He had lost the ability to tell the seasons apart. There was only the bone deep chill of The Craving, the kind that would turn the warmest spring day into a snow-banked purgatory, or the sweats that would soak through to his jacket. It had been months since he’d seen Vincent last. Or maybe it was yesterday; he’d lost the ability to keep track of time too.
Rolley hunched by the side of the building. The shame and need for a fix were warring in him; he ached for a place just to rest for a while. Without wanting to, he thought of The Place, the cool bedrock and the earthen smell of freshly dug soil, and he wanted to cry. But he refused himself that. This was his exile. This was what he deserved for standing there rock-still while they killed her. A woman’s voice made him straighten up in a start.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you.”
The woman was almost tall, with chestnut brown hair in a French braid down her back. She was dressed in a tan cashmere coat and leather gloves. Her whole look was wealth, the kind that didn’t need to bother calling attention to itself. Rolley wondered why on Earth a person like her would talk to him.
“I’m all right, ma’am ... just not feeling well.”
Sensing he wanted to be left alone, the woman extracted a big, perfect peach from the grocery bag she was carrying, its colors a sharp contrast to her clothes and the brick wall. “Here, take this.”
Rolley couldn’t remember when he’d eaten last. He tried to not grab it out of her hand. “Thanks.” He noticed a building across the way with a piece of cardboard across a first floor window. Perhaps it meant it was abandoned ...
Rolley carefully lifted the flap of cardboard on the windowsill and eased his way in. He was hit by the scent of flowers, rotting ones that even in the dim light of the apartment he could see heaped in bowls and vases and scattered on the floor. He heard a sound and just had time to see a flick of white in the corner of his eye before something struck him in the back of the head. He saw shattered bits of crystal raining down like raindrops, and the cool tide that takes everything away covered him.
Lisa set her grocery bag down in the cellar of Lucy’s place. She could have just left it for Lucy to deliver with the leftovers at the end of the day, but her need to see them, any of them, was stronger today. They were her people, no matter if they hated her. She had come from them. Been raised by them. And, she’d realized too late, loved by them. Tears threatened to fall, but she brushed them away, her dance training saving her again. She straightened up and put on a smile. Tapping a message on the big pipe, she hadn’t long to wait; people were always coming and going through the false back of a storage closet. To her surprise, a petite woman with honey blonde hair stepped out.
“Catherine! I didn’t expect you.”
“I’ve been staying with Vincent for a few days, until the movers finish with the brownstone.” Lisa bit back dozens of questions, but Catherine was too quick not to notice. She grinned. “He doesn’t know he’s part of the new arrangement.”
“Oh?” Lisa couldn’t help it; she grinned, too. Instead of jealousy, there was an odd sense of peace at how happy this woman made Vincent. He seemed lighter around her, and she would sooner destroy herself than cause him pain. It made her feel less guilt over how she’d treated him in their youth and during her brief return. The danger of wishing she could have a nice long talk with him pulled at her, but she wanted to thank him for making her a Helper. She was sure that was his doing and his alone. She refocused on Catherine.
“He’s happy I’m moving, of course, and he’s happy there’s a tunnel entrance, but he doesn’t know the house is for the two of us.”
Lisa laughed. “You’re probably going to just give him a gift wrapped key for Winterfest, aren’t you?”
Lisa laughed harder. “That’s wonderful, Cathy, really. Well, I’ve got meet Elliot at the club. We’re looking over swatches with the decorators.”
“How is Elliot?”
Catherine’s interest was genuine. She and Elliot Burch had shared a ... complicated history, but he’d left the relationship a better man for it. Lisa had only to look at how he was devoting himself to the club and divesting himself of his tycoon plans to know that.
“He’s great. He spoils me, of course, but he’s been good about not pushing out the entire neighborhood to make the Biggest or the Most Important New York City nightclub. It’s going to be an amazing place though.”
“I don’t doubt it. Thanks for the fruit, Lisa. You should come down for a visit sometime.”
Lisa’s smile faded for a moment. “I know you and Vincent would be glad to see me, but I’m not so sure the others would. Let me stay an unpleasant memory.”
“Oh, Lisa,” Catherine began, but Lisa was already turning to leave up the cellar steps. Catherine thought to at least attempt to salvage the situation. “When you see Elliot, tell him Cathy Chandler sends her regards.”
Lisa laughed, a real laugh, rich and deep. “I sure will, and I’ll tell him how much you adore getting catered lunches at work.”
“Very funny.” Catherine smiled warmly and was gone; the closet door closed. Lisa stood on the cellar steps for a long time.
Rolley awoke slowly, the wall of scent the flowers made pressing down on him. A cool cloth had been placed on the back of his head. He was lying on his back. The girl crouched in the corner of the room looking at him. Rolley noticed her eyes first. They seemed to be the brightest source of light in the room. They burned with a madness Rolley could only guess at, but it frightened him. Her hair was streaks of colors, dirty blonde or light brown, depending on how the slant of sunlight filtering in through the filmy curtains hit it. She was thin, too thin, and her white dress pooled around her like a drop cloth. Rolley couldn’t tell if the dress had been fine once and worn down to tatters, or if she was one of those rich girls who’d spend several thousand dollars on a dress that looked like it was falling apart. He wished for a glass of water.
“I’m sorry,” he croaked. “I didn’t know someone was living here.” The girl said nothing, just watched him, an enigmatic smile twisting her lips. Rolley tried to sit up, but the ache at the back of head was too much. He groaned.
She spoke, her strange voice thin and smoky, her phrases scattered like broken glass. “Not a thief, huh? Ha, liked that vase too. Oh well, yes, yes. Poor bastard, ha, saw the cardboard and thought nobody’s home - well, we know better now, huh? I wonder what we’ll have for supper?”
Rolley closed his eyes. So this is how it ends, strung out and trapped in some crazy white girl’s apartment. Oh, God, I could use some water ...
He opened his eyes to find her crouched directly over him, looking at his face with the interest of a scientist peering through a microscope. She smelled of decaying flowers and salt and a strange spicy smell that Rolley couldn’t place. She spoke again.
“You’re thirsty, huh, swimming in your own sweat and not a drop to drink.”
Rolley decided to go along. “Yes, I’d love a glass of water, ma’am.”
The girl clutched her sides and started laughing so hard that she rolled off Rolley to the wall, nearly knocking over a side table piled with flowers, silver cups, and glass paperweights.
“Ma’am? Ma’am! Oh, what a word - ma’am. Terrible name, awful. Oh, you’re very lost, aren’t you, my young man? So far from home.”
Rolley tried again. “What would you like me to call you?”
The girl took pause at that question. “What name do you think is mine?”
Rolley looked at her. She was pacing the floor in front of him, the hem of her dress – evening gown, really – getting petals and dust tangled in the lace. The low back left her shoulders exposed, her shoulder blades sticking out like two wings ... Before he could consider the wisdom of it, Rolley blurted out, “Angel.”
“Angel?” The girl seemed to work the name over in her hands, her fingers flickering like sparrows. “Angel. Yes, Angel. Do you want Angel to get you a drink?”
“Yes, please. I’m dying for water right now.” Rolley managed to sit up this time.
The girl disappeared into one of the other rooms, and Rolley took stock of his situation. He knew he probably couldn’t make it to the window before she returned, and he strangely didn’t want to try, the scent of the flowers having their own narcotic effect on him. He looked around the room. It and its furnishings had been grand once, but the lights now held more broken bulbs than lit ones, and a pitiful little stub of a candle flickered in a silver candelabra. That reminded him too much of The Place, and he closed his eyes tight against it. He was just beginning to wonder if Angel was coming back when she returned carrying a big silver tray with a pitcher of water and a cut crystal tumbler on it, a single dying rose propped limply in a jelly glass for decoration. She made a great ceremony of placing the tray on the side table and pouring him a glass. She gestured to a threadbare velvet upholstered chair and Rolley made it there on wobbling legs. He took the glass from her and drank it down in one gulp. He had never tasted anything so good in his life.
“You’re so very welcome. My, you’re a mess. What are you doing climbing through windows, hmm? Nothing valuable here, just ghosts and dying roses ... ” She trailed off, intently fussing over a vase of flowers with brown blooms.
Rolley knew he should try to leave before the last of his strength fled him. “I just needed to rest for a minute. I didn’t mean to bother you.” Rolley got up. “I’m going now ... ” But already the cool tide was returning – “Just ... show me the door, please ... ” – and he was falling. A surprisingly strong pair of arms caught him, and he was in the sleep without dreams again.
“So how is Lucy?”
Lisa felt that flutter in her stomach the way she sometimes did at Elliot’s questions – the innocent questions, the normal questions that nonetheless made her think he was carefully feeling his way to the truth she’d promised to keep safe. She knew he was aware of Something from the time Catherine had tried to save his father. He knew Catherine was happy with someone else, a man no one seemed to have ever met. He knew Lisa would say she was going to a hair appointment or to meet a friend for lunch, but would not ask why she was carrying a big bag of fresh fruit from the market. He knew to accept the story that she grew up in foster homes, that her dance teacher had spotted her potential and taken her away to a better life. She had trusted him enough to tell him Campbell wasn’t her last name, that she’d been abandoned by her mother and she’d picked it out off a soup can when she was filling out her forms for dance school. He loved that story of her past. So did she. It was one of the few truthful ones she could tell him. She felt those beautiful blue eyes on her as she looked down at her bottle of water in the dusty, half-completed club.
“She’s good. We didn’t have the time to say much besides ‘Hi’, but business is booming. She’s thinking about opening for dinner some nights.”
“That’s great. We should go there again for lunch sometime. That Manhattan clam chowder is to die for.”
William’s special recipe. Lisa smiled. “It is. I was thinking about the club, and I was wondering if we should do a grand opening ball. Winter whites giving way to spring yellows, baby grand in the center of the room, all the waitresses in white, tulip boutonnieres, gifts for the guests.” She closed her eyes, picturing the music, maybe dancers on the raised stage, people laughing and clinking raised glasses of champagne ...
Elliot interrupted her reverie. “And candles.”
Lisa started at that more than she meant to. “Candles?”
“Depending on what the fire department says, I see the room lit mostly by candles. It’ll keep things from looking too new and sterile. Cozy and romantic enough to beat the band, don’t you think?”
Lisa knew all too well how splendid that would look. She nodded, taking a swig of water. “I do. It will look like a secret, enchanted world, a fairy tale right in the middle of New York City.”
Elliot looked at her closely. “That’s beautiful. Are you sure you’re all right? You look like someone stepped on your grave.”
Lisa squeezed his hand. “I’m fine. Just trying to keep track of it all. Now, where in traffic is the decorator stuck this time?”
Rolley awoke with his skin on fire. Tiny pins were pricking every inch of him. His spine was turning to ice. The Craving dug its nails into his belly and roared. He was in a big bed in a bigger room, and he could not keep from crying out. He dug his hands into the sheets; his body felt twisted by a boiling liquid that would propel him out of the bed and into the street for a shot. A blur of white appeared over him; hands blessedly cool as stone stroked his forehead. A voice ...
“Shh, shh, none of that. You’ll wake the neighbors. Come, come drink this.”
And there was Angel giving him another glass of water, laying a cloth on his forehead, and changing the sheets. She seemed to do these things instinctively, and the white of her dresses took on the perverse image of a nurse’s uniform as she tended him over the long days that followed. He began to sense the passing of time by the amount of light that seeped through the grimy window shades. And when the pain was too much, and all he could he could see and hear was Miss K crying out and falling, he would hear another voice pressing the phantoms out: Angel’s voice, singing beautiful and melancholy songs, some in a language he didn’t know. And he would burrow in the sound of her voice and let the song take him far away. He felt like he was being pulled to a secret world, more secret than The Place, floating over a sea of crystal and into a sleep as deep as The Abyss.
Several weeks later since he’d first climbed through the window – or so Rolley guessed – he felt well enough to at least go exploring along the hallway. All he’d seen of the place was the living room and the marble staircase that led to the floor where Angel must have taken him when he passed out. The hallway was choked with flowers and bits of quartz and silver antiques like the rest of the place. One room’s door was locked, but the second was open. Rolley stopped short. The room had a piano. Sheet music was scattered everywhere, and there was moss growing on a buffet table that held the remains of a smashed terrarium. Rolley wanted to return to bed, but he found himself putting the piano bench upright and dusting off the keys. One of Angel’s songs unfurled around his fingers and he began to play, the music filling his veins like it had before, blotting everything out.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough, my young man ... I can’t keep calling you that. What’s your name?”
“Rolley.” He felt strangely unafraid talking to her this time, the music wrapping him in a layer of protection. It seemed to have a soothing effect on her. Her eyes appeared focused, and she’d lost some of that feral quality that made Rolley worry she’d strike out at him in a panic. He wondered how old she was. She looked a few years older than he, but there was something peculiar about her beauty. She had a young woman’s face, but it was one from an old photograph, the kind Rolley would see all the time in The Place. She’s lost out of time, just like her house ...
Angel interrupted his thoughts by sitting down next to him. “Do you know Satie’s Nocturnes?”
“Please play them.”
“Any one in particular?”
Angel considered, steepling her fingers together. Her hands were beautiful. Rolley noticed the slender, tapered fingers, the large opal ring on her right hand, the delicate wrists. He remembered those hands bathing him, holding him up so he could make it to the bathroom, holding his hand when the worst of the withdrawal came and refusing to let go.
“Coming right up.”
And Angel laughed, not the harsh laughter of her madness, but a short, girlish one. One that seemed to take her by surprise. She blushed, flecks of rose quartz on her face. Rolley felt a warmth in his body he had not known for a long time, and he began to play.
Rolley regularly played for her over the next month. He had no way of knowing when she’d appear. He figured the room with the locked door was hers. He wondered how she had the money for this place. He decided she was just another of New York City’s eccentric heiresses. He would play for her – symphonies and chamber pieces, folk songs and jazz standards. He loved it when she would sing. No longer in his delirium, he could watch her let the song fill her and spill out of her body, her arms moving in graceful lines like birds in flight along the shore. One night she sang Someone To Watch Over Me, and Rolley found himself moved to tears. She went to comfort him and he embraced her. He breathed in her scent and realized he did not want to let go. The room seemed to go underwater.
Rolley got up abruptly. “I think I’ll go lie down. Feeling a bit off. Some sleep should help ... ” He walked to his room, his mouth dry and his body aching. He lay down fully dressed and stared at the ceiling, willing sleep to come. He heard the rustle of Angel’s dress. She stood in the doorway. They looked at each other. Rolley’s breathing became very slow and even. Angel walked to his bedside and regarded him carefully. In one motion, she slipped off her dress and got into bed with him. They made a different kind of music together that night. And the nights after that.
Rolley felt the pangs of cabin fever into his second month at Angel’s. She rarely appeared before dusk, so he thought to go for a walk, leaving a note on his bedside table promising his return. The air and light of the city’s sidewalks felt strange, like how it must feel when a deep sea diver surfaced. He could feel the mild warmth of weather unable to make up its mind on the start of spring. He saw tulips defiantly pushing their tips up from flower boxes. A new year had come; a bank sign flashed the date. It was March 10th. Rolley stuck his hands in his pockets. That meant Winterfest had been almost two months ago. He was thinking more and more of the The Place, but without the little stabs of unbearable pain and guilt that usually came with it. He also figured that made it over a year since he’d seen Vincent. That last conversation, however, still carried a bite, and he forced his mind away. His eye was caught by a group of movers across the street, men struggling to get a white baby grand piano through a building’s entrance.
Rolley watched them work, and, when the men came out of the building and drove away, he crossed the street. Looking inside the doorway, he saw what would be a nightclub, an inviting place even when empty. The piano rested in the center of the room on a slightly raised stage. The stage was circular with a runway that connected it to a larger stage where a band or dancers could go, Rolley figured. There seemed to be no one around, and the gleam of the piano was too tempting. Rolley walked toward it and stood in front of it.
“Are you here to audition?”
The woman looked familiar. She had been sitting at one the tables going over papers. Rolley felt a strange confidence. Maybe it was the new-old clothes Angel had given him, a pair of men’s trousers and a button down linen shirt. She’d soaked his army surplus jacket in a tub of warm water and rosewater and put it on the radiator to dry. It still smelled faintly of flowers. Only his ragged sneakers gave him away, but the woman wasn’t looking at his shoes. She was looking at face, trying to place where she’d seen him before.
Rolley took a deep breath. “Are you looking for a piano player?”
“Oh, God, yes. The person we hired fell through and I’ve been scrambling trying to get someone else. We open in five days. Five days! I’m well aware God hates me, but this really is just a bit too much. One damn break would be really welcome right about now and ... You probably want to run don’t you?”
Rolley laughed. “It’s all right. What would you like me to play?”
“I know it’s a cliché, but we were hoping to open the music with Rhapsody in Blue.”
Rolley did want to run. That had been one of Miss K’s favorite pieces. But he didn’t. He thought of Angel. She had revealed very little of her story in their time together, but Rolley had a suspicion her situation involved an exile not unlike his own. She’d mutter names in her sleep and moan, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please Paz, please ... ” before she’d quiet as Rolley gathered her close. He thought of her singing and listening to him play, her reaction healing him as much as her nursing him had. He wanted to play, for her, for himself, for the woman he now remembered as the one who’d given him a peach in the bleakest days of winter.
“I know that one.” Rolley sat down and began to play.
Lisa had only meant to have the young man play part of it, but once he started playing, she sat down and let the music rush over and through her. There was the entire history of New York in that piece. Gotham in its glory and splendor, in its grime and rush, in the secret passageways known to a select few. The young man’s hands flowed like water over the keys.
Lisa saw Elliot standing stock-still in the doorway. They looked at each other and smiled a conversation. And both burst into applause when Rolley finally took his hands away from the keyboard.
“That was wonderful!” Lisa said. “What’s your name?”
Elliot asked, “Where did you learn to play like that?”
Rolley felt that press of guilt, but it had changed. It was no longer the rock that crushed, the thing that only the drugs could blot away for a little while. It was a pain that could be carried. To bury his music was to lose Miss K for good. He owed her more than that.
“I had an excellent teacher. Her name was Miss Kendrick.” Rolley didn’t notice that Lisa became still at the mention of that name, as Elliot did the talking.
“Well, you’re hired. We’re having rehearsals tomorrow and you’ll met with the crew that’s putting on the opening night show. I know it’s throwing you in the deep end ... ” Elliot trailed off and Rolley stepped in.
“But that’s show business,” Rolley said, and Elliot laughed.
“Right. Tomorrow at two thirty.” Elliot walked away, and Lisa recovered enough to walk Rolley to the door.
“Thank you so much for that.”
Rolley could tell the woman wanted to say something more, but she looked unsettled, as though some phantom had appeared at her table. Rolley held out his hand to shake goodbye. “Thank you so much, Ms ... ?”
“Call me Lisa.”
“Thanks, Lisa. And I guess I should know the name of the guy who hired me.”
Lisa laughed. “That’s Mr. Elliot Burch.”
Rolley recognized that name; it was a name that appeared in newspapers and on TV. The world had faded to gray webs during his addiction, but he’d known that much. He almost felt like turning the job down, that he was getting into too much and too soon. But he thought of Vincent without wanting to, how heartbroken he’d looked the last time he’d seen him, standing there helpless as Rolley had climbed back down into Hell.
“So two thirty, then. I owe you one, lady.” And Rolley walked back to Angel’s place.
Lisa didn’t hesitate. She threw on her coat and grabbed her purse and started for Below. It had been a two-whiskey-sour lunch with Catherine when she’d first learned about Rolley.
Since her testimony against her husband, when she’d learned how quickly her circle of friends could vanish into thin air, Catherine had been a lifeline to rebuilding her life. She’d learned enough from her husband to keep a secret account of her own. It meant a life cosseted in a gleaming apartment, turning down invitations from the New York City Ballet and ABT, until one day the voice at the door buzzer asking to come up was Catherine’s. Lisa had wanted to refuse her, but her growing curiosity and concern about Vincent made her paste on a pleasant expression and open the door. Catherine looked wary herself as she walked in.
“Hello, Lisa. I thought I’d stop by since I was in the neighborhood, see if you needed anything”
“That‘s very kind of you, but, as you can see, I’m taken care of.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Catherine felt herself growing defensive. “It’s just that I’ve read the papers, and you haven’t been seen ... ”
“Out and about?” Lisa interrupted, a dangerous note creeping into her tone. “Drenched in jewels, draped on the arm of one of Manhattan’s most eligible bachelors? I guess Cinderella got the message the ball was over.”
“Look, I didn’t come here to ... ”
“To what? Take pity on me? Gloat over the wreckage? Did Vincent send you?” Lisa asked the last question unsure whether she was dreading that he had sent her or that he hadn’t.
“I’m here on my own initiative. I don’t know why I’m here, honestly.” A dangerous note had appeared in Catherine’s tone as well. “I guess I do feel sorry for you. Father did wrong by you and you’ve been running away ever since. I also know I owe you some consideration after I talked you into turning your whole life upside down. And I guess I’m here because it’s easier to not like you, to forget you. And I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be the kind of person who thinks of you as that bitch who ruined Vincent’s life.”
“I didn’t know Vincent’s Catherine used that kind of language.” Lisa felt venom in her mouth. Good. I’m still alive.
“I’m jealous of you, I guess.”
The venom evaporated in an instant. “What?”
“Vincent loved you ... and he told you he loved you. He was warm and open and free with you in a way he won’t let himself be with me. It ended badly, and now he’s afraid to love me. And so I have to make do and pretend that sideways glances and the occasional hug are enough. And they’re not. They haven’t been enough for a while now. So that leaves me very jealous of the last woman Vincent loved completely without fear.”
Lisa didn’t know what to say. She looked at the sideboard where a set of red crystal tumblers stood. A gift from an admirer when she danced “Rubies” in Copenhagen. She took a deep breath. “Would you like a drink?”
Catherine blinked, needing a moment to regroup. “Yes ... I would like one. Whiskey if you’ve got it.”
Lisa’s eyebrows went up. “Didn’t think that was your brand.”
Catherine smiled in spite of herself. “I know, I know. ‘Vincent’s Catherine’ drinks dew drops out of a rose petal cup or some damn thing. But my Catherine has had a very long day and would like two fingers of your best on the rocks, please.”
She’d poured Catherine a second drink after that. And then a third. And then they’d ordered in Thai to soak up the whiskey. And they talked. They talked for hours. She and Catherine would meet again once a month afterwards. She hadn’t seen Vincent since they’d parted when she went to testify, and she was too cowardly to try to see him now. But Catherine had obviously been talking to him about her. When she casually suggested the splendid fruit sitting in the Limoges bowl on the Chippendale table might be welcome Below, Lisa promised to deliver a bounty a week.
It had been a particularly bad time when Lisa had learned about Rolley. She could always tell when the world was too much with Catherine. Their “lunch” would be Cathy downing a whiskey sour in a quiet corner of an expensive restaurant, Catherine telling her she had discovered a fondness for them in law school, but “only drank them in emergencies.” It was obvious one was unfolding when she drank her first in barely three gulps and ordered another. Paracelsus had returned. Lisa shuddered, remembering the stories the children would tell to scare each other about Paracelsus and his minions: The Red Giant and The Crystal Girl that would take you away at night, The Sylphs that whispered your deepest desire into his ear so he could possess you. All the more frightening for the adults’ refusal to talk about him at all, Father’s unfortunate knack for ignoring a problem in the hopes it would go away already in evidence.
Paracelsus wanted Vincent, and his endgame was enveloping them all in a wave that was total in its oblivion. Paracelsus had let himself be killed by Vincent – “ ... and the worst part” Catherine said, “is I’m glad he’s dead. I’m so glad I never have to worry about that bastard again as long as I live. But I can’t tell Vincent that. He either wouldn’t believe me or, worse, he would...” – and Vincent was in freefall.
“I think the only time I saw him like this was when Rolley walked away.”
“Who is he?”
“Do you remember a Helper called Miss Kendrick?”
Lisa felt an icy stab of regret. Miss Kendrick had been Madame Natasha’s favorite accompanist for her ballet classes. She remembered her gently telling her not to take Madame’s reprimands to heart too much, as it was only because she saw the potential in Lisa that she pushed her so hard. She remembered a letter from Madame many years later mentioning Miss Kendrick’s death and how she hadn’t even bothered to send flowers. She swallowed hard.
“Yes.” And Catherine told her of her sad end and Rolley’s dissolving into a mass of guilt and self-hatred.
Catherine buried her face in her hands. “What if it’s my turn? What if this is when Vincent refuses to believe me and walks away?”
“You don’t know that.”
“No, I don’t, but I do know you’re not going to go gently into that good night. Go to him, be with him, however he needs you to do that. You’re stronger than he is, Cathy. Remember that.”
She didn’t see Catherine for a while after that. She talked to Lucy and Mister Ang; they knew pieces of the story: That Vincent had lain stone-still for days. That he had awoken and had asked for Catherine first. That he was recovering. That Jamie had threatened to get him in the leg with her crossbow if he didn’t stay in bed. That Vincent had left his bed to go to Catherine’s. That he had stayed there a week. That life had refused not to continue, for all of them. That not long after that, she’d met Elliot. She thought of all of that as she waved hello to Lucy and went to the cellar door. She realized that some loves are bigger than the people who share it. That sometimes people like Vincent and Catherine have a love that radiates out, knitting everyone together and enabling them to weather the storm. She put the false back of the closet in place and breathed in that Tunnel air, mysterious and alive. She knew her way. When she heard a sentry announce her arrival, she walked past several curious faces on her way to her destination.
Vincent was straightening his chamber after a class, one for older readers she guessed, as he put a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God back on the mantle. He made no effort to hide his surprise when he saw her.
“Lisa, this is ... unexpected, but certainly welcome. What brings you here?”
“Do you remember Rolley?”
A shadow crossed his face. Vincent looked ready for terrible news. “I will never forget him. What has happened, Lisa? Please tell me.”
Lisa grinned, feeling as big as the sun. “I just hired him as the club’s piano player.”
When Rolley returned to the apartment, he felt the subtle change in the air. Angel was curled up in a chair in the living room, twirling strands of hair around her fingers. Her eyes were gleaming in that way Rolley didn’t like.
“So, enjoy your walk?”
“I got a job.”
She laughed, a harsh chip of sound. “Fancy that, great news, just peachy. Well, goodbye then.”
Rolley was shocked. “What? Goodbye? Why?”
“Everyone leaves, everyone always leaves; you’re just one more.”
Rolley was about to get angry when he saw she was trying not to cry. He knelt in front of her. “I’m not going to leave you.”
“I won’t go tomorrow if you don’t want. I’ll stay right here.”
She relaxed at those words and put her arms around him. “You’re not my prisoner.”
“I know, but I want you to be happy.”
She stood up. “Rolley ... you make me so happy, but there’s more to me than you know. Than I let you know.”
“I’m not going to pretend I don’t know that, but you saved my life ... ”
“And you mine.”
“I doubt that.”
“Well, don’t, and no more talk.”
Rolley wanted to keep talking, but he could tell he would get nowhere. He embraced her again, her lips tasting like flowers.
Later that night, as they lay entwined, she traced his face with her fingertips as if she were committing it to memory. She looked at him with a settled sadness that made Rolley’s heart ache.
“You want to go to your job, don’t you?”
Rolley would not lie. “More than anything.”
She smiled. “Then go. But promise me one thing. When I wake up, don’t be here. No goodbyes, no wet words and big soppy promises. Let me keep you as a dream, a dream of love to hold for always.”
Rolley felt tears come to his eyes. He knew she was right; it was time to leave. He cupped the side of her face.
“I love you, Angel baby, Angel mine, with the wild hair and the crooked smile.”
She laughed, a summer laugh, and kissed him, and there were no more tears as Rolley’s senses filled up with the song of her. He watched her sleep as dawn slid along the windowsill. He dressed quietly and kissed her on the cheek. He crawled out the window and did not look back. He was two blocks away when he realized tears were streaming down his face. He let them come; it had been too long without them. He saw a café that was open. He reached into his jacket pocket and was surprised by a small object. He pulled out a roll of hundred dollar bills, bound in string with a silver charm tucked in. He smiled as he cried harder, wiping his face as he went inside for a coffee.
Rehearsal was wonderful chaos, with enough starting and stopping and fights and flubs that Rolley knew opening night would go off spectacularly. The group took a dinner break, and Lisa walked up to him.
“I really am. Is it always like this?”
“Pretty much.” Lisa looked serious. Checking to see that no one was nearby to overhear her, she looked Rolley dead in the face.
“Vincent was happy to hear you’ve recovered.”
Rolley felt his blood turn to glass.
Lisa nodded, placing a hand on his arm. “Miss Kendrick played the piano for the first dancing classes I ever took. She was a good woman. And I hate when people say “it’s what they would have wanted,” but I doubt she’d want anyone who loves music like you to give up on it.”
Rolley looked down. A passing wish that he’d stayed at Angel’s toyed with him, but he kept listening.
“Rolley, I know what it’s like to feel you can’t go home. To think you’ve spoiled things so much that they’ll look at you like you’re poison. But Below is different. There’s a grace there as deep as the Nameless River. And sometimes having grace like that can make us run away even faster. We don’t feel worthy of it. Of course we don’t. You don’t have to believe it comes from God. It’s enough to know there are people who love and forgive you. And there are. Many of them in fact.”
Rolley looked up. “You talked to Vincent about me?”
“Yes, and about many other things. We talked for a long time, and I got some of that grace for myself. I need it terribly. I’m really good at running away, but I’m tired of it. But I do know that, during the worst of it, treating people like clothes I could try on and toss away when I got bored, there was always my dancing. I’m not proud of much, but I’m damn proud of that. We’re artists, Rolley. We have to do what our bodies won’t let us not do, and, if we’re lucky, we can do them in circle of friends and family that not a thing in this world can break.”
Rolley ached for a walk to clear his head. “I need time.”
“Take all you want. Just know they’ll always be there.”
Rolley nodded. He had no intention of ever going Below again, but it helped to hear Lisa say those things.
Rolley moved into one of Elliot’s buildings the following day. He noted that it seemed suspiciously fortuitous that the small apartment came furnished with a bed, table and chairs, and a battered but in tune upright piano. He would play to stay in practice and to rehearse for upcoming shows at the club, and sometimes he would play Angel’s songs, her image already starting to fade like something seen through a rain-streaked window.
He had gone back once since he’d left her. It had been about a month later, and he had walked through the front door with a knot of dread in his stomach at finding it open. The place was empty; only a few scattered petals remained. A woman was standing in the living room. She was tall with copper hair.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have the wrong place,” he lied weakly, turning to leave.
The woman looked at him, seeing with blue eyes that unsettled him with their clarity.
“Your friend is in a lot of trouble.” Her expression was not unkind. “Don’t come back.”
Rolley had nodded mutely and gone. His life settled into the rhythm of playing at night at the club and sleeping during the day. His apartment slowly took on imprints of his personality in piles of sheet music and a small stereo on a side table he’d bought at a junk shop. He’d seen Catherine at the club a few times. Rolley would tip his head in greeting, but studiously keep his eyes on his music, and she would take the hint and not try to talk to him.
It had gone on like this through the spring and the summer, but one early October afternoon Rolley was troubled by sleeplessness. It had lasted a few days, a prickling, restless sensation that tumbled around his brain and made the sunlight seem sharper and the air crisper. Something is coming. He thought of the Autumn People from the pages of Bradbury and shivered. He decided to try for a nap so he wouldn’t show up at the club completely rattled. Closing his eyes, he found himself drifting in a black space ridged in golden light. A woman was there. Angel? But it couldn’t be, because her eyes didn’t burn. She smiled and he heard a song that coalesced into cries. He awoke with a start.
His heart was beating fast and he glanced at the clock. He had better hurry or he’d be late. Twilight’s lovely amber and violet air filled the room. He had the window open a bit because it was an unseasonably warm day. That’s when he heard the cries again, cries coming from the fire escape.
He raised the window and peered out. There, wrapped in a cream and silver dress, was a baby. A baby girl with brown skin and black hair and eyes that Rolley would recognize anywhere. Hazel eyes, Angel’s eyes. He carefully picked the unhappily fussing bundle up. He couldn’t take his eyes off her face. He felt a bolt of something pass through his heart. He looked into those eyes, her mother’s eyes but without the madness or the sorrow. Eyes that trusted implicitly. Rolley held the baby to his chest.
Elliott and Lisa were looking over the drink menu for the night when Rolley walked in carrying the baby. They both walked over to peer into the crumpled dress in his arms. They all said nothing for a moment. Rolley spoke first.
“I found a baby.”
“I see.” Lisa held out a finger and the baby grasped it.
Elliot gently stroked his finger over her forehead. “She’s a beautiful baby.”
“She is,” Rolley agreed.
“Is ... she yours?” Lisa asked cautiously.
Rolley looked at the child. He had turned over many things in his mind on the way over. He loved this child with a depth he couldn’t understand and didn’t care much to try. It simply was. He knew he would keep her. And he knew how it would be. Mary would watch her while he was at work, and she would grow up knowing Dickens before most adults do. Brooke would teach her how to swim in the Falls’ pools before she was old enough for Y classes. Olivia would make her stuffed animals. Catherine would take her shopping for her first bra. And Vincent ... Vincent would read her stories, and hug her when she was frightened, and make her believe she could do anything. They would help him raise this child and not ask or expect anything in return. But he was going to give something back. He knew on that walk he’d become a Helper, simple and true as that. He smiled at Lisa.
“She’s my daughter.”
Lisa beamed. “What’s her name?”
Rolley looked at the baby closely, a name smelling of roses and salt air pressed itself into his mind. “Melody”
“That’s beautiful – Melody. Don’t you think, El?” But Elliot was busy grabbing a champagne bottle and glasses.
“We drink. We drink to the newest club member and to life not forgetting us.” Elliot passed out the full glasses. He raised his high. “To Melody. Welcome to the party, doll face.”
Lisa raised her glass. “To Melody. May you know love and hope.” She winked at Rolley.
Rolley looked at his daughter. “To Melody, who will be lucky enough to have a circle of people who will love her almost as much as I will, and who will always remind her to share the light.”
“To Melody,” Elliott repeated.