'Ashes and Ghosts'
“Where am I?” He asked as if he didn’t expect an answer.
“You’re here, with me”.
James opened his eyes and looked into Laura’s. Her eyes were deep green pools, canopied by rich autumn hair. Her skin was pale and lightly freckled with delicate fresh features.
He felt still, like he was lying down in his seat. His eyes fixed on hers, only in the corners of his view could he see that he was indeed surrounded by people.
People who may or may not have been aware of his existence at any given moment.
There was a table, he was at a table. A table for two. It was a restaurant; it was the restaurant. It was important somehow but he couldn’t remember how.
He remembered details, the smell of marinara sauce, parmesan. A mole on her cheek. The music was rustic, stale bread sticks that didn’t matter. People laughing, footsteps on cobbled steps outside. Was it outside or inside?
It was late evening, the room was a glow with warm yellow light, candles on tables. The delicate sounds of cutlery and wine pouring, people whispering.
A white table cloth and a napkin folded that looked kind of like a big fortune cookie. The place looked authentic Italian, red brick and real wood floors. But it had an air of modernity with the large rectangular windows and the angled lighting. Pictures of famous and semi-famous Italian opera singers in black and white on the walls and dividing partitions of the booths.
Looking outside made his head feel like it was full of cotton wool. The building was surrounded by a dense almost plankton like shrubbery. Seemingly making windows a little pointless since you couldn’t see out of them. Instead there was just a sea of swaying green shrubs he couldn’t identify. It made him feel a little like he was in a fish tank.
He fidgeted in his seat that was a little too comfy. She smiled at him and let out a small chased laugh. He smiled back, he couldn’t think of anything to say, but that was alright.
The restaurant was quite cosy and although he was aware that he was in arms reach of other people he couldn’t see that they had faces at all. Only Laura had a face, it was the only one that mattered. Her smile started what felt like a vibration inside him that radiated heat all through his chest. He couldn’t explain it and he wouldn’t want to.
She was beautiful in such a way he couldn’t pick out anything in her features that particularly stood out. Her skin looked soft and warm and somehow he could almost smell her when she moved, her hair seemed to float off her shoulders.
When she spoke her voice was light and her lips parted for a split second with each syllable only a few millimetres. Her lips were light round flicks of a soft brush. She made him feel like he was looking at a water colour, like she wasn’t there. She was a mess of beauty, fading in and out looking different each time. Each time making his throat dry and his heart cough.
It was their first date, or was it? It must have been that’s why it was important.
“Is there something?” She asked.
“No nothing” He said.
He closed his eyes like the shutter on a camera and their food was there waiting for them.
He didn’t remember what they had and before he could recall the plates were empty again.
He looked at her and felt half satisfied with whatever it was he ate, something comforting. He smiled a melancholy smile at her, knowing the night was coming to an end, it was no longer the start. He was about to speak but her eyes spoke first. They were wide and fearful and seemed to shake in her skull.
“What’s wrong?” He called out knowing there was nothing he could do.
She opened her mouth but no sound came out except what sounded like a low hiss of air escaping.
Her eyes were even wider now but she seemed still.
James stepped to her side, he was on his knees now and he eased her off her throne and onto the wood floor.
She lay on her back looking up at him, her hair spread out like a bed of autumnal leaves. She was beautiful, she was perfect. The features seemed to melt off her face leaving a milky emptiness. She was still beautiful, he could see the stars and the moon as if they were floating in a bowl of cereal.
She wore a light summer dress with some generic flowers on it. It was pleated and clung to her body fanning out at the waist.
She couldn’t breathe. He called out for help but couldn’t hear his own voice. He felt his throat dry and cracked and harsh but no sound came out and no heads turned. The sounds of eating and whispering and laughing droned on and repeated as if piped in through a speaker. No one moved, their faces were blank and motionless and they seemed posed. The restaurant was still as a doll’s house.
His hands clasped the sides of her face as she closed her eyes. There was beauty in that moment, longing. Desperation. Pride, jealousy, obsession.
She could be his tonight or forever, no one else could have all of her not like him, not now.
He loved her in that moment, in that perfect moment.
He called for help with his silent hoarse screams but nothing moved, the air was still.
A cold hard hand pressed down on his shoulder, it felt like plastic.
He turned his head to look over his shoulder but as he turned his head his body followed he rolled over on his bunk in the holding cell alone.
He sat up on the small uncomfortable cot. There was a man standing on the other side of the bars.
The sheriff’s deputy clanked a handful of keys and said “You’ve got a visitor”.
Cars went by, a few trucks. Nevertheless, it felt still. The afternoon was warm and lonely as Con spent his time looking out the window of his motel through a small gap in the curtain. Feeling not unlike an old woman with nothing better to do and nothing but reruns to keep her from putting her head in the oven.
A fat guy with no shirt on in the room across from them went out to get some ice. A car pulled up with a mariachi band, thankfully with their instruments in their cases. A family on vacation. He thought to himself maybe they should have stayed somewhere more out of the way. Forgone the luxury of two double beds that weren’t crawling with bugs and stains and no hair clogging the drains.
The motel they picked was more or less in the middle of town which let them sprawl across as they needed to.
The Thunderbird Lodge was on the east side off University Avenue not too far from UC Riverside. It was a flashy place that looked almost like an Indian casino without the casino. Harri had insisted on it. If not a nice hotel, then the nicest Motel they could find in compensation for Con insisting they drive all the way down from Arizona. He hated filling in car rental paperwork despite the fact that Harri had offered to do it all for him and do all the driving. Nevertheless, he insisted flying was a waste of time and money and driving was much safer.
So they settled on this place, that some might say was “flamboyant”. It seemed to attract an odd array of holiday goers, business types and lost locals.
It was a very nice, looking more like a Spanish villa than a motel. Rich warm angled lighting spread throughout made it look like the Bellagio. It had a big archway at the entrance with the symbol of a totem bird, which gave the rooms a lot more privacy than is to be expected from a motel. It gave it almost a fort feeling, despite that it wasn’t surrounded by a wall. Just a chest high perimeter fence you’d expect to see edging a homeowner’s garden.
Thankfully the native American theme stopped short of the rooms. They were tastefully decorated with the dominant colours creams and browns with a hint of maroon around the edges. The carpet was a desert brown in a chequered pattern.
Con continued to stare out the window, standing with his hand in his pocket, the other propping opens the curtain.
Behind him were two double beds separated by a nightstand. The Sheets of which were a chequered cream similar to the carpet with maroon liners, crisp white pillows. The Indian style chequered pattern even stretched to the cushions on the chair tucked into the writing desk. His bed closest to him was neatly unslept in. In the bed farthest away from the wall a small mound writhed under the covers. Above each bed was a picture of a potted plant of some sort. The one above his bed looked like a small agave plant and the one above hers seemed to be a yucca. Directly in front of the beds was a small oak writing desk with a square mirror hanging over it. Moving from the right there was an armoire next to it which hid a large bevelled television. Next to that was a small wardrobe all done in the same oak, even the mirror was lined in it.
A few more people came and went, he watched a guy load frozen crabs off a truck. An old woman hummed by on a mobility scooter, looking vaguely like she was searching for non-existent slots. Con yawned and heard a stirring in the room.
Harri had tossed the covers off herself and was lying on her back with her eyes closed breathing deeply. He turned to her allowed a beam of light to slide past him and onto the bed.
“Cut that shit out” She said in a low-key hiss.
“You’re awake” Con said deadpan.
“You didn’t take me to a hospital.” She said without opening her eyes.
“You told me not, in the car”. Con stayed at the window and put both hands in his pocket allowing the curtains to fall shut.
She didn’t say anything, she just breathed deeply keeping her eyes closed, waiting for the questions to come. She waited a moment and thought up a question of her own. “Sable?”
“It was a dead-end. He was some small time drug maker with an itchy trigger finger. Chemistry teacher stuff, I didn’t get a good look at his equipment but there’s a lot of oxy floating around out here. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was making his own trying to undercut the Mexican mob. He was in a good position, that area you can move a lot drugs and not get a lot of heat.” He talked and moved around the bed.
Harri swallowed, her throat was dry. “He tried to kill us”
“My bet he was scared, he probably never dreamed that any cops would show up on his doorstep like that, let alone feds. He couldn’t take the risk.”
She breathed in and out deeply again, letting a wave of impotent frustration roll over her and then pass. “It won’t come back to us?”
“Not unless you get chatty, we’re out here alone. As far as I’m concerned the Mexican mob tracked him down and punched his ticket and that’s how it’ll be.” He paused and took in a lungful. “What I want to know is how you survived. Sable said you’d never wake up without a shot to the heart pulp fiction style. But you’re up and crawling within an hour and you’re screaming at me in the car refusing to go to a hospital.” Con stood on her side of the bed, both hands in his pockets in the dull room.
“What would he know? The guy was acupuncturist.” She snorted.
Con pursed his lips and let that one go.
She breathed out again. “Not now. Did you get any news from the sheriff’s department?”
“Yeah about that. They called me this morning, they said they’ve got a suspect in custody. The scene was almost identical to Dun. I already got permission to interview him later today, you think you’ll be up to it?”
“Have we met before?”
“I shouldn’t think so” The old man said.
James felt drained. He felt like he hadn’t seen the sun in days and maybe he hadn’t. The halogen lights sucking the life-force out of him slow. They made sleep somewhat impossible, as even in his cell they left them on. Tossing back and forth into half waking day dreams, a perpetual miasma of sleepless dreaming. Thus feeling rested wasn’t an option.
He struggled to keep his head up with his hand, it lolled side to side in his open palms. His face felt slick with grease and sweat and he didn’t care right now.
“What d’ya want?” James asked the man without looking at him “Are you a cop?”.
“No, I’m a doctor, a forensic psychologist. I just want to ask you a few questions to see what you remember.”
James sucked in a lung full of air through his nose and righted his head so his eyes were partially open. His mouth and chin were in his hand held up by the crux of his elbow on the metal interview table.
“I take it you feel you’ve answered enough questions?” The man looked over his square thin rimmed glasses. He was older, around his late fifties early sixties. He was bald with patchy grey hair with swarthy swatches in a wreath around his head. Olive skin that looked still somewhat supple. He wore a pair of brown corduroys and green blazer with brown patches on the elbows. Over a sweater with a native American pattern on it that smelled like rich cigar smoke. He had an almost stereotypical Sigmund Freud beard that was of the same colour palette as his hair, white with splashes of dark. But there was something different about him that made him seem more like a Santa clause out of costume. He had warm brown eyes and a wry honest smile he hid behind his whiskers. Instead of a cold clinical gaze he seemed to come across more as a friendly uncle twice removed. Whether that was the truth or just what James needed was yet to be seen. “I’m here to help you James, can I call you James?”
“You see memory is a lot like a mirror, you can see yourself in it but not a lot else. I had a friend who used to say ‘Mirrors are more fun than television’, do you know what that means?”
James shook his head despondently.
“No, neither do I, but it sounds nice doesn’t it? Now what do you remember about the days leading up to your wife’s murder?”
James closed his eyes and breathed in sharply, with it a rising sensation, like something was coming. Something hidden beneath the waves, a flash of euphoria gripped him as the crescendo cusped and fell. He felt like he was falling backward but the ground never came he just kept falling and falling.
He opened his eyes to a phone ringing. He was standing leaning next to a payphone.
He snatched the payphone out of the receiver and put it to his ear.
“Hello, who is this?”
“James, are you all right, it’s Doctor Moral. You don’t remember? You called me from this number and told me to call you back, that’s what I’m doing now, is everything alright?”
James paused and rubbed his eyes with his free finger and thumb. “Err yeah, everything’s just fucking fantastic! I’m missing days of life, I’m seeing things, strange, fucked up things!”
“Calm down James, each person’s reaction to the treatment is different, everything will be fine as long as you remain calm, I assure you.” The doctor’s voice was slow and authoritative. James sudden frantic outburst unwound into a state of breathlessness. “Now where are you?”.
James looked around he was at the side of the road a few blocks from the motel district. “Reaction? Reaction to what? I’m in Sacramento, I don’t remember how I got here.”
“That is a long way, have you seen her yet?”
“I can’t tell you, it could jeopardize the experience. You’re not supposed to remember even having the procedure. You shouldn’t even have this number” He paused and sucked his teeth.
“Please, I have no idea what’s going on, I keep seeing these, flashes. I feel like I’m losing my mind”.
“Ok ok calm down, I don’t usually do this but I’m not too far from you attending a conference. I could meet you. I’m going to give you the address of a friend of mine. You can wait for me there, tell them I sent you and we’ll get this all straightened out alright.”