A Gal Eerie of Desire
Jenny K Brennan
Part 4 of 5
No real explicit warning this time. Enjoy.
Part 4 — Saturday exhibit
Twenty-four hours later, at a quarter to five; I pulled in to a deserted parking lot in front of Thomas Plaza, and just sat for a while. I looked at myself in the rear view mirror, wondered for the thousands time what I was doing there. I combed through my not too shabby looking sandy blond hair, pulled my lips back; teeth ok. Nice shave. I had checked all of it, and passed inspection on several trips to the hall mirror in my nervous pacing around the flat before leaving home.
I bent my head to sniff my armpits again, when an elderly woman walked past, peering suspiciously through the car window. I smiled and waited until she finally shuffled out of sight. Yeah, I know, but don’t worry; I’m just a perfectly ordinary pervert sitting in a car waiting for old ladies to molest. Nothing to worry about, Granny. I should have known better though. I wondered how the story would go later, in the knitting circle.
I opened the door and stepped out on hot asphalt, hesitated and looked around. I knew it was the place, the street was right; the building was numbered, even named. The apartment building was the only residential building along Thomas Avenue and stood several stories taller than the abandoned warehouse half a block away.
A sad looking strip of forest surrounded the complex. Brush and weed crept along abandoned pathways and invited by cracking pavement, it would not stop at the edge of the parking lot for much longer. Branches, leaves, and miscellaneous trash invaded the empty lot and the small cement playground where a tire swing hung from rusty chains, and painted metal bars in strange configurations had stood in silence for many years.
The street was quiet, and despite the proximity to the city center, I heard nothing. I stood still and strained my ears; I heard traffic, but it sounded far away.
I glanced around. In the distance above low industrial blocks of ugliness, was the tip of the water tower, over the other way, beyond straggly elms poking up behind the warehouse; I saw the top floor of the Radio Tower with its unmistakable crowded roof, where satellite discs and other metal monstrosities chattered ceaselessly in their airwave lingo. I was in the middle of the city, but far from it.
I sighed and headed toward the front door. Although the impression it gave was of neglect and outdated architecture, Plaza, my ass, it didn’t seem abandoned. A fluttering curtain caught my eye, indistinct laughter drifted out from an open window, cut short, leaving the silence more deafening than before.
I pulled open the massive front door and as I stopped to stare, it hit me in the back where I had stopped dead. You’ve gotta be kidding me.
What I had just entered was not, could not, be in the same dimension as the one I had just left. I jerked around and pushed the door wide, glared at the outside. Stilll there, the real world. Filthy concrete slab acting as a front step, a pile of rotting leaves, an empty coke bottle, and a trashed plastic bag. Over there, the Toyota. I turned to the lobby again and stepped all the way through and allowed the door to close behind me.
Before me was Mirror polished granite floors, brass handrails and polished mahogany with details in something that looked like cast iron. Not a speck of dust, not a stain, no trash. The only smell in there was the stink of filthy rich, vague but unmistakable.
“Might I be of assistance, Sir?” a reedy old voice croaked from behind a tray of glasses.
I almost laughed, but couldn’t quite get it out. The thin little man waited patiently for me to do something.
Ok, if this was the game, I could play too. I grinned, took a glass from the tray and waved him off in my best imitation of eighteenth century upper class snobbery. “I am here to meet with Lady Ash.” I snorted through my chuckle.
The servant didn’t move a muscle. “Of course Mr. Kyle, the lady will be expecting you.” he said and faded into servitude invisibility.
Oh my god. What is this place?
I sipped my drink. Maybe I shouldn’t, it could be anything, but what the hell, and this was just too much.
I searched for hints about who lived in the building, but found nothing. It was nothing if not a mansion, a magnificent staircase ascended to upper levels that lay in darkness. Next to the base of the staircase, esthetically and technically out of place, was the elevator. With its dull metal door, small safety glass window and worn rubber and steel fittings, it stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant luxury. Old mansions didn’t have elevators, but what the hell. I brought out the note, to check the apartment number again. I fingered the paper but found it hard to focus on the words. My eyes kept darting away from them, up and around, sucking up the shine. A chandelier with a million glittering phasets, a gilded frame glowing in the light from a single candle on a small marble table placed below the painting. The motif alluded me. I didn’t want to look. There was something about that picture. I raised the paper again and forced my eyes to move to it. The whispery voice snuck up on me from behind.
“That would be on the fourteenth floor, Sir.”, the old man said and faded again.
“Thanks, I think.” I muttered, not just a little unnerved by the butler guy. I turned to the lift, drained my drink, and got my legs moving. Elevator… Ok, up I go, even if I was a card short of a full deck. Or perhaps all cards were missing but the joker. I sighed, so be it.
For each second riding the elevator, the image of the lobby seemed to dim, dissipate. Could that even exist in the same universe as mine? I looked around the cramped space as it moved laboriously up past gloomy floors. Glimpses caught through the square of glass in the elevator door told me of poorly maintained halls and neglect. I had lived in a building just like it, where broken bottles and discarded syringes were the norm. Where loneliness and desperation lay like a dull layer over everything, even the people. Where were the people? The lobby, the servant, the drink, and then this? I wasn’t sure anymore.
I looked away from the glass, didn’t want to see. I watched my shoes for one breath and without looking at the door again, I turned away from it. I wanted distraction from the disturbing doubts that crawled around in the back of my mind.
The elevator was small and shabby, stank of stale cigarette smoke and piss. A used condom lay crumbled in a corner and various important announcements were available on the walls, scratched, scrawled with marker, scribbled with what was at hand at the moment of inspiration: “Kilroy wasn’t fucking here!”, “All who go up this elevator abandon all hope.. and beer too.”, “Fags need to pack their shit! Oh yeah, they already did”.
Toilet poetry failed to distract me. I felt my stomach sink for every jolt and unidentified noise from the outdated machinery. “Abandon all hope…” I let my fingers glide over the folded note in my pocket but the touch only agitated the insecurity.
She knew my name, and that charade in the lobby. She was apparently a high class stinking rich broad with peculiar habits and a fetish for playing with peoples minds. Or why the elaborate setup? Expensive role playing? I wondered if I had gotten it all wrong. I knew I was being taken for a ride, but couldn’t even begin to understand why. Why me? I wished I could dig my brain out with my fingernails and beat it to a pulp for not working properly.
As the door slid open to reveal a plush carpet, snob elegance and muted footfalls that would be made only by me, everything was back to impeccable and luxurious. Turn back Roger, turn back. Turn around and run. When the elevator groaned shut, took off and left me alone before the door, her door, my heart raced.
“Ash.” I breathed her name. Dizzy. Confused. What the hell was wrong with me?
Roger, you idiot, Get a grip.
Something moved, a flicker of shadow, and I turned my head. Nothing. But all of a sudden it seemed darker, as if the light wasn’t quite able to stay real. What lay beyond, crept forward, and saturated the air without actually gaining enough existence to equal shadows. Just, draining strength out of space. I couldn’t breathe. I had to go. Just go.
I stepped back, blinked, and heard the whirring of machinery. The elevator, moving from floor to floor. It had abandoned me, and now it made another meaningless journey between empty dwellings. Why would they be empty? But I knew they were.
I listened to the strangely comforting hum until I heard a distant clank, and then came nothing but silence beyond the boundaries of my own body. What was I thinking about? Something had moved around up here. Rats? Considering the state of the elevator, I wasn’t too surprised. I whistled a tuneless melody as I walked to the door.
There was nothing to it. I had an invitation from a woman who found me interesting and although that was a first in my life, it still was something that could happen. In an alternate reality maybe, the annoying inner voice said from the gutter. I knew though that I didn’t have much choice. I just had to know. Being in this place, right now, was the only way I could ever learn anything about her— State your full name and sexual preferences if you please Ma’am. All I needed to do now was to knock on that door.
Or, as the case was, push the button. The door revealed nothing useful. Against dark wood, a polished brass plaque gleamed: “Ash Ltd”. Ok, so Ash was not a name? A business? Both? I sighed, tiring of my own internal monologue. The insecurity returned and I wiped damp hands on my pants, before reaching for the doorbell.
My finger never touched the shiny button; the door opened with a silent click. It didn’t swing all the way open so I pushed on it and stepped through. With one hand on the door I looked around. I found myself in a short hallway. Straight ahead, a vaulted opening revealed soft light and shadows of things I couldn’t see from where I stood.
Dark red carpeting connected the hallway with the room beyond. The hall was empty and I took a step forward. The door closed behind me and some little part of me, remembering superstitions I’ve never believed, prevented me from turning around. Just a self closing door, I told myself. Yeah, right you are.
Music, too soft to identify, drifted out from somewhere ahead. I started toward the opening; it was the only way I could go as there were no doors, no windows and nothing else in the entrance hall besides a number of oil paintings.
The art could, on a different day and in a different place, have captured my curiosity but I passed them by in a distracted path toward the next room. All I noticed on the way by was expensive frames and warm vivid colors. Eyes seemed to glide over the motifs without registering the subject matter. They were emotion and vibrant life. If there were people portrayed I didn’t know. They could all be abstracts or finger paintings as far as I knew. They meant nothing to me.
I drifted toward the unknown. It called to me. She beckoned me and I wanted… no, I needed to go to her. The back of my mind piped up again.
Delusional losers never do make second base, so how about you just run along home now, chop chop, on the double, run.
As I listened to the soft music without hearing it, something cracked under my shoe. I had broken something, very nice start for a visit. I raised my foot but saw nothing in the carpet, but under my shoe, stuck to the rubber was a bright red, now cracked, sticky something. A candy. Cute. I used my car key to flick it off my shoe. It hit the wall, dropped and vanished. I stood for a second, but suppressed the part of me that always scanned for garbage pales for any little piece of trash in need of disposal.
I moved on toward the shadows, through the portal, ready to call out a greeting to her, or whoever waited for me. Someone had to be in there. The sight of the room beyond shut me up though.
Past the vaulted opening stretched a living room, just not any kind of room I had ever stepped into before. Paintings filled every wall. These were insistent, called my attention. The instant impression was of life. Vibrant colors, stunning landscapes and stories told. Earth tones and fire, shimmering pale bodies, Secrets and passions hinted at in expressive faces and intriguing shapes. It would take days to see them all if I would ever get a chance. The paintings were not what truly brought me to a standstill though.
Besides a huge comfortable white leather sofa and a glass table, placed dead center in the room, there were no indications of anyone actually living there. I had just stepped into the oddest gallery I had ever seen. I did not often frequent museums, but what I had seen in dusty heritage displays and modern installations around the city had nothing on this obviously private collection. There were no windows, perhaps normal for places with light sensitive pieces, but nor was there any information desk, no exit signs, no “Do not touch the exhibits or we will stare at you with severe disapproval until you crumble to bits.” posters, and no coffee shop.
Concealed light fixtures showed off a flawless carpet with light that seemed to caress shadows into smooth shapes.
Several life-sized statues— seemingly placed at random — stood around the room. Eerily lifelike in postures and facial expressions, they seemed to mingle and chat with each other, a woman of brass held a glass to her mouth, resting a delicate hand on the attentive man next to her. A short man peering at a pocket watch leaned against one of four marble pillars. A party frozen in cast metal. I looked from face to face, from dress to suit to finely detailed jewelry and footwear solidly placed on plinths.
They all appeared to belong there, in companionable chatter or observant silence. They all felt right in the context of luxury and riches but not at all with each other.
The lady with the drink wore hair in a tight bob and knee length straight cut dress with no sleeves. A man laughing at something long since forgotten wore uniform with tails and a saber hanging at his side. A curvy woman in office suit tailored to her build stood bent over to adjust a high healed shoe which I was sure must be a Gucci if I had ever seen one. The twenties, eighties, back as far as the civil war. They all depicted different time periods in an anachronistic gathering of party goers. They looked so alive, trapped in their personal worlds, doomed to display their isolated moments forever, to whom? Who went there? Nobody.
Even a novice, eye recognized them as masterpieces. They should be viewed, not be kept hidden. I fingered the paper in my pocket. What did I know about rich people, really?
I stepped deeper into the room and walked around a happy bride who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. She presented a shy smile, a waist like an hour glass, and way too much fabric, ribbons and lace. Looking away from the poor girl, I came face to face with the only breathing creature in the room.
I just stared; it was her, truly her. Ash. The sight…. I didn’t know what to think, what to say. It didn’t seem to bother her that I had gone mute. The dress was black silk, sleeves in intricate lace reaching her wrists, ankle length skirt, no shoes, no jewelry.
She held two glasses filled with a sparkling amber liquid and offered one to me. I wondered where I had lost the first one. I didn’t remember leaving it anywhere. She threw a quick glance around the room and raised an eye-brow. I opened my mouth but before I could speak she placed a finger over my lips. The touch made my heart quiver, skin burn, and unable to breathe, I nodded.
Ash smiled and lowered her hand, turning toward an open door at the far wall. Guarding the opening was a Second World War lieutenant. She stopped next to the sculpture and waited for me to join her.
“Come Roger, I wish to show you something.”
Numb and exhilarated, afraid of making her wait for a second too long, I started toward her.
Silence broke by a fragile sharp clink somewhere to my left. I turned to the sound but found nothing. Glass breaking I thought, but there was nothing there that could have made it. Perhaps the glass in one of the frames had given in to pressure from the framing. But I saw nothing.
As I scanned the room, Ash made a sound – tap, tap, tap like fingernails on a hard surface, and I turned to face her. The warm smile, tight now, faded completely. Tap, tap, tap; her fingers rapped the soldier’s face.
There was something obscene in the way her fingers traveled across the features— sharp nails probing brow, temple, and the exposed sphere of a wide open eye.
She will gouge out his eye. And when she pressed her nails harder against the sightless metal, brass would give, fluids would spurt, blood, not brass, would be the cause of the coppery smell. Something snapped, a thought released from its bonds, and my own passive behavior came into focus, disturbing in its clarity. I had never been shy, never intimidated by women. But this one, Ash or whatever the hell her name was, made me into a moron mute. Suddenly, the absurdity of the whole thing struck me and I took a half step back.
The woman who’s name may or may not have been Ash, stood at the door she wanted me to enter. What the hell for? She just stood there, expecting me to obey her every command. Why? Suddenly I didn’t know why I was there. “Ash….” I said, trailing off when she tensed.
Then she frowned, relaxed a bit, and stared at me with lips tightly pressed together. How did I ever think you were beautiful? But she was… she… Vipers of indecision crawled around and between the things I had to say. No, hell no. I had to get out of there. I took a deep breath; why was it so hard to breathe?
“I need to go Ash, I’m really… ”
The woman raised her hand in a quick jerky move that splashed red liquid from the glass. Red? “Drink!” She said. Harsh, sharp and definite.
Cool liquid was at my lips before the sound of the voice registered. The glass trembled and tipped, filling my mouth. “Aaag…” Her name turned into choked gurgling as I swallowed… swallowed. I drained the glass and gasped. I hadn’t known I was so…
Ash smiled. She was so beautiful. And she was waiting for me. I continued toward her. Finally, she would answer my questions. She would tell me all about her.
Giddy with expectation, I felt great. I tried to add just a slight bit of flirt in my smile, just the right amount of testosterone confidence in my stride. I could do anything. Charismatic male magnetism permeated my being. I would seduce the dress off her before the night ended. I smartly saluted the smiling soldier as I came to a stop in front of him, and froze.
My blood ran cold, numb fingers fumbled and splashed drink on my hand. When had it been filled? The soldier didn’t smile. An expression infinitely far from joy marked his face where Lips parted in a pained grimace, revealing teeth pressed together. I almost thought I could see muscles strain and quiver beneath cast skin. A hand held up, not in greeting, but in defense.
It was the image of terror. It was… it wasn’t art; it was a thing. I shivered in a chill that could have come from within me, but it didn’t. It radiated from freezing metal. The temperature in the room dropped fast and I shuddered as my sweat cooled. A film of condensation appeared on the statue. Drops took form and froze, thawed and evaporated in an endless second. I stared at the monstrous work of art. I recoiled from it.
Someone, Ash, touched my arm. Very gently, she gripped my wrist and started to turn me from the lieutenant. For one more moment, frozen in the doorway, I tried to comprehend what I was seeing.
Pooling shadows, once just a deficiency of light below each statue, had turned to something living. They trembled. They darkened and flailed, like wildly gesticulating tentacles of night stretching, contracting. The statues remained still, they were all there, but they were not the same. The shades tried to rip themselves from their source. They could not break free, and however violently they pulled and jerked they couldn’t reach me.
Paralyzed, I watched as they groped and clawed around, struggling to touch… me. My… something. Life? Warmth? A heartbeat? Release.
The grip around my wrist tightened. For one more moment I stood frozen. One by one, each more shocking, more terrifying, the appearance of the statues burned into my mind.
“Roger. Come now.” Ash pulled my arm, pain from nails digging into my flesh seemed distant, just as the sound of her voice seemed far away. Unreal. She pulled and I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist. Unreal. I had to see. I let my eyes glide over them all, and they had all changed.
The laughing soldier with the saber screamed, pleading to the heavens for mercy perhaps. His eyes tore wide open and a leisurely step had become a recoiling from something, or someone. The woman with the drink did not hold it to take a sip as it was tilted and gripped so hard that the slender stem had broken off and lay on the floor, part of the plinth now. The hand that had softly rested on her companions shoulder gripped it hard. Fingers desperately clawing, ripping the seam. The young bride cried brass tears, hunched over as if protecting her thin chest where her arms crossed and hands fisted. The man with the watch no longer checked the time. The timepiece hung frozen from its chain, as limp and lifeless as his arms and head. He was on his way down to the floor in a slide that would never end.
A nightmare. My legs wouldn’t obey. I realized that there was one more shadow, and I was standing on it. I looked down. The darkness cast by the desperate soldier trembled, shivered and stretched. But the tentative movements were sluggish, didn’t reach me. Stunted shades, crippled. They pulled back and faded as they neared the person standing between me and them, recoiling the moment they came too close. Too close…. To her.