#1: The third-floor hallway of the Blue Moon Hotel in Jefferson, Rhode Island, 1:26 a.m.
The silence gives you goosebumps, or maybe that’s just the pills kicking in. You’ve always hated being awake at hours like this. It feels like you’ve been woken from a cryogenic chamber while the rest of the world stays frozen. There are sleepers behind all these doors, you think: tourists resting up for tomorrow’s activities; young people sleeping off their secret hookups; addicts snoozing with needles in their arms; evicted families, exhausted from hours of apartment hunting; maybe even a few suicidals sleeping the long sleep. These people might as well not exist. You’re far away from them, in that lifeless little pocket between midnight and sunrise.
How can there be no windows up here? This whole floor is a dizzying maze of corridors, walls stretching out subtly, like an optical illusion. You gnaw on the cigarette and place a hand on the wallpaper to steady yourself. This is a mistake; your fingers come away sticky. You wipe them on your pajama pants and swear under your breath.
Eventually you find the window. It’s tucked around the corner of the maze, right by the ice machine. The problem is that the damn thing doesn’t open. You’ve forgotten that hotels seal up all their windows to keep people from leaping out. You swear again and pry at the frame, but all you do is break a fingernail.
Fuck it. There are no smoke alarms here. You’ll take your chances.
You reach into your pants pocket to grab your lighter, but your legs buckle under a sudden wave of wooziness. You slump against the ice machine and gasp a little. The cigarette falls from your mouth onto the dirty carpet. You try to get back up, but your head is spinning, and you aren’t sure if you just took some bad pills or if you’re having a stroke or something.
A hand touches your arm. You flinch, but it’s only Charlie. Your daughter looks paler than ever under the ghostly hotel light fixtures. Her eyes are heavy with sleep and her blond curls are a tangled mess, but she’s still prettier than you’ll ever be, and you kind of hate her for that. There’s pity in her eyes. You kind of hate her for that too.
“You okay, Mom?” she asks.
You struggle to come up with words. “I’m fine,” you mumble finally. “Just got a little dizzy.”
Charlie bites her lower lip. “You really should be getting back to bed,” she says. “We’ve got to catch the Greyhound early tomorrow.”
“I’m fine,” you repeat, but when you try to stand, you swoon again. Charlie reaches out and steadies you against the ice machine. You eye the cigarette on the carpet and feel an unpleasant urge to stick it back in your mouth.
“Maybe your blood sugar’s low,” Charlie says. “I’ll get you a Coke or something. There’s a vending machine in the lobby.”
“Okay,” you say, because you’re out of energy to protest anymore. You let yourself drift as Charlie leaves you in the little nook by the window and pads back down the hall. Instead of watching her go, you stare at the pale light fixtures above you. Black specks line their insides: clumps of dust and fly corpses. You close your eyes.
When you open them, something has shifted. You feel a swooping sense of displacement. The pastel flowers on the wall have gone fuzzy and your back is numb from pressing against the ice machine. You blink, rub your eyes, and check your watch. It’s been an hour. Your head throbs and your throat is raw.
You manage to get back to your feet, although the first step you take is wobbly. “Charlie?” you call. The hallway swallows your voice. You tread on the fallen cigarette with your bare foot as you wander back into the maze. It’s still empty, still that nothing hour, and the world is asleep around you.
“Charlie?” you say again, louder this time, even though it hurts your throat.
You turn the corner, and a dark shape at the end of the hall sends a bolt of fear through you. It’s not your daughter. It’s a man in a thin gray suit, standing totally still, his arms by his sides. His face is a blurry blotch, and at first you think it’s because you still have sleep in your eyes. But you blink and blink and his features refuse to come into focus. It makes you think of a painting that’s been smeared, like a brush has obliterated everything about him from the neck up.
Has he done something to Charlie?
“Wait!” you shout. The stranger has turned, gliding smoothly around the corner and out of sight. You ignore the pinpricks of pain in your feet and stagger after him. The doors flit past you, numbers dim and tarnished, and it feels like this hallway will never end; it feels like you’ve wandered onto a conveyor belt, forever pushing you backwards. But eventually you do reach the other side. The next hallway is a dead end, the only exit a nondescript door leading to the stairwell.
You fling it open and hurtle down the first few steps, but a sudden vertigo makes you stop, your hands gripping the railing. You brave a look down. The stairs are old, indents worn into the rubber by years of stomping feet, but there is no one walking them now. The man in the suit is gone. You wonder, sweat beading on your arms, if he was ever there in the first place.
Your fingers fumble at the empty box in your pocket. You’re out of cigarettes.
#2: The empty aisles of the 7-Eleven on Oak Street, 2:37 a.m.
It’s a ten-minute walk to the edge of downtown, and all the storefronts are dark except one. You’re in luck: the dinky little 7-Eleven is open, its windows so bright between its dead neighbors that the glow sears your retinas. Your bare feet tread on pebbles and the tufts of grass sticking out of cracks in the sidewalk.
You push open the door, its tiny bells jingling. There’s a single teenage employee slouched behind the counter. He’s listening to some grunge CD on his Walkman headphones—you can hear the thrum of guitar chords, even from here—and staring vacantly at a college brochure. You approach him and rap a few times on the counter. He flinches and removes his headphones, turning his dazed blue eyes onto yours.
“I’d like a pack of Marlboro’s, please,” you tell him.
He blinks at you, like you’ve just spoken in Chinese, but finally turns to grab you a pack from the wall behind him. That’s the moment you slap your pajama pockets and realize your wallet is back in the hotel room. Another string of curses escapes from your mouth before you can stop it.
“Never mind,” you say. “I’ve gotta get some cash first.”
The employee grunts a little, then lowers himself back into his seat and dons the headphones again. You want to kick yourself. What are you doing here, anyway? Buying cigarettes at 2:30 in the morning when you should be trying to find your daughter. You feel disgusted, but mostly nauseous. There was definitely some bad shit in the pills you took.
Before you leave, a tabloid in the magazine rack catches your eye. The picture on the front shows an empty parking lot, much like the one you left ten minutes ago, with a crooked streetlamp casting a spotlight down on a girl’s silhouette. Everything outside the light is so dark that it looks like the void of outer space. Instead of stars, pure white letters are stamped on the blackness: MY CHILD GOT TRAPPED IN THE SPACE BETWEEN DIMENSIONS!
The headline fills you with an inexplicable, icy dread. You glance at the teenager, but his eyes aren’t on you anymore; they probably don’t pay him enough to care about early morning stragglers like you. Your hand snakes out and snatches the magazine from the rack. You tuck it under the hem of your pajama top, wincing at the crinkle of paper. Then you’re out the door. The tinkling of the bells follows you, like a voice whispering thief, thief.
You hurry down the sidewalk, even though the pebbles sting under the soles of your feet. As you walk, you flip through the pages of the magazine until you find the cover story. An anonymous mother tells her interviewer about the disappearance of her six-year-old daughter, who crawled into a tunnel on an empty playground and never came out the other side. The playground was a liminal space, a consulted expert says: an isolated, in-between zone where the universe is so thin that people can slip right through. There are millions of these spaces all over the world, he goes on. Anywhere you stop on your way to somewhere else could be a portal to a realm beyond reality.
Your hands are trembling. You look up from the magazine, and you’re back in the parking lot, the hotel rising above you. Its windows glisten like the multi-faceted eyeballs of some giant insect. Standing alone at the edge of the lot, you feel that thinness the expert mentioned; your skin prickles at the sensation. You have an awful suspicion that Charlie has gone through her own tunnel. She’s slipped into another place. Somewhere you can’t follow her.
Would you even want to?
There’s a figure staring at you through the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance. It’s the man from the third floor, his face still a colorless smear. Your hand clutches the magazine and crumples it in a trembling fist. You close your eyes and breathe in slowly and try to center yourself, to feel the solidness of your body, to wake up, just wake up, even though you’re sure you’re not dreaming.
The man with no face is gone when you dare to look again.
#3: The Greyhound bus station in Providence, Rhode Island, 3:54 a.m.
But that doesn’t happen. Instead, you end up waiting for the bus alone. You clutch the handle of your suitcase and stand nervously under the green overhang. You’re two hours early (you couldn’t bear to wait in that hotel any longer) and the roads of Providence are dead and empty. Patches of mist settle over the cityscape and dull the glow of the streetlights. It’s warm, early summer warm, but with that delicate, charged morning air that tingles on your skin and makes you shiver.
This place is thin, too. You can feel it. It is quite literally an in-between space, a halfway point between where you’re from and where you’re going. You wonder what would happen if the bus never came. Would the whole station, devoid of purpose, collapse into unreality? And you—where would you go if it did?
Footsteps. Light, clacking, like business shoes on pavement. The faceless man, you think, sweat beading on your neck. He’s followed you here. These halfway points are all connected and he’s slipping between them, like the liminal creature he is. The tabloid never mentioned anything about beings like him, but it didn’t have to. You can put the story together yourself. You’re good at that (or so you like to think).
It’s not the faceless man. It’s a woman, actually, a prim woman in a pantsuit with a tightly coiffed bun of brown hair. She doesn’t look at you. She stops at another overhang along the way, then pulls a thick paperback novel from her bag and begins to read.
You feel a prickle of shame, irrational but insistent, that you’re the kind of woman who reads trashy shoplifted magazines and not novels. Charlie loves books. She spent her childhood years buried in them, only leaving her room to eat or go to school. It’s a love that developed despite you, not because of you. You wonder if reading with her would have made a difference in the end.
The bus does come; the station doesn’t collapse. The driver throws your suitcase into the undercarriage with all the grace of a baker heaving a sack of flour. You feel exposed without it. There are still a few pills tucked away in your luggage, hidden in the rumpled folds of your wrinkled laundry, and your fingers twitch for them. You should have taken some before the pantsuit lady showed up. But the driver’s already slid the carriage shut, and you have no choice but to board the bus, shaky and sober.
You glance out the window before you leave. There’s a man standing beneath a streetlight, his face invisible in the mist. But he’s gone between one blink and the next.
#4: The basement of the Little Shire Bookshop in Brooklyn, New York, 8:43 p.m.
You push open the door, which dings softly, and wander through the shelves. The cool air tickles your exposed arms. The whole place smells of coffee and crisp new paper. It’s late, and only a few people are still browsing at this hour. You pass a college student in wire-rimmed glasses poring through some Ayn Rand doorstopper, and brush past a stooped old lady squinting at the harlequin romances. There’s a staircase in the back with a faded sign reading USED BOOKS in tidy print. You place a hand on the railing and head downstairs.
It’s totally empty down here. Even the hum of the AC is subdued. Faded titles sit on messy shelves, some so old that threads poke out of their ancient spines. You wonder what you’re even doing here. Hoping you’ll round a shelf and see Charlie standing there, maybe? Or are you hoping you won’t?
You pull a random title from the shelf. It’s an old Narnia book: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Charlie used to love this one, you remember. The cover depicts a girl with bouncy golden curls sneaking out of a gap in a wintry forest, staring around in wide-eyed wonder. A tall lamppost stands inexplicably in the snowy clearing.
You lurch out of the present for a moment, your mind traveling back to a distant afternoon at your mother-in-law’s place. Randall was in the kitchen, arguing with dear old Judy about borrowing more money, and their constant bickering gave you a headache. You retreated to the back porch and smoked a few cigarettes. You were watching the neighbors through their grime-encrusted windows when Randall poked his head outside and asked, where’s Charlie?
She was seven, then, and you griped that she didn’t need supervision all the goddamn time. But somehow she’d up and vanished. You scoured the house until you finally found her curled up inside Judy’s old wardrobe, her knees tucked up to her chest. She squirmed and struggled as you took her by the arm and yanked her out of the musty darkness.
Let me go, she sobbed. I want to go to Narnia. I want to see the fauns and the snow and the talking animals. She said want, but you could hear the need in her voice, that ache for an escape into fantasy. In the moment it just annoyed you. You shook her arm and dragged her out of the bedroom, scolding her the entire way.
Now you stare down at the little girl on the cover and wonder where she’s gone this time. You clutch the book and consider taking it with you, reading it in those gaps between moments, so you can understand this world your daughter wanted to escape to so badly.
“Ma’am?” a voice says from behind you.
You turn to see a dumpy man, probably in his forties, wearing a sweater vest with a nametag clipped to his breast. “It’s closing time, ma’am,” he says. “I’m afraid you have to leave now.”
You hold up the old book. “Can I buy this?” you ask.
His face twists into an apologetic pout. “The registers are closed, I’m afraid,” he replies. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow.”
You slide the book back into the shelf with some regret. There won’t be a tomorrow. This was your window, and you missed it. Not that a fantasy world would welcome you in anyway.
#5: Backstage at the Violetta Cabaret Lounge in New York City, 10:52 p.m.
The other girls have left the dressing room, waiting in the wings for their turn. You swing a boa over your shoulders and shiver as the feathers tickle your neck. Perfume mingles in the air, great invisible clouds of the stuff. It’s just warm enough to make sweat bead under the sleeves of your dress.
If only Randall could see you now. If only he understood that this is the real you, that you could never be chained to the life he wanted for you.
The emcee’s voice floats from the stage like a figure calling in a dream. You hover in the doorway and wait for him to shout your new name, the one you’ve chosen for yourself. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the lovely, the elegant, the jewel of New York, Janie Hathaway! But he never does. The hours pass without you, the encore comes and goes, and the crowd files out with a chorus of distant chatter. You’ve been forgotten.
#6: The alley behind the Abaddon Bar & Nightclub in the Bronx, 1:02 a.m.
The heat of the crowd is palpable, and you’re sweating worse than ever now, big stains blossoming on your collar and armpits. Your dance takes on an erratic stagger. Now, when you clutch at the beautiful people, it’s like reaching for a lifeguard. You need someone to drag you out of this ocean. Don’t pity me, you think, seeing their faces. Just help me. But none of them come to your rescue.
Nausea swells up within you. You lurch off the dance floor and totter toward an exit sign, its letters a searing red in your vision. You take three steps into the alley before your stomach swoops and vomit comes erupting out of your mouth. Sickly yellow gunk splatters onto the pavement and dribbles down your dress, getting in the feathers of your boa. Your head is in pieces. Each one stabs into you, a shard of acute pain.
You groan and slump against the wall, the bricks scraping your exposed back. It feels like the ground is trembling, but that’s just you, it’s your body betraying you. You blink and clench your jaw and fight back a surge of hot, sudden tears. If only the pain would stop. But it’s reaching a crescendo now, a song you never got to sing.
It rained while you were dancing, and puddles stretch across the uneven pavement. In one of them, you see the image of a man. He is upside down from your angle, his lanky limbs and torso reflected on the glassy surface, his head chopped off where the water ends. You should have known he would find you. You’re in the margins now, in his nowhere world.
He doesn’t approach you. He doesn’t move at all, actually. Not that he has to. You’re not going anywhere either.
#7: The months leading up to the divorce, circa 1990
The cracks were there from the beginning, they must have been, but you were young and in love, you whispered the cliches of romance to each other because that was your language, it was how you understood the world. You were going to be a star, one day, and he was going to accompany you on piano; it was the dream that always sustained you. Then he got you pregnant. You didn’t have room in your dreams to raise a child. Sometimes you’d feel the baby kick inside you, and you’d press a hand against your belly and wish death on the little creature, wish it would shrivel right up and turn back into nothing.
You’d considered an abortion, of course. But Randall wouldn’t hear it. This baby is a blessing, he’d say. Just think of how wonderful it’ll be, you and me raising a kid, having a family. So you went along, you carried the creature to term, but the labor was twelve hours of agony and it split you right open, cut a gash in you that would never heal. The doctors handed you your daughter, ruddy and plump and damp from the afterbirth, and you held her, and you smiled, but inside you were thinking: you’ve ruined everything.
Together you called her Charlie, but in your head she was still the creature, even when she grew up and it was clear she was going to be beautiful. You always suspected she’d sapped you of your own beauty from inside the womb, an act of thievery from which you never recovered. You hated her for taking your dreams away. Resentment, not love, was all you knew, and before long it had infected your marriage too.
If you were distant, so what? If you missed dinners and dance recitals because you were chasing your own happiness, who could blame you? Randall ditched the piano, he gave up quietly on your dream, but you refused to. You spent your nights in the city, popping pills and crooning soft melodies at whatever dive bar would take you, and when you got home the halls would be dark and Randall would be asleep in bed and a flashlight beam would shine from under Charlie’s door, like a swarm of indoor fireflies. The two of them, they weren’t part of your world. They just shared the same spaces you did.
When you saw the thin white scars climbing up Charlie’s thigh, you yelled until your voice went hoarse and her face turned swollen with hot, red tears. How dare you, you wanted to scream. How dare you steal my beauty and then mutilate it like this. She didn’t speak to you for weeks, and after that things were never the same; she’d exhausted all the tears you could make her cry. Randall wouldn’t speak to you either. You existed in that limbo, not talking, not loving, just dying slowly, until you couldn’t take it anymore, and you packed your things and left the house and didn’t look back.
She was the one who reached out to you, years later; she was visiting colleges in Rhode Island and wanted her mother to be there. She tried to patch things up and you didn’t. You just got high and ignored her attention. And it hits you, now, lying in a puddle of your own vomit in some dingy back alley, that Charlie never vanished down a tunnel to nowhere, she never fell through a hole in the universe. All she did was leave. She’d had enough, and she found her escape route. Just like you once did.
Your heart, that shriveled little thing, is trying to escape from its ribcage. It wants out and you don’t think you can stop it. You rest your head against the bricks and breathe out a shuddery breath and sink into your migraine, letting it enfold you. The world is hazy now. You hear distant cars, and footsteps in puddles, and the fading thump of techno music. Then you hear nothing at all.
#8: The waiting room in the St. Camillus Medical Center, 3:25 a.m.
“Easy,” a voice says. “It’s okay.”
The hand belongs to a young stranger, a pale, scrawny thing with her blond curls tied back in a ponytail. You are the only two people sitting in the waiting room. She wears a sweat-stained tee and sports an ugly bandage on her forehead, and she isn’t smiling, exactly, but her face is soft. You look at her and start to cry.
“I’m sorry,” you sputter. “I didn’t mean… I didn’t want you to…”
The young woman draws back her hand. She folds it in her lap and plays with the sleeve of her shirt.
“It’s okay,” she repeats. “You’ll be okay.”
The plastic chair is ice against your clammy back. The boa drapes over your shoulders like something dead. Intercoms buzz with names and directives that mean nothing to you. No, everything is not okay. This stranger is not Charlie and her words are empty. Somehow you thought you’d find her. But she’s not stuck in a liminal world. You are.
The man in the gray suit stands by the painting now. He appeared between blinks, like a bit of fuzz stuck in your eye. His face is still a blur, but now you can see faint outlines in it: two gaunt cheekbones, a thin mouth, golden hair combed neatly to one side. He solidifies the more you fade.
Just take it, you think. Take it all. What am I going to do with it, anyway?
A clock above reception ticks away the seconds, little clicks cutting into the Muzak. You hum a wordless lullaby. The little boat floats on its painted voyage, forever sailing into the sun. You sit and hum and listen to your feeble heartbeat. When the ticking stops, you don’t notice. Because you’ve stopped too.
#9: The back seat of a taxi, time unknown
The man in the suit sits up front. He turns the wheel with delicate, alabaster hands, taking each corner with eerie precision. His back is to you, obviously, but you can tell that the fog is gone from his face. You wonder what you’ll see if he glances back at you in the rearview mirror.
“Where are we going?” you ask.
“That depends,” the man says. “How heavy was your heart?”
You fall silent and stare back out the window. People wander the sidewalks, but they’re gray, they have no forms. You were one of them once. This city’s insubstantial: a dream, a liminal place for liminal people. It always has been.
“I don’t know,” you say at last.
The good thing about cabs, you think, is that they have destinations. Maybe this ride will end and you’ll step onto a red carpet, marquees flashing your name, or maybe you’ll emerge into Charlie’s waiting arms, or maybe there’s nothing at the end of the road, the kind of nothing you can sleep forever in. It doesn’t particularly matter. You’ve spent your whole life in between places. At least now you’re finally going somewhere.
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