<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

Where and when
Park Ethereal - Chapter 12

I know I retreated from them into a hazy world of gray and black; I remember vaguely being placed back on the sofa and tucked in. Lights switched off and voices murmured. Lori was quietly asking something of Liam when they left, but the closing door and my lack of interest prevented me from deciphering what it was.

Raising myself to one elbow to look about me, I was unable to find the report. Kelly had probably taken it with him. I lay back down again, eyes fixed on the indistinct ceiling. Thoughts I couldn't avoid rushed in to laugh and cavort with me in the small valley of remorse which my soul lay within.

Ellyn's dead. You knew that all along. You saw her at the hospital; you remembered pulling her down to the trackbed. The awful muffled thump- I turned my head to bury my face in the rough cloth cover of the sofa's rear cushions. The threads scratched at me, uncomfortably raw on my skin. I approved, somewhere where it mattered.

She ran from you. She ran in the park; she ran in the tunnels. She died. So did-

I sat up, suddenly. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. That was the story. A man, dreaming his escape from the hangman's noose; escaping, he swims away while avoiding gunfire. The story ends with the crack of his spine breaking under the pull of the noose.

So where did that come from?

I swung my legs over the edge of the couch, throwing the bedclothes back onto the seat.

She died. So did you. That was the completed sentence. I turned it over in my mind, examining the facets from each side; the words burned clearly. So did you.

I don't feel dead.

Lori and Liam don't think I'm dead.

Is Ellyn dead, then?

I couldn't answer. My friend with the sax had called her the Angel; Angel in what sense? Of mercy, or in fact? Did he know what had happened to her? Did anyone else, in fact, know as much about her as I did? If not, why did I know all this?

Because you killed her. The mocking answer came unbidden, wouldn't leave. I pushed it resolutely to the side as I began to dress.

Dressing in the set of Kelly's clothes that he'd left for me, I stole quietly out the front door. I considered leaving a note, briefly, but decided that either they'd understand or they wouldn't; anything I might say would likely not help.

It was dark out. That felt normal, the first thing to do so in many days. It was cold, bitingly so; my breath dispersed lazily before me with the taunting of lost warmth. Reaching Park Avenue South, I turned right and began moving uptown at a deliberate but steady pace. A thought came to me; a Zen disciple is able, after years of training, to think of absolutely nothing for several seconds at a time. Zen koans are designed to produce a sudden dislocation of thought, to jar the brain into a confused halt; what is the sound of one hand clapping? System error, will not compute. Once that has occurred, with luck and experience one my be able to prevent the mind from seizing onto some trivial object and continuing on in its rush.

I wished I was able to do so, at least without being coshed on the head. I couldn't stop thinking, that was the problem; at times, my thoughts led to headaches and whiteness behind the eyes, and at times they led me into situations where I was sure I didn't want to be.

Grand Central, up ahead, was lit in brilliant brownish streetlight glare. I jogged down the east side of Park avenue south underneath the elevated detour that rose to circle around the station. There were several homeless folk sitting outside the wooden doors to the Main Lobby. I moved past them into the station. I was almost to the main lobby when I was accosted by a cop who had risen from a seat near one of the walls.

"Station's closed."

I stopped short, confused. "What?"

"Closed. Didn'tja see the sign?"

"Sign? No, I was just-" I trailed off before attempting to explain what I was doing to him or even to myself.

"Yeah, well, whatever. Take it elsewhere."

"Since when they close Grand Central?"

He looked at me coldly, escalating me in his New York Cop's filing system from 'civilian' to 'annoying civilian.' "Every night, kid. You got a problem with it, call the Mayor."

I let my shoulders sag, placing my hands in the pockets of the light jacket I'd donned at the Kelly's. Liam had left it out for me. As I turned to leave before bumping myself up to 'suspicious civilian,' my right hand collided with something cold and heavy. Trying to maintain my even pace and the sudden wellspring of sweat on my brow, I continued on towards Forty-second street, intent on looking normal.

Not until I'd made it out onto the sidewalk and moved west, out of view of the station interior, did I begin to shake. I walked slowly into a shaded corner, as if to rest. I did let myself slide down the wall until I was seated on the concrete. Turning so that I faced west, where there was no-one to be seen, I pulled the object from my pocket and placed it in my lap.

The Smith & Wesson, clean now of fingerprint powder, rested on my jeans and winked dully in the light from the overhead electric torches. I ejected the magazine. It was full. Replacing it, I stuffed the gun back into the jacket's pocket and struggled to my feet.

No time now to figure out how it got there. Kelly, obviously; he'd had the thing last time I'd seen it. My vague plan to interrogate my friend the sax player had just gone down the tubes with the news of the station's closing. Just to be sure, I walked around the corner to Vanderbilt in order to peek through the windows. Sure enough, the Chemical Bank wall was empty. The only sign of life visible was a janitor moving across the floor on a small machine, leaving a trail of moist marble behind him as the brushes cleaned the surface.

Resignedly, I tried the door. It was locked. Having nothing better to do, I tried all of the doors in the set. Unexpectedly, the rightmost door opened to my shove. Before I could convince myself to do otherwise, I slipped inside. The cleaning man wasn't looking my way as he continued back and forth across the floor. I could now see that there was a group of three more men just outside the main lobby towards the 4/5/6 subway who appeared to be sweeping the floor with long, mop-like floor brooms.

  Although I kept my shoulders hunched in anticipation of the shout, no-one appeared to notice as I scuttled down the staircase to Track Twenty-Eight. I risked a look behind me as I left the lobby, but the cleaning crew had moved out of sight. Turning back through the door, I moved towards the end of the platform to find a way around the Amtrak that slept noisily in the platform's slip.

At the front of the platform, the enormous bulk of the locomotive waited, poised for its trip uptown and outbound. It was alive, sitting there; occasionally, sharp blasts of air hissed from the compressors. Although it was a diesel-electric, it was no doubt operating on line power here in the Grand Central system, since diesels weren't used within the New York City limits. Amtrak, of course-

I stopped suddenly. Amtrak. There hadn't been an Amtrak train in here since Grand Central was switched to fully commuter rail, and Amtrak had consolidated its operations at New York Penn.

But here it was. Which meant that I had likely fallen through the cracks in the world again; sure enough, as I swept the area, there was not a single person to be seen. As I continued on, I wondered idly what would happen if I were to climb into the engine and move the train off down the tunnels. I wasn't sure if my private dimension could withstand that kind of tampering.

Not like I would know how to start the thing, anyhow.

With nothing better to do, I continued down the tunnel. Reaching the bolthole, I paused; I hadn't been here since my last panicked attempt to ditch the gun, which tugged mockingly at my jacket. I hadn't been too successful. Still, there was nothing to see, here, especially if this was 1974; I'd seen the bolthole in this period once, and it had been dark and empty. No reason to assume that it wouldn't be so now.

Moving uptown, I kept waiting for a train to pass me, but none did. I idly wondered if this was proof of the outrageous hour or of the continued effect of Alter New York. Did I carry the world with me as I walked? Outside some distance from me, was New York actually still moving about its business in the present? Was I actually wandering through present-day New York with a dazed look on my face, ignoring as people, cars and trains passed me by?

The answers to that weren't forthcoming. I shuddered at the notion that I might actually be walking blindly across the paths of cars and trains while in my own private world. Still, nothing had happened to me as of yet. Of course, it's possible that the approach of such a danger was what snapped me back into my own time; I kept thinking of all the times I'd awakened in the tunnels just in time to avoid an oncoming train.

It'd be a relief, somehow, to know that my personal timeshifting was in fact purely delusional. However, the weight of the Smith and Wesson pulled at my clothes, reminding me of the all-too-real results of my jaunts.

The tunnel into 775 Park was as I'd left it. I was a bit loath to wriggle up it in the clean jacket and jeans that I'd worn from the Kelly's. Laughing at my sudden squeamish turn, I took off the jacket and balled it up to carry, wishing I had the jumpsuit nonetheless.

Fortunately, the tunnel was completely dry; I ended up in the laundry room with little visible soiling save for a few smears of damp mud from the bottom of the pipe and a patina of dust. Brushing myself off as best as I was able, I made for the door. Reaching the basement hallway, I flipped a mental coin; decided that the boxhole could wait, and wasn't crucial anyhow. It wasn't an answer to the question, merely a prop for me to find one. Although I wasn't quite sure what that meant, it sounded reasonably good as a rationale, so I headed up the emergency stairs.

By the time I'd reached the first floor, I was aware that I was no longer wrapped in the protective coat of nonexistence that I'd been taking for granted since Park Avenue South. Although it was definitely night, I could hear various sounds from the lobby that sounded like someone whistling while scrubbing. On tiptoes (why do we do that? Does it actually make any less noise? Or is it just psychologically comforting to be in an uncomfortable situation and feel that you've made a sacrifice to the desired silence?) I continued up to the 9th floor and moved into the hallway.

There was no police tape at the door to 9H. This could mean that either it had been removed and I was in present time, or that it was 1974. The décor in this hallway (now that I thought about it and looked about me) looked exactly the same in both periods, as far as my memory went. That in itself was strange, that I wouldn't have tagged it as 'Seventies.' Of course, I'm never sure what year it was.

Brushing off a sudden flashback to my brief time in Bellevue ("Sir? What year is it? What year, sir?") I listened at the door. Nothing. Trying the handle resulted in the solid resistance of the deadbolt. I searched briefly for my lockpick before realizing that it had been in the jumpsuit. Swearing once, with feeling, I jiggled the doorhandle in frustration.

Standing there thinking about what to do next, I was just detached enough from my surroundings that two simultaneous noises scared the warmth from my body core. There was a rising hum from the elevator, and I could hear footsteps approaching the door from the other side.

The elevator was between me and the fire stairs. I could hear it slowing to a stop quite clearly, and the footsteps sounded like they had just about reached the door before I was able to break the paralysis and fling myself down the corridor towards the elevator. The doors started to open before I was abreast of it - if anyone's in it and looking anywhere near the doors, I'm dead - and then I was past. I avoided the stairwell door with its noisy crash bar and swung around a corner in the hallway before slowing to a fast walk to reduce noise. Despite trying to balance the conflicting impulses to both gulp air and keep my breathing silent, I managed to stop myself against the wall with no further noise.

I heard the door to 9H click as it opened. There were footsteps in the hallway as well. Then voices:

"Oh, hello, Mr. Sopasian. Did you knock?" A woman's voice that I didn't know. From 9H? From the words, it had to be, although I didn't know her-

"Good evening. No, I was just on my way to my own apartment."

"Hmm. That's peculiar. Well, good night, then."

"Good night yourself."

There was the click of a door closing, at which point (BRAIN TO LEGS!) my thinking finally caught up with the situation and realized that there was a non-zero chance that the elevator passenger (who hadn't seen me, apparently; thank you for small favors) was coming towards me.

Without having time to think about it, I began to walk towards the elevator, holding my stance as casual as possible and shaking the jacket out from its crumpled state. I rounded the corner in time to see an elderly man moving towards me while fumbling with his keys. He looked up, startled, as I approached.

I smiled at him absently, and he remembered to wave slightly as his brows drew together, obviously trying to figure out where I was coming from. I wasn't giving him any help, though; I slipped the jacket on and punched the elevator button. The doors slid open instantly (thank goodness it hadn't returned to the lobby) and I moved inside. Turning to punch the lobby button, I caught sight of Mr. Sopasian continuing on down the corridor with what looked like a shrug.

As the doors clanked shut quietly, I collapsed against the wall and began to shiver violently. I was so distracted that I forgot until almost too late to punch the button for the second floor.

Slipping out of the elevator, I let it continue back down to the lobby without me as I switched to the stairs. The question now was whether or not Mr. Sopasian was a suspicious soul. If so, he would likely eventually at least call down to the lobby to see if the doorman recognized me; the building was rich enough and had few enough units that traffic looking like me probably wasn't normal. When that happened, there'd probably be at least a cursory search…so I really should be gone.

Feeling intensely that I'd left something important uncompleted, I continued to the basement. Going into the laundry room, I hesitated, disliking the idea of the tunnel again. Besides, given how long it took me to get in and reseat the grille, I might be surprised and lose that means of entrance permanently.

Of course, standing here like a moron was going to get me caught, so…I walked through the laundry room and continued around the corner. The corridor ended, eventually, in a metal plated door, with a crash bar. There was a distinct smell of garbage, and stains on the floor indicated that trash was habitually dragged out this way. Hunching over slightly from sheer nervousness, I pushed the door open.

Nothing happened. Letting out my breath in a soft sigh, I moved into the alley and walked quickly up to the lights of Seventy-third street. It took me several yards towards park to realize that it was in fact quite cold out. There was no snow in evidence, however; not even the dirty scraps that had been visible when I entered the Kelly's apartment.

Now I was fairly confused. It wasn't present day; the snow and the woman in apartment 9H were reasonable evidence of that. It wasn't, however, the warm summer of 1974 which I had chanced into several times before. Examining the cars about me gave a firm indication that it was present time. Which left me even more confused.

The thought came suddenly to me and left an imprint on the inside of my skull that might have been put there by a commuter rail. What had happened to the present-day inhabitant of 9H? Who was she? Had that been her? Reaching Park Avenue, I struck out across to the west side so as to avoid passing the lobby of 775. My racing thoughts, however, forced me to stop and seat myself on the curb once I'd reached the opposite sidewalk.

Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Ellyn had lived in a less affluent building. At least, in one that had a buzzer system and a list of names.

Looking across the street longingly, I was suddenly struck by a notion. The door staff in present day had never dealt with me. They had no reason (other than the usual ones) to be suspicious of my approach, especially given that I was for once reasonably attired for New York City, if you ignored my all-purpose boots. Actually, come to think of it, those fit right in too; if I was up at this Godawful hour, there's no reason to suppose I wasn't working.

That started a chain of thought. Working. Working. Hmm. Delivery guys have reason to go into lobbies at all hours, especially in this town. Grinning, I moved down the street to the blue glow of a phone booth on Seventy-second.

Frantically patting myself down, I found a small quantity of change in the pockets of Kelly's jeans. A quarter was all I needed. Dialing the number was automatic, which startled me; where did I know the number from? The answer was swift and boring; from the media blitz that any New Yorker, even homeless ones, are subject to every day. The line burred, indicating a ring.

"Domino's Pizza."

"Hi, I'd like to order a large pie with pepperoni."

"Phone number?"

I was taken momentarily aback, but swung on nonetheless with pure fabrication. "Two five seven nine six nine four."

There was a pause. "That's not in the Upper East exchange."

Damn computers. "Uh, no, it's a cell number."

"Oh. Okay. Address and name?"

Damn. "775 Park Ave, and Santano. Ellyn Santano."

"That the name on the door?"

"Yeah. Ask for apartment 9H."

"Okay, 9H - that'll be twelve-sixty, and it'll be there in twenty."

"Thanks." I hung up and crossed Seventy-second to lurk just around the corner from 775's lobby.

There wasn't much to see or do there. There was a steam plume from some nameless manhole (perhaps even the one that I'd first explored to find the laundry entrance). The wall was spare, offering only an emergency standpipe hookup to lean against, but I made the best of it, crossing my arms to ward off chill and making myself as comfortable as possible.

I wondered what the Kellys were thinking, or if they'd even noticed I was gone. This reminded me uncomfortably that I might not be gone at all but be dreaming; however, precedent said I wasn't, so no point in dwelling on that. Liam had undoubtedly at least looked in on me by now; he was too much a cop not to do so automatically on the way to the bathroom.

Perhaps I should've left them a note. I had no idea what it would have said, though: "Hi. Off to stalk imaginary woman in a different year. Will be back soon. Don't wait up." That, or a similar inanity.

On the other hand, the two of them might take it quite literally. They had listened (and helped me tell) a story that contained all those insanities, and more; so who knows how they would've took it? It's most likely Kelly would have been confused by a note. Given the pattern so far, my attempting to predict what would happen hours hence would probably convince him that I wasn't okay at all, which would worry him more.

I probably napped in there somewhere, but the next thing I knew I was suddenly awake without knowing why. Shaking my head and standing, my gaze was suddenly drawn to the illuminated sign on the top of a car waiting at the light on Park. Domino's Pizza.

Without running, I hurried around the corner and then tried to set my pace to arrive at 775's door a few seconds after the pizza jockey. It worked; I rolled up just as the door was being opened by an impressively large man in natty uniform with a square (Slavic?) face.

"Yes?"

"Yeah, I got a pizza here for 9H."

"Are you sure? It's quite late." He looked at me. I smiled and gestured to the pizza jock to indicate that I could wait. He nodded and turned back.

"Look, my man, it's not too late for Domino's. Its not like I know what they're doing up there, but they ordered a pizza. That is, if this is-" he twisted his neck to read the slip stapled to the box- "-775 Park Avenue. Yup. You got a 9H, right?"

"Yes. Okay, come in." The doorman held the door open for the delivery man to pass through. "Hold on a minute, though, I have to unlock the elevator."

"Whatever. I'm paid by the hour anyway."

The doorman turned to me. "And you are…?"

I grinned disarmingly. "I'm up too damn late. Sorry. I'm Philip Green; I'm staying with Mr. Sopasian on Nine."

"I'm sorry, I don't have your name in my book. Come in and hold on, I have to let this gentleman up."

"Sure." I moved into the lobby and leaned on the concierge's high desk.

The doorman locked the door (damn it) then moved behind the desk and picked up an interphone. He dialed a three-digit number into it and looked at me while waiting for an answer. "When did you arrive, Mr. Green, and who-hang on. Yes, Ms. Stellings? There's a pizza delivery man here for you, shall I send him-Yes? I see." He cradled the phone into his shoulder and gestured to the delivery man, shaking his head. "Yes ma'am. My apologies. Good night." He hung up the phone and shook his head at the pizza jock, who moved back towards the desk mumbling something under his breath that didn't sound pious.

Removing the delivery slip as he came, he offered it. The doorman gestured for it, and took it to read. "Ellyn…Santano? No, there's a mistake, we don't have a Santano in the building."

The pizza jock's face said that he had already guessed that, but he didn't look quite ready to give up. "Can I use your phone? They left a number…"

"Sure." The doorman took a telephone from behind the desk and placed it on the counter facing out. The pizza jock nodded his thanks and began dialing as the doorman turned back to me. I was thinking fairly quickly. I had the information I wanted; the problem was how to escape without being remembered clearly. To that end, I blinked stupidly back at the doorman, affecting fatigue or alcohol, and hoped he wouldn't notice the sudden change.

"Okay, you're staying with Mr. Sopasian?"

"Uh, yeah, yeah, I am - look, what time is it?"

"Three fifteen a.m."

I made a face intended to convey embarrassment. "Oh, jeez. Look, I hadn't realized it was so late-"

"I can call upstairs, or check downstairs to see if he left a note authorizing you to use the emergency key."

The pizza jockey was waiting, having finished dialing. I was amused to note that there was in fact a valid phone at that number, but of course, New York is huge. I continued on. "No, look, he's asleep by now. I was with some friends who dropped me off; they live up on Eighty-sixth; I'll just head up there for the night and come back in the morning rather than wake him. They got a spare toothbrush uptown, and a nice couch even." I grinned sheepishly.

To my relief, he smiled slightly. "Okay. Should I leave a note for him?"

"Oh, no, I dunno when I'm going to wake up, after this - I'll be back in the morning though, so I'll probably be here before he's left."

"Okay. Have a good night."

The pizza jock had just finished a brief exchange of apparently heated words with whomever had been unlucky enough to live at the intersections of my imagination and the telephone system, and hung up as I was turning to leave. The doorman raised an eyebrow, and he shook his head in reply.

"Nope. It's a bullshit call."

"Sorry to hear that." Man, this door guy was polite. Especially considering how huge he was.

"Thanks. You want a pizza?" The jock was a professional. I reached the door and unlocked it, stepping outside.

"Actually, yeah. What's on-" The closing door shut off the sounds of guerrilla commerce, and I headed uptown for appearances sake, clutching the information to my mental breast.

Stellings. Hmm.

 

Of course, I didn't continue up that way. I looped back almost immediately, out of reflex perhaps, and moved down 72nd street towards Lexington. The street was quiet, with wispy steam from the underground; Ma Bell and Con Ed on quiet time.

The figure was sitting in he same spot, against the base of a wall near Lexington. She was wearing a blue dress this time, underneath a heavy jacket; still, most of her legs were visible. She was smoking again. I could see the tiny orange glow flare as she inhaled.

I crossed the street to move towards her. There weren't any cars; the lonely traffic lights blinked their doleful solitary minuet. She saw me coming, and lowered the cigarette.

"Hi sailor. That you under that stuff?"

"Yes."

"What're you doing out so late?"

"That's when I'm out."

She laughed, smoked. "Did you get something to eat, last time? You look better."

"Yeah, I did. I'm not sure I'm better, but I'm not hungry."

Her head was cocked slightly to one side, allowing the smoke to escape from the raised corner of her mouth and twist, chaos taffeta, into the gentle gusty breezes. I noticed, apropos of nothing, that it was chilly. "Why're you out this time of night? I mean, we know why I'm-" a pause, to inhale; words fluted out on smoke and moisture - "here."

I thought about it, moving back to lean against a convenient Volvo, hands in pockets. "I don't think it would explain well. Why are you out here?"

She laughed, in slight disbelief. "You think I'm dressed like this for my health?"

I shook my head. "No. On the other hand, there's nobody here. And, no offense meant, you look too..too..together, for a streetwalker; especially one who's alone at this hour."

"What makes you think I'm alone?"

I resisted the temptation to look around. "By now, whoever it was would've been out here checking me out. I'm not near you. I'm not offering you money. I could be a cop, or out for your money."

She looked away. "Well, I can take care of myself."

"I don't doubt it."

There was a brief silence. Finally, I rummaged in my pockets, and came up with some crumpled ones and a five. "Buy you a sandwich?"

She looked back, sharply. "I'm not that cheap."

I held up my hands. "No, no, sorry. Look, just to buy you a sandwich. Me too. It's cold."

Her eyes were very green, I noticed, as she looked intently at me for a moment. Divining my intent? I held still, trying to look harmless.

"Okay, sailor. Sandwich it is." She stood, slowly, gracefully, belying the length of time she'd likely been sitting there. I waited for her, then turned towards Lexington. We walked slowly down the block, hands in pockets. I made it perhaps twenty feet before I had to ask.

"What are you doing out here?"

She shot me an angry look. "None of your damn business." After, though, her annoyance apparently spent, she hunched slightly into her jacket and looked away. I continued to gaze at her profile. She was attractive. Extremely so, in fact; I couldn't tell you why, or how, but she was; and there were no signs of abuse or addiction, the constant companion of the New York streetwalkers. She turned to me, sharply, catching me staring; I looked away.

We turned downtown on Lexington and headed for the familiar Korean deli. My mouth betrayed me again. "Do you have somewhere to go?"

A grin, at that. "Why, are you offering?"

I was suddenly flustered. "No! No, I mean…not like…well." I ran down and shrugged. Ahead, the flourescent oasis of the deli gleamed on the corner. A truck was pulled up to the deli, its hazards going and steam issuing from the exhaust. The back door was rolled up, revealing a stack of boxes. "I was just curious."

"Of course. I don't sleep out here, you know." She stopped short, turned to me. "Sorry, I didn't mean that to sound…well, you know. Insulting."

I grinned back. "You don't know where I sleep. Or if I do."

She smiled. "True. You might be the eternal sleepwalker."

The phrase struck me. "Jeez. Yeah, you could call me that." Up ahead, a man was coming out of the deli with an empty handtruck. We were close enough, finally, to read the side of the truck. In slightly fancy letters, it read 'Pepperidge Farm Cookies.' I laughed, drawing a quizzical stare from my companion and a cursory look from the deliveryman. By way of answer, I called to him. "Excuse me, sir?"

"Yeah?" He stopped, looked over.

"May I ask you a question?"

"Sure." He hoisted the handtruck into the cargo area and pulled down the door before looking back. He appeared amiable; he was probably bored at this hour too.

"How do they prevent you from snitching Milanos without you going nuts driving that thing? Or do you get sick of them?" Next to me, I heard a giggle. It was girlish, and made me slightly warm.

The guy grinned. "Oh, that's easy." He walked to the front of the truck, leaving me wondering if he was going to leave us hanging. Then he returned and threw us each a bag of Milano cookies (Double Chocolate, natch). "When I leave the plant, they throw five or six bags into the cab with me. I usually eat a bag or two on the way down, and maybe one on the way back after I've mooched milk from one of these guys I deliver to." He walked back to the cab, with us following, got in. "And no, I haven't gotten sick of 'em. That's why I'm thirty pounds overweight. My wife, she can't decide if she wants me to quit so I won't eat 'em; but she likes the overtime pay." He laughed and waved, starting the truck. We waved back, and he drove off down Lexington to his next stop.

I looked at her. She looked at me. We both looked at our cookies and laughed. We kept laughing as we walked to the entrance, and as we went in, she put her hand on my arm for a moment.

That was all. Just a recognition of shared humor. Then she went inside. I stopped dead, frozen by the contact. I couldn't tell why. Fear? Lust? Nerves? Through main force I continued through the doorway and joined her at the deli counter, feeling my pulse rate slowly drop back towards normal.

She ordered a turkey club in a chipper tone of voice. The ancient Korean gentleman behind the counter nodded and turned to prepare it. She turned to me. "Do you want a soda?"

"Sure."

She moved towards the cooler at the back of the store. I watched the Korean gent construct her sandwich, economy of motion and material. He wrapped it in paper with a pickle and nodded to me.

"Uh, ham and swiss, please. With mayonnaise and tomato. No onions." The order given, the ritual began again. My companion rejoined me carrying a pair of Sprites.

"Is Sprite okay?"

"Sure."

"Hey, this is really weird, just not talking to you."

"How do you mean?"

"I've been talking at you, not to you. What's your name?"

 

-pain-

 

My eyes opened. She was leaning over me, a frightened expression on her face. The Korean was leaning over the counter, above and behind her face, an interested look on his countenance. I started, and began to struggle to my feet, ignoring the pounding at my temples. She helped me up. "Are you okay? What was that? Was it something I said? God, I'm sorry…" I held up a hand; she stopped. I finished rising, tested my head; mostly gone. I opened my eyes again.

"Sorry. I don't know. Uh, I don't really have a name."

"What?" I was getting a slightly suspicious look from both of them. She turned to the Korean, having seen me glance over; he ducked and went back to my sandwich. She turned back. "What do you mean you don't have a name? Everybody has a name."

"Yeah, well, not me." My head was still throbbing steadily, probably as a result of the conversational topic. "Look, can we drop it 'till we get outside? I'll explain."

"Sure." A guarded look. We picked up our sandwiches and moved to the register; the Korean gent moved with us, across the counter, and rang it up.

"Two sandwich, two soda? Eight-fifty."

I counted out nine dollars from my stash of abused currency. He made change quickly, and we left, carrying our meal.

Outside, we turned to head back uptown. A block or so had gone by before she spoke.

"Look, I'm sorry; I didn't mean-"

I cut her off. "No, that's okay. You didn't know."

"What…happened?"

I sighed, stopped and leaned against a car. She stood, waiting. I rubbed a hand across my face, feeling the city in the fine grit and greasy soot that had accumulated on my forehead. Ruefully, I rubbed my fingers together, contemplated them before speaking. "I don't know my name."

She cocked her head. "You don't know? Everybody's got a name."

"I know. I just…don't remember. I was mugged, a while ago, and got hit in the head, and I just don't remember."

"What happened in there?"

"When I try to think about it too hard, or if I suddenly think about who I am after not thinking about it for a while, then…I don't know, I guess that's what happens. I can't see it."

"Do you want to know my name?"

I looked up at her intent face. "Would you tell me your real name?"

"Yes."

"What is it?"

"Not that easily. I'll tell you, but you have to wait."

"For what?"

She dimpled. I'd never seen anyone do that, despite having read the term; it was almost cruelly cute. "I don't know yet."

Well, that seemed fair.

"Okay. Should we go eat?"

"Oh, of course!" An unknown matter decided, she was suddenly chipper; linking her arm through mine, she began to - I swear - skip uptown. I stumbled along, trying not to trip myself or her.

<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

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