Guiding Light - Butterfly
He loves this thunder. It makes him feel alive, the way it rattles the joints of the chamber around him as he is tossed through time and space. It’s as if that roar has woken a slumbering joyous beast in him at last!
Fingers against the walls, he thinks of his old smoky days below. He remembers the streets in the gloom, the fog, and the umbrella overhead—he lived, so he did, but was that living? He thinks he has never lived till today, because today is the first time he has been afraid to die.
He loves this thunder. It sings death, death, death like a black whisper that writhes through the shivering gaps to wring his neck. Six long seconds he listens to the thunder in the steel joints encasing him, clamouring against each other. The best that the year has to offer this side of the Channel.
—that side? Perhaps the Channel and the things it divides grow irrelevant when you are this far beyond its limits.
Somehow, despite the meticulous calculation, the years it spent in review, he knows he will not arrive where he’s meant to go. Somehow he knows the universe conspires. Somehow he thinks this is fate’s design, that he should hear this roaring thunder and suddenly believe the things he has so far pretended to be false.
He is afraid; he cannot deny that. In all likelihood—one-in-two hundred thousand, they say—he will arrive quite safe, a little battered, and normally he would believe them. But ah, this is different, his heart says lucidly—this is today! He has lived too long on the good sides of probabilities.
It is time for chance to swing wildly. It is time for him to be unlucky, at least this once.
When the bespectacled man appears at the window today, she stares at him until he is gone.
The world is soundless beyond her walls, but up here, when she closes her eyes, she pretends she knows how the new car engines sound. She imagines they rumble like her father’s old truck, lights streaming across the driveway.
Curling her fingers around the corners of her peculiar physics textbook, Adelaide thinks of sunlight.
She has lived like this too long. Thinking of people she will never meet. Longing after faces in print. In all these years, with only her books for sordid company, she has read about lust, about the wilderness where sex means that the individual never truly dies but ripples through genealogies, its little pieces captured in strings of code.
Sometimes, she begins to think she is part of that code herself—when by some whim of fate her eyes get caught on photographs of dead naturalists, greek statuettes sometimes, and she feels a honeyish happiness trickle through her. She lingers on those printed faces, and thinks they are quite pleasing, sometimes imagines them walking this empty room with her. And of course, pictures are not all she has. She has, on three separate occasions, grown obsessed with the face in the glass.
This week is the third occasion. When those eyes peered in yesterday, Adelaide looked right back. It made her think she is still alive, the eagerness with which she sought the face of the bespectacled man. Alive and not irrelevant, not isolated from the rest of this vast beating code. But her staring seemed to terrify him, so he left sooner than usual.
She sighs and waits for lunch, which eventually arrives in a tray shoved into the room by a mechanical paddle. Bland paste as usual. They try for variety by randomising the dishes everyday, but is there so much to be excited for between pellets and goo?
Something flashes in the glass. Heart pounding, her eyes lift to the dim shape that has appeared. The man with the glasses. Her heart flutters; she catches his eye and tries for smile. She can make out his eyes today. Perhaps he cares for her; perhaps that is why he comes to check. Perhaps she should tell him she is glad that he does.
But his gaze twists into a frown today, one of such dislike she grows afraid and retreats into her blankets. He vanishes into the dark, and she fears that she’s offended him so that he will never return.
She pounds a fist into the mattress. This hapless, fatuous staring. She has been severed from life, hasn’t she? That is what they’ve been trying to do, all these years. Excise her from the system. Why does she still feel it, then–this twisted, shrivelled, diminished version of the grand heat of the blood, that sacred mating drive that compels the jacanas to break eggs?
Like all the days that have flown before this, Adelaide tosses another day aside, flings it like a mayfly to the sky to which it belongs. The rise and set of the sun is only an informed event now; she can only imagine how it looks when Rayleigh scattering sets the clouds ablaze. It must be… She frowns at the face in the toilet mirror. …It must be beautiful. She remembers finding the jonquils beautiful.
The lights hum an ambivalent warning, the way they do a minute before they cede their light. Ten o'clock. She places the automatic toothbrush on the cleaning tray. A push of the button sees it sliding through a gap in the wall.
Deep in the night, as she stares off into the fathoms of the black ceiling above, Adelaide grows sad. It is a sadness she doesn’t quite recognise, enough that tears begin welling at the corners of her eyes. She can feel the dry, listless air-conditioning against her skin, making strands of her hair flutter. Everywhere she turns in this darkness, she sees loneliness staring straight back like a ghoul.
She wonders what has become of the world outside. She knows it’s still there; she knows because that bespectacled face returns, and must go somewhere else when he is not at the window. But does that matter? The traces of grey in his hair, the scratches on his glasses, that is all she has of the world.
The sadness throbs and her lip trembles. No, she can’t cry—not for this.
Breathing a sigh, she pulls herself out of the blankets. The cold swallows her feet. Her eyes sweep the dark room, where the faint glow of a few things has sharpened to clarity—the outline of a book catalogue screen beneath a polyester cover, the little square window above the food panel, the clock above blinking an electric blue 10:14. There isn’t anything abnormal about this layout; she has seen the same thing every night for eleven years. The same blue lights in the same dim places.
The sleep is getting heavier on her eyes. Why is she awake still? Something sits awkward in her belly, something she might call regret. Why hasn’t she fallen asleep? Why did she change the butterfly? Why does she feel these codes and strings? Nighttime, she finds, is a good time for futile musings. She never sought an answer anyway…
A shadow shifts in the dark. Shock pierces straight through her thoughts and sets her rigid.
Her eyes flit about, but her room is unchanged and empty as ever. Well, then, all this loneliness has made her too eager to see something extraordinary. She resolves not to let loneliness deprive her of sleep–
Until the blue lights appear.
Adelaide shrieks as her floor lights up, electric blue. Her back bangs against the headboard; the smarting pain joins the throb of her heartbeat. Her fingers have gone numb and the hard blue glow is still there, sturdy and bright. Throwing tall fingers of shadow all around.
Danger, instinct shrieks. Danger, danger where there are things you don’t understand. How can a light be danger? Danger pretends to be good.
But curiosity burns on her thoughts and she needs to look.
Dropping to her knees, Adelaide begins to crawl to the edge of her bed. This must be meant to happen, she whispers to herself. No danger. There hasn’t been danger for eleven long years. They must be testing a new signalling system. She sucks in a breath, grits her teeth together as if in prayer or pleading, and peers over the edge.
Her eyes widen in the light. There, on her floor, glows a string of words:
I AM HERE TO TAKE YOU AWAY
Adelaide curls her fingers and shivers. Take…me…away. Feelings engulf her, like a storm that engulfs an entire city, roaring so violently that she bows and begins to sob. Is it real? Is this hope? Fear? She is afraid to hope. She only stares, tearfully, at the great bold words still there.
Through the blur of her tears, she faintly sees the text blur and dim, before solidifying into a new message:
DO NOT FEAR, I AM A FRIEND
A tingle races up her neck. Her eyes dart about the room, but even in the new blue light, nothing much is detectable to her eyes—just the gleaming of couch legs where she knows it stands, and shelves where her books slant against each other. There are still too many shadows, and she takes a second survey of the area. The person responsible for the messages must be here—where? She sees no changes in the room, no displaced furniture, no human figures by the faintly glowing walls.
But there is a new silhouette in the window.
She clenches her jaw so she doesn’t make a noise.
The shadow shifts. As if to prove it is alive. The words are blurring, forming again.
PLEASE DO NOT FEAR ME
She looks up, more curious than afraid. “Are you help?” she says. It shifts again. Surely it can’t hear her.
Finally making up her mind, Adelaide slips, all jittery, off the edge of her bed. The carpet is cold at the touch of her toes; fear churns even colder in her stomach. Carpet changes to terrazzo. She stumbles half-blind through the thick darkness.
There at the window, she presses her fingers against the glass, as if they might feel some warmth, but all they find is more ice. “What do I do?” she says, hoping her voice carries through it.
On the floor behind her, the lights begin to swim, and she turns. The text has rotated to face her.
I WILL FREE YOU
Her fingers curl and uncurl again. Free. The word is lighting bonfires in her. The text changes.
NEED YOUR HELP, PLEASE ANSWER
Adelaide nods listlessly.
DO YOU REMEMBER HOW YOU ENTERED?
WRITE YOUR ANSWERS
“Oh—” Adelaide scrambles into the dark by her bedside, stubbing her toe on the corner. How did it happen? The wall was open, and she turned around in time to see it slide shut–
She finds the pen in the drawer; the paper is on her shelf in the form of a ring-bound notebook. Her fingers slide across spines and crimped pages till they find it.
Feverishly glancing to check that the silhouette still waits beyond the glass, she blindly scribbles her reply on a page, handwriting turned ugly by fright:
This wall opened like a sliding panel
and racing from her bed to the window, she presses it against the window for the silhouette-visitor’s eyes.
It moves, and so do the blue words on the floor, to be replaced by a succinct:
Barely after she’s taken in the cold gratitude of those words, they scatter into nothing, and the room is dark again. They are burned into her retinas, though; her nerves are still buzzing. Is this escape? Real escape? The thought is too strange and it leaves the silence ringing.
The room is dark as pitch. Turning back to the window, she finds it empty. The same blue shines through as always, from the corridor outside. But she refuses to leave the wall, not when—not when she can almost feel it, the warmth. Of the person on the other side, just moments ago.
The silence it begins to weigh inside her skull. Ten minutes. The shadows are swimming with imprints of lights behind her corneas. Any minute now. Any minute. She can wait a minute longer. It will happen. The silhouette will return…
When twenty dark minutes have come and gone, and her feet have begun to ache, Adelaide can no longer remember seeing the words on the floor, at least not in a way that stays. Like a dream.
All at once, a swarm of questions, confusions, descend upon her. You were being silly. You don’t know if the silhouette will come back. You don’t know if it was real.
She barely manages the trip across the room; it almost drowns her in stillness—she slumps onto her mattress, where the cold blankets engulf her like they always do. Did you really believe it for a moment? Did you think someone would come after eleven years?
The tears have returned, because she can still feel the hope glowing in her veins. Eating her alive. The letters in light, the blue silhouette. It still rings, all rings, like the aftersound of thunder. Was it all, despite the sharpness of sensation, a dream? Of course.
Adelaide is pulling the covers over her feet again, readying herself for the emptiest sleep yet–when a click resounds like a gunshot, and she stiffens.
She throws the blanket aside and rises, breath quickening.
She hears it, the grind of machinery. Something begins to hum, even as she is craning her head to listen. It isn’t like the hum from the air-conditioning; it moans from outside the walls, and it is so uncannily loud.
Then the bed beneath begins to shiver…
A straight gash of brilliant blue opens at the left corner, where two walls meet. She flinches and shades her eyes, breath coming in harsh, trembling gasps. In that hazy light, she can just make out the lines, of the ceiling panels, of floor outside—
She breathes so hard her ears begin to ring. Outside. She feels the swirl of the world about her, feels the light sing through her cells. The gap widens, and bright ceramic blue glares into her eyes so she must squint, and a new smell erupts into her little L-shaped room. It smells of—of needles. Alcohol. Imperfect sterilisation. Constellations of memory reignite in her brain.
And as she sits there shivering and gripping at the sheets, a voice comes to fill her room, for the first time in a decade.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Moore.”
A silhouette stands there, outlined by the glow of the corridor, no longer a blur behind glass. He is right here. Breathing the same air as she.
Adelaide’s eyes widen as she struggles to make his face out. “Why—did you—” she whispers, limp and quivering, fingers tangled in the cloth.
His head tilts, and the room lights up, though she sees the bulbs are still dead.
Adelaide’s mind swims momentarily, with the face of the man whom the silhouette has become.
He is not the bespectacled man. He has all of his hair—a lovely sunny blonde, cut to his shoulders—and is dressed for windy weather, collar turned up and girdled by a scarf. She cannot stop watching him, as he watches her with fascination of equal measure—cannot avert the thousands of movements and expressions and nuances of motion he engages continuously—it is so strange, so alienly enrapturing. To see a living person.
Raising his eyebrows, he straightens his coat. “Forgive my manners! Felix Mercer,” he says, extending a hand as he approaches—she withdraws. “Explanations must wait. As I’ve mentioned, I am here to remove you from this facility. And I think it bears mentioning that I did not enter by the most legal of means. We must leave quickly.”
Felix. Felix Mercer. She fights to remember, as if struggling to catch a flickering bird. The terror is bright in her head. But he is right, of course—the wall is open. She realizes everything this entails, with a widening of eyes. She can see right down the corridor, right into the burning blue lights…she needs to run now.
Shifting nervously, Adelaide manages a timid “do I take anything along?”.
He is already there beside her. “Anything that warrants its burden,” he replies, offering her a hand in this shadowless light.
She recoils for a moment; wrong screams her mind, wrong to touch anything that lives, anything that could breathe and change; she will turn it into something monstrous—
But his unfamiliar grey eyes strike the match of her courage. He isn’t the bespectacled man. The past. The chiming dark. He is a stranger. He is someone she’s never seen before.
And because of that, she trusts him.
Picking up her notebook and pen, sliding them into the pocket of her skirt, she gingerly grips the offered hand.
“Are you ready?” he asks; his eager smile surprises her.
She nods, even though she isn’t. He takes her,stumbling, to the blue corridor. Sounds are stirring somewhere beyond, security guards.
Grinning, he takes her about the shoulders and readies himself to run. “Keep quiet,” he says, “and they won’t see us.”
Suddenly they are dashing breathlessly through the corridors; she swears he’d be laughing if silence weren’t so crucial. Who is he, this strange young man whom the light seems to follow? He swoops down pathways and she fights to keep up, eyes clammed shut, tears trickling down her cheeks.
The thought that she could lose this chance at freedom any moment—now that she’s so close to touching it—is excruciating. One glance, one second’s recognition, she will be a prisoner again. And Felix, kind, wonderful, mysterious Felix who ventured so far to find her, will be a criminal by law. She doesn’t know him, not quite, but she knows she doesn’t want him to be a criminal by law.
Footsteps. A guard turns the corner ahead. She sobs softly but doesn’t scream, feels her companion’s grip tighten about her shoulders and pull her up against the left wall. The uniformed man strides towards them, surly grey. Keep quiet—keep quiet and they won’t see us. She bites her fingers so she doesn’t shriek, hangs tight onto every breath.
But the guard barely gives them a glances, and marches straight by, not finding it strange at all that a well-dressed man is roaming the lab with their prisoner under his wing. Adelaide watches, still, until his back has shrunk from sight and his footsteps from earshot. Then Felix is moving again.
The corridors are dim as caves; as they pass, cloaked scientists flutter like ghosts between doors. None turn to look, but their footsteps make her shiver. They pass incubation rooms with glass doors; rows of plants glow dimly in machines. They soar by photonics labs whose heavy doors stand shut, thick with black-and-yellow warnings. The entrance to the particle accelerator beneath the city is here in this place, too, and its double doors whiz past as they whirl down the grey stairs. Another guard comes and passes; his stun gun is never raised. But it is near enough that she grows rigid with fright.
The labyrinthine lab never seems to end. A map of the world is building itself in her mind now; it is vast, cold, horrible. This is not the world about which she read. Adelaide feels like weeping. She only clenches her teeth, draws closer, and hopes that Felix knows what to do.
Dim corridors fly behind them. The boom of rain grows louder. Gleaming concrete passageways give way to a narrow carpeted corridor, and they slow to a walk, and something about the air tells her they are almost there—almost out. Perhaps the scent of more civil air conditioning, which is growing to overpower the odors of sanitation and the brutality hidden beneath.
A door with a rectangular button looms up at the end of this passageway. Before they pass through, Adelaide glances at Felix, asking with her eyes, how did you get in? He smiles and shakes his head as he pushes the button.
“After you,” he whispers, holding the door open for her.
Felix takes her arm again on the marble floor outside. Smiling still, he leads her across the sparkling lobby, right past the receptionist’s counter.
Adelaide stares out ahead at the curtain wall between here and outside. She’s almost afraid to believe that the darkness that fills the glass, smudged with orange at the corners, is the sky. It isn’t nearly as much of a blur as she expected. It is so—crisp and sharp and…cold.
“Almost,” whispers her companion. The man at the counter straightens as the doors slide apart for them, before deciding the two leavers are no cause for concern and returning to his work.
The warm air outside blasts against her face, making her gasp.
She almost doesn’t realize when she is finally outside.
The first thing to demand attention is the wind. The wind is monstrously loud; it claws—scrapes—at her frigid fingers and across her ears, singing harmonically, the way her air-conditioning never does. The driveway is fuzzy with rain, the curb sinking half a foot to the glittering, watery darkness. There are towering lights far, far beyond, all visible from the vantage of this hill—cheap signs and myriad window-specks, dotting the horizon just beyond a hedge of rails and parking stands.
She can see the city, San Francisco. The rain smells of something old she cannot quite place. She feels it whip at her cheeks.
Suddenly frigid, terrified, exhausted, her bones long for the safe coziness of the L-shaped room again. She tries to turn around, but Felix hasn’t let go. “We must find lodging,” he insists. The dark, wet roads sprawl on outwards around them, into the hazy streetlight.
“We can’t. If I’m seen…” It strikes her suddenly that she is not free. She is still a fugitive. Every citizen of this place is her enemy—every child who knows her face, every storekeeper.
“You will need a disguise,” Felix answers quickly. “I believe I can disguise you for a while, at least until we have a reservation somewhere…” She watches as he reaches into his pocket for a collapsible black umbrella and pulls it open. He calls her under its shelter, and they begin down the sidewalk, descending the hill, plunging into the city below.
While they walk, Adelaide pulls her hands into her sweater sleeves and curls her fingers, feeling rain splash against her shins. “Mister—Felix, sir…” she murmurs.
“I’m barely any older than you,” he says. “You needn’t address me that way.”
“F—Felix,” she corrects herself, “I still don’t understand why—you came here. Or how you managed to get in at all…”
He sighs. “I suppose the explanations must come now,” he murmurs, brushing a hand on his coat. “I am a traveler—or so to speak, and I have been stranded a month in San Francisco. You could say I was growing too idle for my liking.”
“That—” she ploughs frantically through her vocabulary for an appropriate response— “is…unfortunate. There are many airplanes away from here; you could obtain a directory…”
“Actually…that is not the issue.” His eyes dart to the dark road running parallel to their route, diving in between swaying black trees that taper towards the sky. A lightning flash reveals the grounds. His voice grows earnest. “Miss Moore…promise you will believe me.”
“There are few things I’d disbelieve,” she replies, a little sadly, as she glances at her fingers and remembers the caterpillar that once lay curled in them.
Felix sighs and stares out at the city spanning the horizon. The hill upon which this laboratory sits is like an island in a sea of light. “I hail from quite different a place ,” he says. “Where I live, my nation—Great Britain—is locked in a race with France to build the fastest transatlantic route.”
“Great Britain? With—the castles and the jousting tournaments?”
“You’re a few centuries out of date, my dear,” he laughs quietly. “My father was a chief funder of the Tunnel Machine. I suppose I found that inspiring—in a way he likely did not intend. Days after the launch was announced, I paid to be the machine’s first subject.”
He turns to check that she is still listening, and seems glad to find her enraptured.
“The journey was set to take place a month ago,” he goes on. “It would last no more than six seconds, and, if the script had been kept to, would have taken me halfway across the world. A month ago, the machine was prepared, and I departed from the site as planned.”
Her lips form an o. “Did something go wrong?” she breathes. “Were you meant to arrive elsewhere?”
He shakes his head. “It was calibrated to send me to San Francisco,” he replies, “and so it did. However, it was immediately obvious that there had been a malfunction. My welcoming committee was not at the landing site. It did not take me much asking-around to discover I had arrived nearly two hundred years too late.”
“You’re…two hundred years old?”
“I thought so for a while, too, until I discovered that historical records of 1894 described a place quite vastly different from the one I knew. There was no record, even, of the Great Race! I found it terribly odd that something of such massive influence could vanish so wholly from records.”
“Then…you aren’t two hundred years old.”
“Hardly. I have thought upon the happenings of the day hundreds of times over, and the truth of the matter has since clarified itself. It is…considerably terrifying.” He casts a glance at her; she hasn’t withdrawn her attention once. The umbrella dips. “I believe…I arrived in the wrong universe.”
“Universe?” Adelaide echoes dumbly.
He nods. She almost grimaces; this must be some elaborate joke, or a barefaced lie. But then she remembers her promise, and does her best to keep it, particularly since it’s the first one she has ever made.
“I didn’t know…there were other universes.”
“Neither did I, nor did anyone living in the same one as I. Quite a discovery, I’d say; it’s unfortunate I may never return to report it.” Felix looks out at the cloudy sky. “My father…must be worrying himself sick. Perhaps they’ve cancelled the experiment. I…” Shadows cross his face. The rain murmurs. “…I hope he does not spend the rest of his life searching.”
Hearing these admissions, and privy to another’s sadness for the first time in so long, Adelaide finds she is afraid to answer.
“I—am sorry,” she tries.
Felix laughs. “There is no need to be, but thank you,” he replies. “It is my fault more than anyone’s. I gather from the state of your technology that my route home will not come swiftly, not for a decade at least. I have grown resigned to a life here. San Francisco has offered me much in the way of interest—but none so much as the stories I’ve heard of you. The Genome Rewriter.”
She shivers at the way he says it, that nickname she has come to fear herself. The shame weighs on her. “Why?” she answers.
He must have noticed the shame come over her, because he pats her shoulder until she is at ease. “We’re very similar,” he says. “I came to believe it necessary that I seek you out and convene with you. Perhaps in a coffeehouse. With tea between us.”
She would like to enjoy what he describes, but the thought is too cold, too far. “Similar?” A chill of understanding creeps over her. “You can…change things?”
“Not the same things as you. You did notice we were largely ignored by the guards, didn’t you?”
“Yes—I meant to ask about that…”
“That is because I have been refracting the light around us.” He spreads his arms slightly, allowing her a moment—to be afraid, to cast frightened glances about. “If you recall, too, I did project letters onto your floor—”
“—impressive, yes?” He tilts his head, looking proud enough of himself that she cannot help but nod. “I’m a changer of light. I have developed many uses for this peculiar ability—none too devious, I promise!”
She is surprised when she laughs, she isn’t sure for hope, relief, or dumb amusement. Something has been squeezing her heart from the day her seven-year-old self discovered the eight-winged butterfly lying dead by the husk of its own cocoon. That something loosens its grip all at once. Eleven years alone, and suddenly he says…
A howl erupts into the sky behind them. Shrieking, Adelaide leaps closer. “They know!” she shouts; the shock has wracked tears from her eyes. “Hide me, please, please, if they come they’ll take me—”
“Hush, I already am hiding us,” he murmurs. “We will be invisible until we need to be seen.”
Are they really? Adelaide cannot tell. But she knows…she believes she can trust him. She knows she must. He…he is the one person standing between her and her prison. But she continues to quake in her shoes, which weren’t made to guard from the seeping of rain.
The alarm continues to scream behind them, ripping the wind; even the rain cannot mute it. She drives her gaze forth so she doesn’t have to remember what’s waiting behind, with steel jaws and flashing eyes. She ploughs forward into the cold, the blinding rage of streetlights.
The wind grows blustery as they hurry towards the junction. Her nose has begun to run in the cold. She barely remembers the feeling. They turn down the street and pass before towering streetlamps, following the glittery arc of the road into the greater foggy tangle of streets far ahead, but before they have arrived at the junction, he pulls her off the path into the grass, where he begins to unbutton his coat.
“Wouldn’t want you catching a cold so soon after escaping.”
“Don’t you—need it?” Adelaide interjects. He lays the black longcoat over her shoulders anyway, and shakes his head.
“You haven’t been in this weather for years,” he replies. “Conversely I know it well.” He gives a disdainful sniff that sounds like London, and tugs the coat into place.
Felix returns to the sidewalk before she can reply; things ripple and curve about him, then he is no longer visible to her. She hears a strain of wailing from the hilltop; her fingers curl, and she dashes after him into his bubble of safe invisibility.
The road finally meets the four-way junction, upon which the streetlights glare. Cars aren’t quite as noisy as she remembers them being, nor as stern and square. They streak by sleekly, so she doesn’t notice them until the lights glare off their hoods. Beyond the junction, shops begin springing up on roadsides, facades sparkling with brazen promotions and welcomes, some masquerading as the legacy of civilisations they barely understand. All blurred behind a golden veil of rain. Adelaide supposes the magazines have been telling the truth about these shops and their silly trends.
Felix, though, doesn’t seem to think much of their flashy dressing. He quickly loses himself in a smothering of pedestrians, and she fights through the crowd, struggling to keep up with him in the dazzling blur of umbrellas and coats. This isn’t, this isn’t how she has imagined the city. She has no bearings; she’s lost jostling through a sea of hems and shoulders. Cars swoop by in rushes of wind; their watery hoods are deluged by the light of neon storefronts.
Somewhere very far down the same street, Felix eventually comes to a decisive stop before a dim grey unit wedged between two glittering shops. It is four stories tall just like all its comrades, with two columns of windows, its bright glass door sheltered by a plastic canopy.
“Here!” he calls out between the pedestrians, waving. He holds the door open for her, as before, and she plunges into the reprieving woody warmth, but hangs back on the threshold: a queue of two waits in the chairs by the counter, and neither member of it looks extremely trustworthy.
Without warning Felix appears at her side and whisks his coat off her shoulders, asking, “Would you mind a plain look?”
Adelaide shakes her head slowly. She doesn’t think she understands.
“It’s a pity that a face so pretty must be hidden,” he sighs, and taps her forehead, before leaving for the queue.
An unfamiliar flicker makes her stiffen. There is a new nose between her eyes. Her fingers move to touch it, but they sink right through, as if into a mirage. Felix—he said he’d hide her face. Of course.
Adelaide frowns at her own silliness, and continues to watch her new companion, twirling a finger in her sweater. He has done so much, in so short a time, and done it thankless. She thinks she should thank him—no, she must—as profusely as she can afford to. But when can she say it such that it won’t seem sudden? She is awkward enough as it is, without having to contemplate the timing of a polite thank you. Yet it would be ungrateful of her, she thinks, to say nothing till they part ways. Perhaps a note is in order—something slipped secretly into one of his pockets, the next time he obliges to hand her the longcoat.
Felix returns soon, flashing a receipt in front of her eyes. “We will reside her until a more permanent arrangement can be made,” he says, and wastes no time to take her to the dim staircase beyond the counter. “I hope it does not bother you that we will share the room.”
“Of course not,” she replies. To imagine being alone on the first night away, deep in the tangle of streets that is San Francisco…
She realizes, gradually, that she must stay with him till the authorities have forgotten. Forgotten her, forgotten her crime. She’ll be in the news tomorrow. They’ll be scouring the streets for her till they’re sure she’s dead. And he must hide her till then.
The world is swirling, swirling; she feels like a particle on a greater tide. Maybe their cars are waiting outside. Maybe they’re questioning the receptionist right now.
“Go on ahead,” says Felix, nodding at the woody staircase. She shuts her eyes. Lets his voice be a small beacon, in this darkness.
Safe, safe and free, her mind fills to the brim. I am not lost. I have a guiding light.