Vacancy and ariel, p.12

Vacancy & Ariel, page 12

 

Vacancy & Ariel
 


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  I came to dwell less and less on Ariel, immersed both in a new career and a relationship with a local high school teacher. I came to think of West Virginia as my home. But two and a half years later, while doing research on the net for my fourth book, I pulled up a web page that—though it didn’t shatter the comfortable niche I had carved for myself—caused me to understand that my obsession had been dormant, not dead. In conceptualizing the book I had decided to put my first three books in historical context and do a fictional treatment of Springheel Jack, tying him in with the story of the Willowy Woman. I’d been inspired in this by my long-ago suggestion that Ariel might be Springheel Jill, and my plot was to involve a bond between Ariel and Jack, a shared purpose that ultimately cast the two characters adrift in the multiverse. I had not expected to find anything to support this fanciful proposition, but the website I accessed contained several sketches of Jack done by nineteenth-century newspaper artists and one bore an amazing similarity to the elongated face that Ariel had sketched at the Krishna temple. Though the face in Ariel’s sketch was considerably more deviant from the human than those in the newspapers, I had little doubt they were all attempts at depicting the same creature. This discovery, while shocking, did not entirely rekindle my obsession. Ariel was still lost in California and the evidence of a possible link between her and Springheel Jack did not make the task of finding her any easier. But if only in terms of the book, I began to think about her again, to wonder what she might be doing and what the strange creature she once was had intended.

  In November of the following year, after I had finished the book, my agent, Jannine Firpo, persuaded me to travel to New York City. There was to be a party at the Algonquin Hotel, an annual affair attended by large numbers of writers and editors. Jannine thought it might be beneficial to my career if I were to mingle with my peers. I was not thrilled by the prospect. On the other hand I was tempted by the thought of eating in decent restaurants and listening to music more sophisticated than roadhouse country and western.

  The party proved to be a cattle call. Hundreds of people, most of them middle-aged men, jammed into a conference room outfitted with a bar. Abandoned by Jannine, I found myself pinned against a wall, trapped in a conversation dominated by a strident, adipose woman with a fruity voice and wearing what appeared to be a maroon pup tent. Eventually I escaped to the bar, where I threw down a couple of vodkas. I was considering seeking a more convivial atmosphere in which to do my drinking, when—feeling someone brush my elbow—I glanced down and saw Ariel beside me.

  Dressed in a blue silk blouse and tight cream-colored skirt; black hair loose about her shoulders; the fine shape of her mouth redrawn in crimson; she was a foot shorter than when I had last seen her, her figure far more voluptuous. Her beauty had a concentrated quality, as if her vitality, too, had been compressed and was now barely contained within her body. Like a star grown more radiant as it collapsed. She asked the bartender for a glass of port, pronouncing the word “pawt,” then noticed me staring and, with a puzzled look, asked, “Do I know you?”

  Hearing her speak startled me as much as it had when she had spoken in the woods years before, but I managed to get out, “I was wondering the same thing. I’m Dick Cyrus.”

  “Ariel.”

  Again she glossed over the R. Back in West Virginia I had not been able to determine the color of her eyes—now I saw they were dark brown, the irises almost indistinguishable from the pupils. Curiosity neutralized my sense of tact and I asked what her surname was.

  She made a sad mouth. “I’m using Lang, but actually I don’t remember my name. I’m an amnesiac.”

  She went on to tell me that over a period of days she had gradually wakened to the world and realized that she was lost in the woods. Disoriented, unable to speak coherently, she had wandered out to a highway, where she was given a ride by a man who shortly thereafter tried to rape her. After dealing with him, she made her way to Moundsville and there had been attracted to the golden dome of the Krishna center.

  “I’m from West Virginia myself,” I said.

  “That explains why you look so familiar. I must have seen you down there.”

  “It’s possible.”

  “I don’t suppose you remember seeing me?”

  I understood that she hoped I might have knowledge about her past, but I had no intention of telling her anything—I was afraid she would think me insane. I said I was sorry, but I couldn’t recall having met her before, and asked what she was doing at the party.

  “My agent thought I should be here,” she said. “My first novel’s just come out.”

  I offered congratulations and, remembering the fragments of writing that I’d read in Moundsville, I asked if she had written anything previously.

  “I supported myself for a while doing short stories, but the science fiction magazines don’t pay much.”

  Enough, I supposed, to allow her to leave the Krishna center. I castigated myself for not having thought of this possibility.

  We had been talking for no more than a few minutes when Jannine materialized from the crowd and said, “There you two are! I was hoping I’d have a chance to introduce you, and here you’ve done it on your own!” A trim and manically energetic woman in her early fifties, she beamed at us with maternal approval. “You have to read Ariel’s novel,” she said to me, digging in her voluminous tote bag. “It has amazing similarities to your new book.” She pressed a book wrapped in a garish dust jacket into my hand, then took Ariel’s arm and guided her away, saying there was someone who wanted to meet her.

  The novel was entitled The Atonement and was the first volume of a trilogy. The cover illustration was of a metal sarcophagus cut away to reveal a black-haired woman within, eyes closed, arms crossed upon her breast. A white radiance streamed from the sarcophagus, almost obscuring it, but I could see enough to tell that it was similar in shape to that of the fiery image I had seen in Professor Karlan’s office, the image that appeared on the monitor prior to the explosion that had destroyed Rahul’s project. This further validation of what I knew did not thrill me as I might have thought. I was taken with her on a personal level, reacting like a man in the grip of an attraction. I did not want her to have a connection with the creature who leaped from the crater where my best friend had died.

  Two hours later, sitting in the dim seclusion of the Algonquin bar, having read a hundred and some pages of The Atonement, it had become clear that what Ariel had written was her story. Doubtless certain details of the novel, its terminology, names, and so forth, were inexact, but I was convinced that the characters and core events were at least reflections of the real and that though she could not recall her past, the past was streaming up from her subconscious. The most astonishing thing was that her conception of the cosmos was basically the same as the one I had sketched out back at Cal Tech, an infinite number of anthropic universes shuffling and reshuffling, combining on a quantum level. The heroine, Ah’raelle, and her lover, Isha, were soldiers, respectively commander and subordinate, in what was less a war than a trans-universal game of chess. Encased in metal pods designed to shield them from the deleterious stresses of other realities, they traveled on missions to various universes in an effort to maintain the structure of the continuum, which they called the Weave, protecting it against another army of equally advanced soldiers who sought to subvert the grand design and so reconfigure the essential purpose of creation. The pods shed a blinding white radiance and were frequently mistaken for heavenly creatures by the indigenes of the universes they visited. The force in which Ah’raelle and Isha served was referred to as the Akashel, and the force against whom they contended was called the Akhitai. Both forces were led by groups of enlightened men and women who combined the qualities of scientists and mystics, and were in touch with the entities who presided over the cosmos. Not gods, but warlords who dwelled on some incomprehensible plane. Complicating the game played by the Akashel and the Akhitai was the fact that whenever a soldier set forth
on a mission from, let’s say, Universe A, there was a buckshot effect and similar missions would be launched from neighboring universes, involving analogues of the soldiers who had been sent from Universe A. Thus there were vast numbers of missions always in progress, and the pods were in essence shuttles weaving back and forth across an infinite loom, one side seeking to repair the damage the other had wrought. If I had come to the book as a casual reader I would have quickly discarded it. Ariel was not a brilliant stylist and her plot exploited one of the most overused of literary tropes, that of men employed in the service of either gods or some cosmic purpose; but though my critical instincts declared that her book was a tedious fantasy with a treacly dose of New Age mysticism, a kind of softcore religious screed leavened with lengthy passages of sex and violence, I was convinced that it embodied a record of her life and I read on.

  A conflict arose between Isha and Ah’raelle, one having to do with trust. Isha, in an attempt to protect her, kept information from her relating to a mission. She believed he was trying to manipulate her and that he had gone over to the Akhitai. Nothing Isha said or did could persuade her that he was loyal. Unable to repair the relationship, he became distraught, distracted, and—eventually—deranged. The love he had felt for Ah’raelle changed to bitterness and hatred, and he became a rogue, traveling across the multiverse, seeking out her analogues in other realities. The reasons for his actions were left unclear—but whether vengeful or trying to establish a relationship with another Ah’raelle, he succeeded in wreaking havoc with the Weave, and Ah’raelle was punished by being sent on to kill Isha.

  Thus ended the first volume of the Akashel Trilogy.

  My mind thronged by suppositions, I returned to my room and saw the message light blinking on the phone. I had two messages, both from Ariel. The first went as follows:

  “This is Ariel…from the party. Sorry to call so late, but I wonder if you’re free for lunch tomorrow. I’ve been reading The Willowy Woman and I have some questions. About the book. Uhm…I…If we miss each other for lunch, I’ll be in the city a few more days. I’m in the hotel, too.” A pause. “Room Five Twenty-Three.” Another, longer pause. “I’ll talk to you later, I hope.”

  Then the second message:

  “If we don’t connect, I’ll be in the coffee shop tomorrow at noon. Good night.”

  I fell asleep the second I hit the bed and waked thinking about Ariel in a less than clinical way. After showering, though it was only eleven, too anxious to sit in the room, I went down to the coffee shop and ordered a diet Pepsi. I had been there nearly three-quarters of an hour when a slight gray-haired man with a hunted look stopped by my booth and said in what seemed an accusatory tone, “Dick Cyrus.” Without bothering to introduce himself, he went on, “Your work is interesting, but I find your use of flashbacks annoying.”

  After discarding several more aggressive replies, I said, “Bite me.”

  He gave me a bitter stare and scurried off, doubtless seeking someone else to reprimand. Shortly thereafter Ariel entered the restaurant, wearing jeans and a white turtleneck sweater. She slid into the seat across from me and said, “I’m glad you could make it.” She appeared to be as nervous as I was. Ducking her eyes, fidgeting with her silverware. Her fingers were disproportionately long, but there was no extra joint.

  A waitress came to hover. Ariel ordered eggs, bacon, and an extra side of bacon. Did her metabolism run higher than the norm?

  “That’s eight pieces of bacon, ma’am,” the waitress warned.

  Ariel thought it over. “I’d like a stack of pancakes, too.” We made small talk while waiting for the food, telling stories about Jannine, discussing our lives—she rented a cabin in the hills near Arcata in northern California—and holding a post-mortem on the party, a topic upon which we were of one mind. Once we had eaten I asked what questions she had about The Willowy Woman.

  “This is going to sound strange,” she said. “But I have dreams about a woman who resembles the one in your book. The jacket notes said you believe the legend is true.”

  “I saw her,” I said. “I know it’s true.”

  “In West Virginia? Where exactly?”

  “Over near Durbin, the northwestern part of the state.”

  “Oh,” she said glumly.

  “It was a long time ago and she hasn’t been spotted in the area since. She may have moved closer to Moundsville, if that’s what you were thinking.”

  She nodded. “I was thinking that.”

  I fielded her questions as best I could, hampered in this by not wanting to reveal what I knew. We exhausted the topic and she turned the conversation to my new book. Our mutual agent had given her to understand that our fictive conceptions of the universe were almost identical. I told her about my moment of inspiration, about Rahul, but not about the project.

  “I feel almost no connection with most people,” she said after a considerable silence. “I’m not sure why. Maybe a lack of trust due to my memory. But I feel a strong connection with you. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen you before, but…” She drew a breath, as if summoning strength. “I don’t know what your plans are, but I’m going to be in New York five more days. If you’re agreeable, I’d enjoy spending some time with you.”

  I tried not to appear overeager. “I’d like that, too.”

  “Why? I mean…I wonder what you’re feeling.”

  “I’d characterize it as an attraction,” I said.

  A kid in a Fangoria T-shirt chose the moment to approach and ask me for an autograph. Ariel snapped at him, “Wait till we’re done!” The kid slunk away. I looked at her in surprise. Her outburst had embodied an off-handed imperiousness that enlarged my appreciation of her character. This one, I told myself, was accustomed to giving orders.

  “I hate being interrupted.” She turned back to me, still in command mode. “Go on.”

  “I was finished.”

  She gave me a hard stare. I couldn’t decide if she was judging me or trying to figure me out. When she spoke there was no trace of the seductive in her voice, but rather a steely perfunctoriness. “We’ll have to see what develops, won’t we?” she said.

  I WAS, AS I’ve stated, in love with the moment when I came up with the propositions that inspired Rahul, and I had been obsessed with the Willowy Woman. Therefore it did not come as a shock when I recognized that obsession had turned to love. In the space of three days my feelings for Ariel intensified dramatically, but even during the initial rush of desire and longing, I worried about her. If I were to accept that The Atonement was a record of her life before her arrival in West Virginia; if she had been hunting a deranged ex-lover across the multiverse and he was still hunting her; if the resemblance of her drawing to nineteenth-century newspaper sketches of Springheel Jack was not merely a coincidence; then I had to accept as well that she was in danger. The novel answered my old questions. Where had she been heading when the project scooped her up? What was her directive? I believed now that she was on her way to a rendezvous with the man she called Isha, perhaps intending to kill him, and that the original Springheel Jack had been another Isha. It was the differences between the drawings, the distinctions between the features, that most persuaded me of this. If the original Jack had launched himself from Universe A and wound up in nineteenth-century England on our earth (Earth X), then it was not difficult to imagine that other Jacks had set forth from other universes (the buckshot effect in action) and that one of them was due to end up on Earth X nearly two centuries later, and that this second Jack, because of his variant origins, would resemble but not be identical to his analogue. I assumed that Ah’raelle had been headed for California, to a point in a time when Isha was destined to appear. Now, her memory obliterated, driven by instinct, she had traveled to the rendezvous point and was waiting for him, incapable either of anticipating his advent or of defending herself.

  Ariel’s character, too, helped convince me that the situation was as I perceived it. Though she was sweet, gentle, affect
ionate, there was in her a core of harsher attitudes. In an instant she could become sharply focused or impatient or demanding, and these moods seemed not casual expressions of her personality, but purely utilitarian, brought into play when she needed them. In her hotel room were dozens of notebooks filled with tiny, cramped printing. A new novel, I supposed. But she told me it was the outline for book two of her trilogy, which she had just completed—nearly every moment of the narrative laid out with scrupulous precision. The woman was unnaturally organized. I began to think that her sweetness might be a product of this world, an overlay that masked the strict behaviors she had learned in another. She approached being in love—and she obviously was coming to love me—with a pragmatic single-mindedness, as if it were a discipline to be mastered. Nothing that impeded this mastery was gladly tolerated. A case in point: on our fourth evening together we were on her bed, partially clothed, when I realized I could not go forward until I told her everything. Though worried she might react badly, I was more concerned about what might happen if I withheld the information—the fate of Isha in her book stood as a cautionary parable. When I said I needed to talk to her before things went further, she grew angry.

  “Isn’t this what you want?” she asked. “You can leave if you’re having second thoughts.”

  “Of course it’s what I want. But…”

  “You don’t have some sort of disease, do you? If not, I don’t understand what could be so important.”

  “I saw you once before you came to Moundsville.”

  She was a silent for a beat, then said, “That can wait.”

  “No, I need to tell you about it now.”

  “I’m telling you it’s not important!”

  “I want you to trust me. I have your novel as evidence of what trust means to you in a relationship.”

 
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