.
“Well, it’s mine now,” she said. “I bought all of it at the estate sale, including the other pictures. I didn’t even see you there. Why are you here now? I’m not giving them back. If you want any of them you’ll have to pay me for them.”
There was a sharp knock at the front door.
“Who’s that?” she demanded of me.
“I don’t know.”
She gave me a look that told me she didn’t believe me.
Perhaps she had good reason not to.
The knock sounded again.
She walked over to the door in her ponderous way and peered through the peephole.
From the look she cast back at me, she didn’t approve of whoever was on the other side.
“A man. Know him? He related to you somehow?”
“I don’t know,” I said again like a broken recording.
“You say you don’t,” she replied tensely, then turned back to the door when there was another short, hard knock.
After a slight hesitation, she made sure the door’s chain was attached and unbolted the door, opening it up an inch and gazing out.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
“You stole a crystal box. I’ve come to take it back,” said a man’s voice. It was a cool tenor, almost courteous, which made it sound all the more menacing.
“What do you mean? I didn’t steal it,” the woman said after too long a pause, swallowing loudly. “I bought it. I bought it with the pictures.”
“The box belongs to me. You will give it to me,” the man’s voice said.
“I got it from the estate sale,” the woman said, her voice becoming higher-pitched and tremulous. “All of it was for sale.”
“Open the door, Kathleen,” he said pleasantly.
“You know my name?” the woman gasped, flinching as if physically struck.
“Of course,” the man replied as if this was good news. “Kathleen Lee Krubb,” and he proceeded to tell her what her birthday was, where she had been born, her social security number, how much was in her bank account, what she received monthly for her disability, and what medications she was taking. “I know,” he said pleasantly, “a great deal more.”
“What do you want?” she croaked.
Her hands visibly shook, and the photograph went sailing to the rug, settling face up not far from me.
“I thought I already made myself clear,” he said in the same pleasant way.
“I – it wasn’t me,” Kathleen denied more loudly, simultaneously attempting to slam the door. It bounded against the toe of a leather boot, and the cheap wood holding the door chain splintered and broke from the door.
Kathleen screamed, the same sound that had woken me from oblivion, and staggered back, her hands grabbing at the air.
She lost her balance and once again toppled to the carpet, landing on her back, reminding me of a children’s rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, only she didn’t crack into pieces.
The screaming broke abruptly, though, as her breath was knocked out of her.
The door swung open, and cold, damp outside air smelling of grass, pavement, and gasoline came wafting in, stirring the stale indoor smells and fluttering the photograph and other papers.
The breeze went around and through the thin fabric of my too-large shirt, chilling me.
“This is most interesting,” I heard the man say.
I saw his tall, lean silhouette in the doorway, his features indistinct, shadowed by the daylight behind him.
He stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
Kathleen started screaming again.
“Hush,” the man said in quiet rebuke, and Kathleen’s scream came to an abrupt choked silence as if he had kicked her, though he only stepped around her on light feet, coming up to me.
“Who is your guest, Kathleen?” he inquired in the same quiet tones, stopping a few feet from me, surveying me beneath heavy lids. There was nothing lascivious about his gaze. His expression was inscrutable.
Looking up at him, I thought I should know him, though he was an utter stranger to me.
He was an utter stranger, yet I thought I had been waiting for him all this time.
He had harsh, angular features, more striking than handsome, though at the same time incredibly beautiful. His dark, overgrown hair hung around his face, curling slightly. It was hard to guess his age; he seemed neither very young nor old. His clothes, jeans, a leather car coat, and boots, were all black.
His gaze quickly shifted to the box on the coffee table.
When his eyes flickered back up at me I saw that, beneath his drooping lids, his eyes, such a startling blue, were unexpectedly, disconcertingly feverish.
Then he smiled sardonically and shuttered his eyes, looking back toward Kathleen, who was attempting to stand. She didn’t have the benefit of having the coffee table nearby this time.
The man made no movement to assist her, instead seeming to watch her with idle curiosity.
She was making gasping, gurgling noises as if she were drowning in her own saliva, her eyes rolling toward him then toward the ceiling.
“It appears Kathleen is too preoccupied to make introductions,” he said easily, turning again toward me, his eyes still glittering dangerously. “You will have to introduce yourself.”
My hostess decided to do the honors, after all. “It was her!” she cried out breathlessly, and with a valiant push she was sitting. She pointed an unsteady, accusing finger at me. “She stole that little box. She attacked me while I was holding it!”
He ignored her.
To me, he said, “Begin with your name, girl.”
“I don’t know my name,” I told him, flushing beneath his burning, crystalline blue gaze. His eyes were only half-hidden beneath those deceptively lazy lids.
His gaze, though not salacious at all, was no less disturbing. It was because I couldn’t guess the meaning of whatever intense emotion he was suppressing, and because of the lingering uncomfortable notion that I should know him.
“She claims she got amnesia,” Kathleen said from behind him, undaunted. “She attacked me to get the box. I was going to call the cops.”
“Amnesia,” he repeated, his dark brows rising, though he didn’t seem more than mildly interested, and I wondered if I were no more than an object of mild curiosity like Kathleen.
“Her name’s Bia or something like that,” Kathleen informed him.
He stooped down and picked up the photograph in his long fingers.
“Yes,” he said, glancing briefly at it then up at me.
The implication was obvious.
But it was impossible. I couldn’t be the woman in the photograph, the woman I’d watched grow old in the quaint room. She was probably dead by now.
And if I wasn’t that woman, it still meant I must be quite old, too, to have watched her for so long, a lifetime’s worth of watching.
I looked down at my hands. They were smooth and unlined, youthful hands.
Perhaps the memories weren’t quite real, I thought. Why should they be? Perhaps they were part of a dream in which I’d imagined growing old.
I needed a mirror.
Still stooping, the man absently slipped the photograph into his coat pocket and gathered up the tiny box with a sweep of his hand. He opened the box briefly with the flick of his finger.
I wondered whether he expected to find the seed in it.
He shut it again, straightening, and put it into an inner coat pocket.
Then he scanned the room, his eyes becoming hard. He glanced dismissively over to Kathleen, then settled back on me, again taking me in.
His lids drooped over his blazing eyes.
“You have objections to me taking my box with me, Bia?” he asked me in a way that expected one answer.
“No,” I said slowly. “Do you think I was trying to steal it?”
“Were you?” he rejoined.
“Well, that’s part of the amnesia problem. I’ve no idea. I’ve no idea why I should be trying to steal it. Do you? Is it something to do with the girl in the photograph? Do you know who she is?”
“Who is your supplier, Bia?” he asked instead.
“My supplier of what?”
“Do you not know or do you lie?” he said in silky tones.
Beneath his heavy lids, his dangerously glittering eyes danced over my face again, as if trying to read something in it.
“The first one. I don’t know. Supplier of what?” I repeated.
“Whether you do not know or whether you lie is of no concern of mine,” he said, his tone taking on a bored drawl, though he smiled slightly, ironically, as if I amused him. “All there is to know is that beauty and youth must fade.”
The smile still hovering at the edges of his sensuous lips vanished, and his expression closed.
“I don’t get it. That sounds like a riddle,” I said.
“No riddle. Where are your shoes and clothes, Bia?”
“Well, that’s part of the amnesia problem, too,” I told him. “I woke up without any. Without anything. Kathleen lent me this.”
“Yes,” he said, surveying the improvised shirt dress beneath his lids.
Kathleen interjected, “She followed me from the estate sale and broke in here. But I paid for everything. They’re mine, that picture of her and all the other pictures and the box. You can have the little box and that picture of her. I don’t want them.” She was still sitting on the rug, her legs splayed before her, a plush pink slipper dangling from one foot. The other slipper was nowhere to be seen. “So, you leave now. I’m going to call the cops. I will.”
“What are the other photos?” I asked her.
“They’re mine now!” Kathleen almost screamed at me, her face flooding with the bruised purple color again.
She flailed about furiously in an attempt to get up or as if she meant to defend herself against an attack.
“Where are they?” the man asked through the commotion, half-turning toward her.
“But I bought them. They’re mine,” Kathleen protested, her useless motions coming to a stop and her voice dropping to a hoarse whisper. She sat there looking like a pile of dough. Her small eyes opened wide in the padded folds of her face as she looked up at the uncompromising black pillar of his form. “They’re in my bedroom,” she added, almost whimpering.
“Where in your bedroom?”
“On the bed. They’re on the bed.”
“Go get them, Bia, if you desire them. Then we will leave.”
“You want me to go with you?” I exclaimed stupidly, blinking at him, not sure if I’d understood him correctly.
“Get them now or leave them, as you please,” he said in politely icy tones.
I assumed this was a yes.
I went and got them.
Kathleen’s bedroom was as cluttered as the living room, with too much furniture crammed in amidst the cardboard boxes and stacks of magazines, which appeared to be predominantly about celebrity gossip.
Scattered on the foot of the bed, on top of some clothes, were some old black-and-white photographs, not as big as the studio photo. Bia was in all of them, along with a couple of other people looking into the camera. I thought I recognized them, too, though the impression was even fainter than for Bia. The photos all appeared to be casual shots, taken at different locations, probably years apart from one another. Bia was noticeably older in several of the pictures, perhaps in her sixties, her face thinner, sadder.
I wondered if I was this Bia, or not at all. Perhaps my only familiarity with her and the others was because I saw these photographs before.
But the photos were the only thing close to hinting at who I might be, so I gathered them up and returned to the living area.
Kathleen had in the interim managed to get on her feet, though she was still missing one of her slippers.
As soon as she saw me she demanded, “If you’re going to take those, you owe me money.”
“How much were they?” the man inquired in the same, polite, slightly menacing way of his, and Kathleen shrank back from him.
Her eyes narrowed briefly, though, contemplating, I guessed, whether to inflate the price of the photos.
After too long a pause she stammered, “Two dollars. I got the pile of them for two dollars.”
Evidently she had decided against raising the price. Still, it was two dollars more than I had.
The man withdrew a money clip from the inner pocket of his coat and extracted a five dollar bill.
“And if you’re leaving, you have to pay for my shirt or you have to give it back,” the woman said, licking her lips, her eyes fixed on the money clip. “That shirt cost me at least fifteen bucks, maybe twenty.”
He flicked the fiver at her and she made a grab at it, missing it. It went sailing to the rug.
“I don’t think the shirt suits you, Bia,” he said, turning to me, and he deftly extracted the little box and money clip and shrugged himself out of the coat. Under the coat he wore a black dress shirt.
He slipped both items in the front pocket of his jeans. In a brief glance I could make out their faint outline against his thigh.
I felt the color rise in my cheeks as I looked up met his inscrutable gaze again.
He handed the coat over to me.
“Wear this instead, Bia,” he said. “It won’t fit you any better, but it won’t have the reek of cigarette smoke in my car. If you are modest go back into the bedroom to change. But be quick about it.”
I didn’t see the point in protesting. His coat was no worse than Kathleen’s shirt. And, he was right, it was a lot less stinky.
I decided I was modest and went back into the bedroom.
“Don’t you steal anything,” Kathleen called after me. She was now squatting like a sumo wrestler or in a way that brought less polite associations to mind, groping for the five dollar bill.
Just inside the bedroom, I hastily pulled off the shirt and then was swallowed in the man’s leather coat.
It fit better than the shirt, but not by much. It was too big and long. It appeared well-worn but well-made, the leather supple. The silky black lining draped and caressed my bare skin. It was still warm from the man’s body and smelled of leather and him, subtle amidst the myriad unpleasant smells permeating Kathleen’s home.
I breathed it in.
It smelled of honey and the wind through trees, and something else, distinctly masculine.
Though why it should made no sense.
I placed the rest of the photos in the coat pocket along with Bia’s portrait, and was back out in the living room a moment later.
Kathleen gave a short laugh.
“It doesn’t fit you. It’s too big,” she informed me.
“Come,” the man said.