From the author: Tokyo Rose, a love-sick ghost, a neurotic homeowner, the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, and dreams so real you can hardly tell when you are awake combine in this science fiction love story.
July 31, Friday Afternoon: Moving In
In space's far reaches, red-shifted radiation marks the universe's beginning, a microwave ghost forever lingering after the Big Bang. When amateur astronomer Meadoe Omura puts her eye to the telescope to see her favorite nebulas, she travels backward in time, and light travels both ways. On August 6, 1945, a great flash illuminated Hiroshima. Photons, radiation, a radio pulse blasted into space. Years and years later, an attentive observer on one of Earth's nearer star systems might catch the twinkle. The past made present, living in the eye.
What has passed does not disappear; it recedes, ever fainter, but never gone, remaining, a ghost. Like what lived in the old house in Harriston that Meadoe bought, like what lived in Meadoe.
In 1945 her grandfather worked a job on Hiroshima's outskirts, excavating defense bunkers, when the sky turned bright, so terribly bright, and seconds later the dirt buried him and the others. The story stuck with Meadoe and when she was a little girl she had nuclear nightmares: a bomber's high altitude roar, the peace of an early morning city, a mushroom cloud rising and rising. She thought about Hiroshima a lot, as she studied the stars, when she read quantum physics.
But today Meadoe wondered, should I have bought the house? She stood on the porch, the new key unfamiliar to her touch. It cost so much. The apartment was fine. I could have taken another path than this one, like an electron. She thought about uncertainty. In quantum physics it meant that one could never tell both where an electron was and how fast it was going. It seemed an electron was in all the possible places at the same time. She’d tried to explain that to Joan, her therapist, once, but by the time she got to tachyons, a particle that appeared to travel backwards in time, Joan’s eyes glazed over.
Of course, in my case, she thought, the uncertainty principle just means should I have signed a thirty-year mortgage?
What had looked like pleasant landscaping swallowed the house, and the house itself leaned over her, large and quiet.
Her radio was already unpacked--the movers must have set it up--so she turned it on and an oldies station playing a big band number crackled into life. She opened boxes until late.
After eating part of a casserole, after screwing in the new deadbolts, after finding a nightshirt and blankets and a bedroom lamp, Meadoe went to bed.
She fell asleep before she had a chance to hear any sounds her new house made.
At 4:30 a.m. Meadoe woke. For awhile she lay still, trying to figure out where she was and why she was so warm. Her blanket felt pounds too heavy, and her arm under the pillow buzzed with the numbness of sleeping on it wrong. A street light cast a pale white shaft alive with dust motes through her window. She decided she was awake for good and might as well unpack some more.
Meadoe sat. “What the heck?” she said into the strange room. Her nightshirt clung to her, and when she pushed the blanket aside, it was soaked. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. When she stood by the bed and looked down, there, in sweat, was her outline.
August 1, Saturday Morning: Therapy
Joan said, "The key to your present is in your past." She consulted her notes, her briefcase open on the couch. Curtains still weren't hung, but the house had begun to look like home. Books were dusted and in the bookcase; her antique hook rug covered most of the living room floor.
Joan flipped to a new page and clicked her pen. "You're still virgin."
"Thirty-two years and not a tumble." Meadoe kept her hands still in her lap. Old ground it might be, but she didn't feel comfortable discussing it.
"You told me something happened in high school." Joan flicked back a few pages. "Christopher Towne. Basketball player. You knew him from church. He liked the same books you did. On the third date at the Deer Trail Park picnic area he tried . . ."
"Yes, but he stopped."
"Before he started, did you want him to?"
Joan hadn't asked that question before. Deer Trail Park sat at the end of a long dirt road south of town. When they'd pulled into the parking lot, Christopher dimmed his lights to keep them from shining into other cars. She picked out Ursa Major and Minor through the front windshield. Beyond the city, the stars glittered so clearly. Meadoe shut her eyes.
"I knew kids made out there. I suppose I wanted to."
"I wasn't really sure what making out involved. I was fifteen. Nobody had talked to me about it. I thought it would be like Wuthering Heights. I never thought about sex. I still don’t."
Joan coughed. Meadoe knew she did that to cover a snicker. "So, you thought one of you would die and the other would pine forever? That's ambitious for a third date."
It had been in early November, a few days before her birthday, which is why she remembered--the first cold night of the fall. Windows were fogged in the other cars. Chris had taken her to a movie, then headed to the park without asking.
"No, what I like about Wuthering Heights is the second part anyway, after Catherine dies and Heathcliff keeps searching for her. Wuthering Heights is a bad example. Maybe I thought we'd hold hands. You know, and then kiss on the porch when he dropped me off."
Joan wrote in the notebook. "Sheesh, we're we ever that young? Hadn't you ever had a sexual fantasy with Christopher in it before? You knew you were going on the date; you'd been out with him twice already; didn't you think about anything more extensive than holding hands?"
They had held hands. He turned the engine off and moved next to her. Her hands clasped in her lap, like they were now, and he gently pried one free. She remembered she'd almost giggled at that, partly from nervousness, and partly because it all seemed so awkward. His fingers slid between hers; she couldn't tell if it was her sweat or his.
"I played with dolls still when I was fifteen. I read The Girl Scout’s Guide to the Stars," said Meadoe. "I know it sounds silly, but I thought of myself as a little girl. Holding hands was the extent of it. Maybe carving our names in a tree."
She'd thought she should sigh when he squeezed her hand, but she didn't. Her neck muscles bunched; blood pounded behind her eyes. Now that they were there, she longed to leave. Her lips snapped as they parted. "I want to go now," she tried to say. Nothing came out. Chris slid closer. Her left hand was trapped in his; her shoulder pressed against the door, and he leaned to kiss her. There was no place to go, so she let his cheek push her head back to kiss her. It seemed bizarre. No passion within her. If he'd stop, she could ask him if it felt weird to him too. Kissing her hand would be as romantic as this. Rubbing a washcloth over her lips would feel no different. His breath heated her neck, and her shoulder ached where the door pushed into it.
Chris leaned against her harder, turned toward her and wrapped his left leg over hers, forcing her knees apart, pinning her to the seat. He kept kissing her mouth, then the side of her face, breathing hard. "Meadoe," he gasped. His hand worked its way into her blouse, cupping one breast outside her bra. Meadoe tried to twist away from the door, but she had no strength; it was as if her spinal cord had been cut--total paralysis. In her head she chanted "I want to go home now," in a Dorthyesque way, as if tapping her ruby slippers together would take her from the car.
Joan said, "So when do you think your emotional self caught up with your physical self?"
Meadoe shook her head, her eyes still closed. Chris pulled his hand from her blouse, popping a button. He tugged her belt with one hand and pushed her hand against his crotch. "Meadoe," he said again, his breath full of after-dinner mint. Finally, she found her voice. "I want to go home now," she said. "I want to go home!"
"This is home," said Joan.
Meadoe opened her eyes, fingers digging into the chair. "Did I say that out loud?"
Joan looked at her thoughtfully. "I think we’ve covered enough ground for today. But I’ll tell you what, when we meet again I’ll want to know what you are really afraid of." Joan closed the notebook and put it in her briefcase. She put on her jacket. As Meadoe opened the front door for her, Joan said, "Meadoe, there's two kinds of people who say they don't think about sex--the ones who do and lie about it, and the ones who do but repress it."
August 1, Saturday Afternoon: The Wallpaper
Standing on the porch, her arms filled with contact paper to line the kitchen drawers, Medoe fumbled with the lock. The new deadbolt resisted turning at first, then suddenly released. Meadoe imagined for a second someone on the other side had twisted it for her. The radio played the oldies station where the announcer said, “And now Glenn Miller and his band playing ‘Boulder Buff,’ featuring Billy May on trumpet.” Uneasy, she looked around the room. It wasn't like her to leave the radio on. Nothing in the living room was out of place, the back door was securely locked, and the windows were latched.
She sat on the edge of her bed to kick off her shoes. For fourteen years she'd lived in the apartment two blocks from the library. In this new setting, her own furniture looked changed, as if someone had stolen her belongings and replaced them with clever counterfeits. Even the air felt alien and smelled strange.
The bed felt good though, so she flopped back. A dozen chores waited. More unpacking, setting up the telescope, but her motivation was shot. Is it true, she thought, that I'm thinking about sex all the time and don't know it?
Through the uncurtained window, the afternoon sun cast a square of warm light on her legs. She was trying to make patterns from the swirls and texture in the ceiling plaster when she noticed the wallpaper in one corner had peeled away from the wall. Changing the wallpaper topped her project's list, so she levered herself out of bed, slid a stool under the corner and pulled off the first layer. Several sheets stuck to it. The room's history unpeeled in wallpaper. Under a pale yellow, a horrible brown and white geometric; under that, a green marble pattern; under that, a solid pink. The base wasn't wallpaper however. After clearing several feet-- the paper fell away easily--she stood back. A movie poster: The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell and Jack Beutel. No date, but old, and the paper was laminated to the wall. Licking her finger, she rubbed at a spot, cleaning it. A varnish, she guessed
A half hour later, all the wall paper lay crumpled on the floor, and an entire collage was visible: from ceiling to floor and wall to wall, posters, magazine covers, newspapers and pin-
ups, carefully arranged, varnish protected, in beautiful condition. Hand drawn scenes: girls in bathing suits and war planes: whoever assembled the display was an artist. Life magazine pictures of models on beaches: July 9, 1945, a dark-
haired woman wearing a striped two-piece suit, her hand to her brow as if looking into the ocean; April 17, 1944, Esther Williams standing in front of a giant sea shell; Rita Hayworth sitting on a towel, August 11, 1941. The magazines cost a dime. Other Rita Hayworth images, mostly from movie magazines including a Time Magazine painting of her, one hand over her head, her other behind her as if the artist had caught her in a twirl, her dress billowing, showing a lot of leg. Ingrid Bergman looked doey-eyed on a Casablanca poster, but most of the women she didn't recognize: Martha Raye, Betty Grable, and Maureen O'Hara. Unfamiliar moview: Four Jills in a Jeep, Destination Tokyo and Haunted Honeymoon. In the background, the radio announcer talked about “our boys in the Pacific.” Meadoe cocked her head to listen, but a song started, “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” She rubbed her arms, suddenly chilled.
To one side, surrounded by war news, a striking drawing of a Japanese woman pursing her lips at a microphone, a rising sun flag behind her. Bare shoulders, half turned, the flag snapping in a wind. Underneath, the card read, “Tokyo Rose.” Meadoe touched her own face whose high cheekbones and slanted eyes were mirrored in the drawing. Of all the drawings, this was the best. More life--a sensuousness in the mouth, in the twist in the neck.
"He did a lot of work here," she said to herself. Clearly this was the effort of a young boy. Pin-up girls and war photos. She looked for dates. Nothing past July, 1945. Everything was vivid, though. No fading. The display must not have been up long before being covered. Why?
The setting sun touched her neighbor’s roof; she glanced at her watch. There was time to set up the telescope for a little early evening viewing. Tomorrow she could tackle the collage’s mystery.
Once the sun set in the back yard, the air cooled quickly and mosquitos buzzed. Meadoe slapped at her bare leg as she tightened the viewfinder bracket that held the equatorial mount. The counterweight nearly slipped from her hands when she maneuvered it onto the shaft, but soon she was making the fine adjustments to the viewfinder and the clock drive.
A breeze rustled the lilac. Meadoe rubbed her arms. In the moon's sterile light, the neighborhood metamorphed into a black and white photograph. Shadows too black to peer into. Trees without color. She thought again about the pictures on her bedroom wall, and turned to look at the house. Grey, moonlit shrubbery rustled. Moon reflected off the back door. The pale green siding now looked white. Meadoe rested her hand on the telescope, at ease for the first time in several weeks. Moving's stress had taken more from her than she thought. It would be a relief to return to work.
She brushed her fingers over the telescope's thin metal, an old friend. They'd spent hours untangling the universe's many twined lights. As long as she had the telescope and the night sky, she'd never be truly unhappy, regardless of whatever Joan said about unacknowledged desires. She chuckled in relief.
Then, a movement caught her eye. She stayed her hand on the telescope. Had something behind her bedroom window shifted?
Whatever it was, it wasn't moving now. Standing stone still, she studied the window. Was that a reflection off wavy glass? Or was it a face looking out? Her eyes froze open; she couldn't take them off the image. Had she locked the front door? She knew she had, or at least she was pretty sure she had. She always locked the door when she came in. Of course, she always turned off the radio when she left, but hadn't it been on when she came home?
Keeping her head steady, her eyes focused on the window, she took a step to the left, away from the telescope. The face disappeared.
She stepped back. Moonlight did reflect from the window; the glass was wavy, but it didn't look like a face now, only like shimmery glass. There's no way I could mistake that for a face, she thought. There's no way. She moved again, tried to see a forehead in the reflection, a cheek's curve, the dark shadow under a nose. Maybe it was there, but the moon had advanced in the sky a tiny bit. Maybe the image required an exact alignment of light and viewer. Maybe there was no image at all, only nervousness about a new house.
Never looking away, she unscrewed the counterweight and slid it off the shaft; its bulk filled her hand reassuringly. The porch door creaked. Meadoe reached around the corner to turn on the light. Shadows fled, and within seconds moths fluttered against the screens. She repeated the move on the backdoor; the back of her hand and wrist screaming their vulnerability when she stuck them in the dark to find the switch.
Light flooded the empty room, and the rest of the house was just as empty. In her bedroom, feeling foolish, she put the counterweight on her dresser.
The posters on the wall almost glowed. Meadoe sat on her bed again, as she had in the afternoon, and studied them. Ingrid Bergman looked wistfully into the distance. Fred Astaire danced across a ballroom floor. The wolf man glared straight into the camera. Planes diving. Battleships sailing. VICTORY IN EUROPE trumpeted a headline. It's practically a museum, she thought. A moment in time captured on the wall. She thought of her own photographs taken through the telescope, also snapshots in time. The scale was different; some of her subjects were millions of years away, but the principle was the same. Captured time.
She squinted at the wall. There was a pattern in the design, an order. Not straight lines, but lines nonetheless. The Life covers formed three curves; the hand drawings two more; the movie poster swept in their own arc. News articles and war photos filled the gaps but created a sight line too. It took her a while to decipher the underlying purpose, but as she lay on the bed, letting her eyes roam from image to image, it became clear. All lines led to Tokyo Rose. No matter where one started, the natural flow was to the Japanese beauty.
Later, she read with all the lights on, then decided that was silly. She checked the doors and windows again, flicked the living room and kitchen lights off. With only her reading light on, she closed the book and rested it on her chest. She listened with half an ear to a radio drama about someone named the Great Gildersleeve. Some of it was pretty funny, and it took her mind off sounds she couldn't identify: a metallic rattle that might be a pipe expanding, a thump and buzz that might be the refrigerator cycling, a dog barking. There wasn't enough light to see the posters now, and the window was a grey square leaking moonlight. She worried that someone might look in, and she laughed. No matter what side of the window I'm on, I'm scared of the other! Tomorrow she would hang curtains.
She turned off the radio and the light and slipped into a dream. It seemed she'd slept for a long time, and she knew she was dreaming. In the dream she rested on a white beach, like one of the models on the cover of Life, like Rita Hayworth, and the sun beat down hot, oppressively hot. Overhead a plane rumbled across the sky, too far to identify, but clearly military, a B-29 maybe. She rolled. In the dream she shifted away from the sun, but she felt blankets on her shoulders and knew she rolled in bed too. It was so hot. I should find some shade, she thought. I need sun screen. Waves hissed in the dream. Heat shimmered off the sand blurring the horizon.
Someone stood beside her. It was too hot on the beach, and it robbed her strength, but she could feel him standing there. For a long time he said nothing, and she thought, if only he would set up an umbrella.
Then, he touched her back. His hand was smooth, and the overheated skin felt instant relief. She closed her eyes against the brightness, could feel sand beneath her cheek. The hand moved. It stroked to her shoulder blades and down to the base of her spine spreading coolness the whole way. Meadoe moved into the stroke. Then softly, a voice in her ear.
"Do you trust me?"
She woke, screaming, and the bed was sweat soaked again. She had to flip the mattress before putting on dry sheets.
In the morning, her linen drawers were open and once folded clothes piled messily within.
August 2, Research: Sunday Morning
The library didn't open until noon on Sunday, so Meadoe disarmed the alarm system before entering. The lights were off. Flyers from different publishing houses touting their newest releases covered her desk, and she moved them aside to give herself room to work. The Real Estate/Assessor's Office didn't have a web page but the City and County Records Office and Building Permits did. She punched in her address. After a few seconds search, a list of names and dates scrolled onto her screen with her name at the bottom. From 1928 until 1945 the house had two owners: the Belascoes who owned it until 1940, and the Shirleys who owned it until September of 1945. Since then the house had changed hands seventeen times. The realtor said young couples bought the house, and then moved out when they had children. Meadoe tapped her fingernail against the keyboard. She typed in her neighbor's address to the north, a house that looked very much like hers from the street. Three owners since '45. The house to the south of her, four owners in the same time period. Across the street, two owners. She checked another dozen addresses in the neighborhood. None had more than four owners since the end of World War II.
Scrolling back up the screen, she returned to the Shirleys. Howard J.T. Shirley bought the house in May of 1940. Margaret L. Shirley cosigned the loan. Wife? Mother? Sister?
A name search for Howard J.T. Shirley brought her to a Shirley genealogical site where she found he died in 1982. Margaret L. Shirley, his wife, died two years later. The site listed one child, Nathaniel Shirley, born January 15, 1929, died August 6, 1945. He was sixteen when he died, the same day the atomic age opened its awful eye over Hiroshima. Meadoe could hear her father's voice, thickly accented, "Your grandfather dug all day for the rest of his friends. Dirt covered their faces. There were scars on his arms from broken glass in the rubble."
Nothing turned up on a search of Nathaniel's name.
The historical archives were in the basement. Turning on lights, Meadoe worked her way to the local history shelves. On the top row, Harriston High School annuals. Nathaniel smiled from the juniors section in the 1945 book, and the little hairs on her arms stood straight up as they had when she’d pulled down the wallpaper. She wished she’d brought a sweater.
Nathaniel had light hair with a shiny, sculpted look that most of the boys sported. Glasses. He wore a dark tie, white shirt and dark jacket. Varsity track. Art club. She thumbed through the annual. Grainy black and white photos of football games and victory gardens. At the homecoming dance, several boys were in uniform. Some downtown Harriston buildings in the background of the homecoming parade were familiar.
Prom pictures were in a copy of the school paper, The Lions Roar, stuck in the back of the book. On the second page, she found Nathaniel, his arm around a pretty girl with dark hair like her own, but curled instead of straight, hanging to her shoulders instead of trimmed to just under the ears. The caption read, "The Prom's best couple: Junior Nathaniel Shirley and Senior Erica Weiss."
Meadoe went back to her computer. If Nathaniel did the wall art, he didn't enjoy it long before he died. Why did people move in and out of her house so often? Thoughtfully she typed in a search for "ghosts and poltergeists." Her research offered numerous explanations for ghosts and hauntings. One source suggested that ghosts wanted attention. That’s why so many of them threw things. Another argued that poltergeist phenomena was caused by the emotional upheaval of someone in the house, generally a pre-adolescent girl. Was she effectively “pre-
adolescent”? Could her house be responding to her? One ghost hunter said ghosts recreated the circumstances that held them to the earth. Another maintained ghosts existed because they had unfinished business.
In the August ‘45 Harriston Independent, on the second to last page she found Nathaniel under the headline, "Truck Strikes Local Youth." He’d had been crossing the intersection of Harriston Boulevard and Broadway when a milk truck hit him. The paper reported Nathaniel died at St. Joseph hospital that afternoon of head injuries. Beside the article was the same class picture she'd seen in the yearbook looking so formal, so young in his coat and tie.
Before going home, she stopped at the video store.
"Do you carry The Outlaw, with Jane Russel?" Meadoe asked.
The teen cashier keyed the title into his computer and shook his head.
"Four Jills in a Jeep?" On the wall beside her, Meadoe counted at least 60 copies of the latest release. "How about The Haunted Honeymoon or Destination Tokyo?"
"Nope." He hit a key that brought up more information about the films. "Jeeze, those are old. You'd probably have to order them special."
"That we have. Two copies. The film's in black and white though. I'm supposed to tell you that because some guy rented it last year and raised a stink because he thought it was defective."
At home she phoned Joan. "I've got curtains to put up, you can help with, and a video to watch if you aren't doing anything."
"I'll bring wine," Joan said.
In the middle of the afternoon, the whole ghost theory seemed suspect. Certainly the apparition in the window could have been her imagination, and maybe she'd messed up her own clothes in the dresser in the middle of the night. She'd never done that before, but she'd never moved into a house of her own either, nor had she had night sweats.
Which was Joan's point an hour later as they hung the bedroom curtains. "There's numerous medical reasons for profuse sweating. You're young for it, but it could be early signs of menopause."
Joan pushed a hook into the drape's back while Meadoe held the fabric up. None of the windows were standard width, and the curtains really should have been special ordered, but Meadoe couldn't afford that. Custom curtains were on the lengthening list of home improvements. She tried to keep her tone light. "Oh, no. It couldn't be that. My grandmother had a child when she was forty-three." A medical condition? she thought. Her father spent four months in a hospital dying of colon cancer when she was twelve. She remembered how frail his arms became--how thin his face. Cancer killed her grandfather too. Slow mushroom clouds erupted in his lungs, a part of Hiroshima’s omnipresent past.
Joan took three hooks from her chest pocket and moved down the drape, pushing each one in. "That's the benign explanation. Anxiety provoked by severe repression could cause it too--a purely psychological symptom--but night sweats can accompany diabetes, M.S., AIDS, polio and a half dozen other things I can't think of off the top of my head. First things first, we ought to get your estrogen checked."
In Meadoe's bedroom, Joan examined the wall for a long time, touching some of the pictures, then moving back with her head cocked, as if she were in an art gallery. "Whew! And you think this was all done by a sixteen-year-old?"
"No more than a month before he died." Now that Meadoe had seen the pattern that drew her eye to Tokyo Rose, it seemed it should be obvious to Joan too, but Joan didn't seem to notice it.
"I always liked 40's hair styles. They struck me as more . . . deliberate. This low maintenance look we all go for now just isn't as romantic. There must be a half a can of hair spray on that woman's head. Oh, look at that." She had found Tokyo Rose. “She looks a little like you, Meadoe. Did you notice that? She’s beautiful.”
“We all look alike to you.” Meadoe laughed.
“There’s more of the west in you than the east, girl.” Joan put a stool under the curtain rod and hung the drapes. "There, now you won't be wondering about peeping Toms in the shrubbery."
Over a glass of wine, Meadoe told Joan about her scare the night before and the dream. Meadoe looked into her glass as she spoke. Remembering the touch on her back raised new goose bumps. She could still feel the fingers over her skin.
"Doesn't the timing of these things strike you as fortuitous?" said Joan. "I mean, it's pretty obvious that the evening I bring up a delicate topic in our session--ask you what you fear most--your subconscious supplies fears. Of course, the face in the window is symbolic in some way. It could be your repressed self looking out at you, or it could be Christopher Towne coming back in your imagination." Joan laughed. "Or it could have been a funny trick of light. Not everything has a psychological explanation. The dream now, that is interesting. What were you wearing in it?"
Meadoe shook Casablanca from its plastic box and put it in the VCR. "I don't know. I suppose a bathing suit. He touched bare skin."
Joan settled onto the couch after slipping a coaster under her wine glass. "How do you know that he was a he? You said you only saw feet."
"I . . . I don't know that either. In the dream I assumed it was a man."
Meadoe sat on the couch. Joan moved over to accommodate. It was more of a love seat than a proper couch, not large enough for Meadoe to stretch out to take a nap on.
"And you said when he touched you in the dream you liked it? I'd say that was a good sign. It's obvious the dream has sexual overtones, and you welcomed them."
"The sun was hot. I was burning up, and his hand was cool. Do we have to talk about it? The movie has started."
Black and white maps appeared on the screen with a voice over. Lines traced a path through Europe to Casablanca. The narrator said of refugees without visas in Casablanca that their fate was to "wait and wait and wait." She thought about Nathaniel Shirley. What if he was a ghost in this house, caught in his sixteenth year, and like the refugees, looking for a way to escape?
An Englishman wearing a monocle said, "We hear very little, and we understand even less." Meadoe nodded. That made sense. She'd hadn't seen Casablanca before, and it struck her as funny. The music seemed overstated, and the acting stilted. A plane flying in one scene was clearly a model, and the Germans were stereotypical. She wondered how Japanese were portrayed in other films from that era.
Then a woman walked into the cafe. Ingrid Bergman. The prefect of police said to her, "I was informed you were the most beautiful woman ever to visit Casablanca. That was a gross understatement." Meadoe leaned forward. It was true. She was beautiful. A fragility in the face. Flawless skin. A half smile that changed her appearance from somber to knowing. The pictures on Nathaniel's wall didn't do her justice.
Joan picked up her wine glass and sipped from it. Somewhere in the film Meadoe stopped thinking of it as stilted. Her own wine warmed on the table. At the end she cried so hard that Joan put her arm around her until Meadoe giggled at the ridiculousness of it.
"It's all right," said Joan. "There must be something in the story that speaks strongly to you. That's why movies are such a powerful medium. They help us live the tales we can't tell ourselves."
An hour after Joan left, Meadoe didn't feel tired at all. Normally she was in bed by 9:00 before work, but her mind raced with a million thoughts. With the curtains up, the house seemed homier, more enclosed and safer. She picked up a book, reread the same page twice without understanding a word; put it down. She looked into all the rooms for the tenth time, and then decided a shower might relax her. Afterwards, wearing a robe, she poured herself another glass of wine and started the video again.
She noticed details she missed the first time. The young woman who sought Bogart's help was in the opening crowd scene hopefully looking at the plane overhead. Every time an Italian military officer appeared in the film, everyone ignored him. Senor Ugotti said to Bogart, "I have lots of friends in Casablanca, but just because you despise me, you're the only one I trust," which made Meadoe smile. There were jokes in the first half of the film she hadn’t got earlier. She poured more wine, feeling a pleasant torpor steal over her and closed her eyes. One of the books about ghosts said spirits were doomed to replay the circumstances of their deaths over and over. Is it like video, Meadoe wondered, or can it be changed? Bogie never gets the girl.
In the film, Sam sang "As Time Goes By." Meadoe drifted. The tune went on and on. "And you must remember this, a kiss is but a kiss, a sigh is but a sigh." She felt she wasn't on her living room couch anymore, but in a theater watching Casablanca on a movie screen, back row. Silhouettes of heads filled the seats in front of her, the woman's hair curled and styled. A curl of her own hair blocked her vision. But my hair is straight! she thought. She shook her head to move it. Buttered popcorn smells. After shave. Plush underneath her hands.
Bogart stared down a glass of whiskey. "Of all the gin joints in all the world," he said.
Slowly, Meadoe realized someone's hand was on top her left one, the fingers clasped around her hand, very proper and gentle. She didn't move, but let it rest there. It didn’t make her feel anxious. Her stomach didn’t tighten. This is a good dream, she thought; no contact phobia. Joan would be proud.
At the roulette wheel, the young woman's husband won a lot of money. Bogart had rigged the game so they would win and she wouldn't have to make an unnamed sacrifice to save them both. Everyone congratulated Bogart, and he squirmed. Meadoe sighed. The scenes no longer seemed to be in order, but she liked it just as much. She leaned a little to rest her head on her companion's shoulder. The theater air washed her in warmth, very warm, and sweat trickled down the side of her face. She didn't mind though. She was comfortable. "Yes, Ugotti, I do respect you more," said Bogart.
Her companion turned in his seat. She knew it was a he, and his hand came across her to stroke her other arm. His breath touched her cheek, but she kept watching the movie. Bergman told her husband she'd been lonely in Paris, but she didn't tell him about Bogart. She didn't tell him she'd fallen in love.
The hand on her arm moved. It stroked the side of her breast. Now Meadoe wasn't really watching the movie. She heard it behind closed eyes. Everything was gentle. Not like the time with Christopher Towne. Very slow. And the air almost burned, as if she faced an oven, but the hand was cool and slow and pleasant. She knew she sat on her own couch in her own living room--she knew she was dreaming--but she also was in a theater. Both places at once. Not alone in either place.
Sam sang again, "It's still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die."
Meadoe sighed. Made a small sound in the back of her throat. Heard herself make it and thought, I'll have to be quiet, or I'll wake myself from this dream.
The hand moved again, to the front of her blouse, parting the cloth (doesn't it have buttons? she thought), and the coolness was on her bare breast, holding it lightly, barely stroking; a thumb crossed her nipple. She turned to offer herself more easily, her breath caught high in her lungs, her skin a thousand times more sensitive than she’d ever felt it before.
Then a loud click. She sat straight up on her couch. The video had finished and ejected. She shook suddenly and realized she was covered with sweat, literally dripping, and the front of her robe was open.
She showered again before going to bed.
Monday morning, on the way to the library, Meadoe bought the video.
August 3 and 4, Monday and Tuesday Night: In the Interim
It took willpower to undress for bed both nights. Even with curtains, Meadoe felt watched. Pictures of her parents on her dresser seemed to have been rearranged. The medicine cabinet door opened on its own accord. No matter where she tuned the radio, it eventually played oldies. She listened to Chet Huntley read the news from a station she couldn’t get in the car and there was no listing for in the newspaper. It played polka favorites for an hour at 7:00.
When she finally turned out her light, she lay rigid on her back, hands at her side, looking at the ceiling. Did a floor board creak? Did the spoons drawer rattle in the kitchen? She thought, if I shut my eyes and then open them, will a face be staring into my face? Dare I sleep? Can I?
Then so softly at first, so imperceptibly she wasn’t sure it hadn’t started much earlier and she’d dismissed it, a voice talked steadily. It rose and fell. No words she could distinguish, but it lasted a long time. When it broke off, she stopped breathing, listening as hard as she could. Then sobbing. A young man’s muffled weeping as if it were miles away. It was hardly there--no more than wind against the house; no more than a whisper of a sheet dropping across a long, long room, but it was beside her too.
When she slept, she didn’t dream. She woke refreshed.
August 5, Wednesday Afternoon: An Interview
Meadoe stood in front of the impressive house for a long time before ringing the bell. What if she decides I’m a loon? Meadoe thought. She stepped off the porch, thinking she might be able to slip away, when the front door opened. An elderly woman with thin, white hair, heavily powdered, held the door knob.
“You’re the young lady who called from the library? I’m Erica Weiss. Come in. Come in. I’ve made coffee.” Her voice was surprisingly full considering her age, and Meadoe entered the living room.
“Thank you for having me." Dozens of framed pictures hung on the walls from long wires attached to the ceiling molding. The room smelled of vanilla and hand lotion. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell but a strong one. While Erica went to the kitchen for the coffee, Meadoe examined the pictures. There were photographs of family groups wearing late 1800's clothing sitting on the grass. Servicemen looked out from some of the pictures. Wedding portraits, graduation photos, parties, snow falls. Meadoe recognized a younger Erica in one picture standing with what might have been parents. One was of her wedding. The groom wore a formal military uniform.
“I lost Robert in 1983,” said Erica, carrying a tray with cups and a coffee pot. “We’d just inherited the property from my mom and dad. He had a stroke while adding the garage.”
"I'm sorry." Meadoe sat on the edge of the couch, unsure how to ask her questions, unsure, now that she was there that she wanted to ask them.
The elderly woman said, "It's a long life, but you've got to live every minute of it. We had a few good years." She balanced a cup on her knee and filled it with coffee, then filled the other and handed it to Meadoe. "I contributed to the oral history project a few years ago. Young man with a tape recorder came out and asked questions for a couple hours. Nice fellow, from the university. Don't know what he did with all that blather."
The coffee nearly blistered Meadoe's lip. She blew across it and took a sip. A rich blend with a hint of licorice. "This is more for me than the library, I'm afraid. I wanted to talk about high school, about Nathaniel Shirley. I moved into his house."
Erica put her cup on the table, then hid her hands in her lap. "What made you come to me?"
"Your picture together in a yearbook. I found drawings in the house that were his. Good art."
Erica swayed a little, and when she reached for her coffee, her hand shook with a palsy Meadoe hadn't noticed earlier. "He never drew me. I asked him to once, but he said he didn't have the skill yet. He wanted to get me right." Her voice quivered, not nearly as full as it had been at the door. She wiped at her eye. "Sorry, the infirmity of age. So many old friends have passed. I guess Nathaniel was the first."
"Can you tell me about him?"
"It was a long time ago." In the parlor a clock chimed the hour, six mellow gongs. Afternoon sun fell in a narrow strip along the carpet in front of the living room window. Meadoe drank again, almost holding her breath, barely noticing the scalding liquid.
"We started dating at the beginning of my senior year; he was a junior. Many of the older boys had left to Germany or the Pacific so the girls dated younger. He was a beautiful boy. Did you see his picture? He had long fingers, like a sculptor. I thought it was just a fling, of course, so I had a beau at Homecoming." Erica sighed. "Girls now don't understand what it was like then, I think. If a girl today likes a boy, she just asks him out. The feminists have it right; it's a better system, but then--oh, then--a girl sat by the phone. He took me to Homecoming, and we had fun, but I didn't fall in love until the next week. We were in choir. One morning I walked into the room, and there was a drawing of Tokyo Rose on the blackboard, a huge one done in colored chalks--he could really draw Tokyo Rose--and underneath he had written, "Erica Weiss is lovelier than Tokyo Rose." He didn't sign it, but we all knew, even the teacher. She didn't erase it. It stayed there all period."
Meadoe considered the room, the woman. It was hard to imagine her as a high school senior. In the pictures, she was pretty, curly black hair, bright eyes peeking at the camera. Meadoe couldn’t see the young woman in the old one. "I don't know how to ask this; it sounds rude, and I don't mean it to be, but I need to know. Were you two . . . serious? I mean . . . were you close?"
“Very close.” Erica looked at Meadoe and blushed. “Oh no, nothing like that. It was 1945, after all. Not today. We never . . . not ever. Good girls didn’t.”
“That’s not what I meant to imply.” Meadoe tried to smile, but that was exactly the question she wanted answered. The pinup girls. The touch on her back, the sitting on the couch in front of Casablanca were so sexual.
“Well, we were people, of course. Young people. I think most old folk forget how high their juices used to run, and the young ones, of course, believe they’ve invented sex. We thought about it. We wanted to, but I was firm. I was proper.” She looked past Meadoe at the pictures on the wall. “Most of the people I grew up with are dead now. I have their photographs.” She paused. The clock ticked. Meadoe cupped her coffee, warming her hands. “During the war young kids had less opportunity than they have now. They chaperoned the dances. My mother called slow dances, ‘vertical fulfillment of horizontal desires,’ and the chaperones separated you if they thought you were too close. We thought about it though, what with the boys going away to war. Some girls absolutely thought it was their patriotic duty.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No, we never did." She looked miserable. "I graduated in ‘45, and I was going to go to college. He still had a year left, but he told me he was signing up that summer, the summer he died.”
Talking about his death seemed to have exhausted her, so Meadoe helped put away the coffee cups.
"Did you see Casablanca with him?"
Erica closed a kitchen cabinet softly, hiding cups and saucers by the row. Meadoe believed most were never used, that the old woman took out the same cup or two everyday but never any more. The house seemed bigger now, and more empty.
"We did. At the Denham for an encore showing. It was a couple of years old by then."
Meadoe remembered the popcorn, the quickening of breath. "Did you sit in the back row?"
They walked toward the front door. Erica paused. "Funny question." She rubbed her brow in thought. "Yes . . . you're right. We did. How did you know?"
They said goodbye, but before Meadoe moved to the porch, Erica put her hand on Meadoe’s arm, stopping her. The old woman’s eyes were watery and pale, her gaze steady. “In August that year, my aunt in Fort Collins became ill. My mother left me alone in the house for three days. I was eighteen. She said she trusted me. For the first time since Nathaniel and I started dating we had an empty house. I was going to go to college. He was joining the army. I called him. He was coming to see me when he had his accident.”
Meadoe nodded dumbly. The woman’s grip was intense. Her mouth grim. “He never would have been in the intersection if I hadn’t called. All these years, all these years I’ve known, Nathaniel Shirley died because of me.”
August 5, Wednesday Evening: A Visitation
Meadoe left her car in front of Erica’s house and walked home, deep in thought.
Erica's look stayed with her. The old woman's grip on her arm. The way she said "Nathaniel." Never "Nathan." His whole name over and over again. When she'd spoke her final words it was if all the time between had been erased. As if only moments before she'd hung up the phone and sat in her empty house waiting for a boy who never arrived.
A half hour later as the dusk deepened, she rounded the corner onto her street. No cars were parked in front of houses for once, and none of the neighbors were in the yards. Dinner time, she thought. But as she walked, she slowed. No cars. No people. Just the elms’ lazy sway, the stillness of summer lawns, the day’s last heat baking through the sidewalk. She turned to look behind her. For a moment nothing moved, and she marveled. This could be 1945, she thought. I have no evidence otherwise. Nathaniel might have seen his street just like this. A plane hummed away in the sky. Sun light caught it there, way above her, like a golden cross: a four-engined golden cross. She thought, is that a B-29? But when she blinked, it became a jet. A car turned up the street, a mini-van that turned on its lights as it passed and the moment vanished.
At first in the darkness inside her house, Meadoe didn’t notice the disarray. Silverware on the kitchen floor stopped her. Drawers were open. Canned goods scattered across the counters. Couch cushions were on the floor. Art hung crooked on the walls. Meadoe, clutching her hands to her chest, moved into her bedroom. Sheets on the floor. Dresser drawers open--one was across the room--her clothes emptied from them. Windows and doors were locked. Nothing missing. Nothing broken. Meadoe picked up methodically. Why would Nathaniel act out this way? Was it because she visited Erica?
August 5, Wednesday Night: Anniversary
Later, she prepared for bed carefully: a long bath, a single candle lit on the tub's edge, the remains of the wine Joan left. The radio played a nonsense song, "Mairzy doats and doazy doats and liddle lambzy divey." She washed her hair in the tub, sinking back until the water covered her ears, muffling the radio. Everything in her bunched together in tight fists, her stomach, her lungs, her back muscles, as if a race were about to start, but she forced herself to go slow. The wine tasted good. Warm water held her in its hand. Time felt mushy and possible.
She thought about the night of August 5, 1945, where the Enola Gay waited for its atomic payload; its crew slumbered in the barracks, while Erica Weiss's mother packed for a trip to Fort Collins. Erica lay down to sleep, thinking about a phone call, thinking about long kisses held on a porch, thinking about a sculptor's fingers sliding across her shoulder, touching her cheek. Nathaniel Shirley stared at his collage until midnight, hearing planes in his ears, watching Ginger Rogers spinning across a dance floor. "Here's looking at you," Bogey said at an airport in the fog. Nathaniel's eyes always ended at Tokyo Rose, her dark hair, the twist in her neck. He thought about touching that hair, except it was never Tokyo Rose he touched in his imagination. It was Erica; her hair curled and smelling of shampoo. Meadoe’s grandfather in Hiroshima slept. Old, old light from stars so distant a million lives might have come and gone glittered in the sky.
Meadoe rubbed herself dry. Left the door open. She felt his eyes on her. Pulled on panties and a night shirt and headed for bed. She remembered the Casablanca dream where she sat in the theater. In the dream she'd directed herself. She'd turned so her companion could touch her. In the dream she'd had free will. In the dream she'd had curly hair.
11:55 p.m. The clock flicked to a new minute. Meadoe lay on her back, eyes part open but drifting, just on sleep's edge, pleasantly buzzed. A wine glass sat on the night table where she could reach it. The radio played in the background, soft dance tunes, horns and clarinets. Big bands. Meadoe licked her lips. Felt herself doing it, knowing that she was almost asleep. A bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. Under the covers, heat pressed her on all sides. Moving slowly, concentrating on the buzz like a pressure point behind her eyes, she pushed away the blanket so only the sheet covered her.
In a dream now, she sat in her front parlor. Sun poured through the front windows. The house was almost intolerably hot, and even leaving the doors open didn’t help, but Erica, wearing a thin cotton blouse and shorts didn't consider it. Mother has been gone for two hours now. She won't be back for three days. Erica’s hair stuck to the side of her face, but it was nervousness, not the heat. On the table, the phone waited.
Nathaniel could be here in thirty minutes. Erica thought about his laugh. The way he touched her face. How when he was in the room she felt watery inside and hoped that he would hold her. The phone clicked when she lifted it.
In Meadoe’s home, the bed creaked; She incorporated it into the dream, turned it into a creaky chair. Erica held the phone, listening to the dial tone, in the dream, and Meadoe moved aside without opening her eyes both in her bed and in Erica's front parlor. A weight lay beside her, scarcely breathing, and the air baked in the room. For a moment, nothing moved. The dial tone hummed. Meadoe's heart pounded in her ears. A tug on the sheet. It slid off. Erica dialed the operator, waiting between each digit, trying to stay calm. A jostle in the bed. Lips on Meadoe’s neck. She scrunched her eyes tight, forcing herself to stay both in the dream and in her bed. A pressure moved off her arm; a hand, moved down her side, over her hip and then rested on bare leg. Meadoe breathed a sound at the touch, tried not to move. What if the hand went away? She desperately did not want to wake.
Meadoe held the phone. Pushed her curly hair away from her eyes. One ring. Two rings. In her bed, the nightshirt pushed up, uncovering her belly, uncovering her breasts. Caressed, she pushed into the weight beside her. Felt his length, the heat of him. The hand moved off the middle of her chest. Slid down. Sweat coated her. She floated in it. The fingers paused at her pantie line. She wanted to suck her tummy in to give him access. Wanted those fingers to keep moving down. Wanted his touch.
She talked on the phone too. Nathaniel said he'll come.
Erica . . . Meadoe . . . Erica . . . she didn't know who she was, breathed hard. He'll be here soon, Meadoe thought. Mother is gone. Mother is gone. He'll be here soon.
The fingers stayed still, but the heel of the hand moved closer so Meadoe knew the fingers must be bent, his beautiful, sensitive sculptor's fingers. She gasped, not afraid now that he would hear, and then the fingers slipped under the elastic, touched her hair.
Meadoe moaned, reached down and grabbed the wrist, preventing him from going any lower. "Wait," she said into her room's hot, dark air. "Wait."
Erica put on her shoes. She thought, I should wait. But she opened the front parlor door, rushed. In the dream, Meadoe/Erica ran up the street. Her house was closer to the intersection than Nathaniel's. She should get there first. Her feet blurred beneath her. Up the long hill, made the intersection. He was not there yet. Traffic held her for a minute. Cars, trucks, military vehicles She crossed.
Meadoe held the wrist. She ached, but she didn't let it move.
A minute later, she saw Nathaniel. He was running, but when he noticed her standing there, he slowed to a walk. A grin stayed on his face. The smile was infectious, and Erica smiled back. They hugged at the same moment across the globe a bomber dropped its single bomb. Roared frantically away. Meadoe Omura's grandfather lifted dirt by the shovelful from the bunker. Around him, other workers moved wheel barrels, carried brick, mixed cement.
The traffic light changed, Nathaniel started across, but Erica held him back. A milk truck slammed through the red light and continued down the road. Erica smiled even broader. The bomb burst and the atomic age arrived. Quantum theory made real.
Nathaniel said, "Wow, good thing nobody was in the street.”
Erica nodded. She didn't let go of his arm.
“Pretty warm out, don't you think?" Nathaniel said.
Erica shaded her eyes. "A bit. Maybe we can go someplace out of the sun?"
"Do you have something in mind?"
"Oh, yes," she said, and they walked toward her house.
In her bedroom, Meadoe held the hand still under her belly, and she walked hand in hand with Nathaniel down Harriston Boulevard. They went in her front door. A brief kiss. A fumbling with buttons and snaps. They laughed in the afternoon's warmth, nearly stifling in the house, oblivious of heat and atomic bombs and milk trucks.
Meadoe forced her eyes open to the bedroom's darkness. Their laughter rang in her house, echoey and distant. Moonlight slanted through the window, gathered in a form lying beside her.
His eyes were open, staring into her own across the years. Young eyes, long dead. They blinked.
"I'm not who you think I am," said Meadoe.
The voice barely made it to her ears. It could have been no more than a breeze outside. Her own heart thudding in her veins. As light as a lover's touch. "I know, Tokyo Rose," he said, then the room was empty and twenty degrees cooler.
August 8, Saturday: Final Reel
"So you haven't seen evidence of the 'ghost' since Wednesday night?" Joan pulled her notepad from a briefcase. She was in her therapist's mode now, harder, more brusque than Joan the friend.
"No. He's gone." Meadoe leaned back in her chair.
"How can that be? You didn't change history. He still died on August 6, 1945. You told me Erica Weiss believed it was her fault, that she still believes it, so why would he disappear?"
Meadoe smiled. "I don't know, really, but I don't think I changed history. I changed the ghost. It's quantum physics, like I told you before--the uncertainty principle. Individual electrons are in all possible positions. History plays itself out in all ways."
"Parallel worlds?" Joan wrote on the pad, and Meadoe couldn't tell if she was taking her seriously or not, but she didn't care. Couldn't Joan feel it in the house? How much sweeter the air was? How much easier it was to breathe?
"Maybe, but I don't think it's that simple. Parallel spirits maybe. The worlds aren't discreet. Nathaniel intersected here. I just showed him another way it could have turned out."
Joan tapped her pen against the page. "You sound different. What's going on?"
"Remember last week when you asked me what I feared most?"
"I found out what it was, and I conquered it."
"In the dream?
"In the dream." She remembered holding Nathaniel's hand back. She'd said, "wait," and he'd stopped. The power was in her then; it was in her now. She had control. "Come on, I want to show you something in the bedroom."
In the bedroom, Joan looked around. "Did you clean the windows? It seems brighter in here."
Meadoe shook her head. She hadn't noticed it before, but Joan was right. The room was brighter. She sat on the edge of the bed, waiting. Joan paced the room.
"Look at the collage," said Meadoe.
Joan contemplated the wall and found it almost immediately. "Where's Tokyo Rose? And who is that? How did you get that picture under the varnish?"
Meadoe smiled. She'd seen it Thursday morning when she awoke, happy, nearly ready to sing, and she'd lain in the bed in languid glory. Her eyes followed the Life covers to the drawing, only it wasn't Tokyo Rose anymore. Smiling from the penciled portrait, as stunning as any of the movie stars, a black haired girl, curls waving around her ears. Erica Weiss. In Nathaniel's hand, a date, August 7, 1945.
Joan said, "He was already dead."
Meadoe bounced against the bed's edge. "Just in this world, Joan. Just one of him."
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.