originally appeared as a guest post at Views from Nature
Benjamin swiped his arm across his face, smearing sweat and dust from his nose and upper lip. He ran grimy fingers through his thick, fair hair, pushing the damp strands off his forehead. He settled onto his knees and put his hand back on the crowbar he’d wedged between the wall and a heavy steel cabinet. Taking a deep breath of musty air and praying he didn’t slip from his perch, he leaned into the crowbar and shoved with his full weight.
The cabinet came away from the wall with a metallic shriek. Ben put the crowbar down on the counter and reached up to grasp the frame. He felt it in his lower back when he used his two hundred-forty pound frame to leverage the cabinet’s fasteners out of the studs.
The bolts released with a protesting squeal and he heaved the cabinet off to one side. It hit the floor like a crack of thunder; the sound bounced and rolled up and down the empty corridors outside the room Ben was working in. One steel door banged open, followed by the sharp sound of shattering glass.
“Shit,” he cursed, hopping down from the counter to find out what he’d broken.
The Eastman building had been empty for nearly a decade before finally being slated for demolition. He’d taken the gig stripping the building for scrap metal to pay the bills between bigger jobs. It was dumb muscle-work, but a welcome break from framing additions for spoiled academics and shifty biotech hipsters. What he hadn’t anticipated was the vastness and the hulking damp darkness of an empty manufacturing building. He was alone in a hundred thousand square feet of abandoned labs, processing plants and offices. The old building seemed to breathe—heavy, labored sighs and groans, punctuated by the scrabble and shriek of the rodent population.
In the light thrown by his work lamp, hundreds of fine shards of glass glittered up from the shadows inside the cabinet. They lay amongst a fine powder, like chalk dust or talc, the color of violets, which smelled lightly floral, like the way his ex-wife’s hands used to smell after she gave the babies a bath. He sifted it between his fingertips, drawing them up to his nose and wrinkling his brow.
“Looking for me?” asked a provocatively female voice.
Ben nearly went over backwards, instead falling heavily on his hip and grazing his knuckles on the steel as he reached to steady himself. The woman who’d spoken leaned against the door jamb. She regarded him through her lashes, a smile playing around her glossy lips. A tumble of dark hair floated around her head, and he felt the sudden urge to trace the pronounced widow’s peak on her forehead.
“You’re bleeding,” she said, noticing the cut on his knuckles. She left the doorway and came to kneel next to him, offering him a spectacular view down her top as she lowered herself. “I never mean to hurt them,” She muttered to herself.
She took his hand and brought It to her mouth, closing those lips, soft and damp, over the wound. He felt the slight rasp of her tongue over his skin. She pulled his knuckles away from her mouth with a gentle sucking kiss and rocked back on her heels.
He could only stare.
“Oh, do people not do that anymore?” she asked, suddenly unsure. “It always takes me a day or two to catch up on social mores.”
“What?” Ben stammered.
“Social mores,” she repeated, “the characteristics and convention of a community.”
“I know that,” he snapped. “I mean you. What are you?”
“Usually people ask ‘Who are you?’” she remarked with a little pout.
Ben pushed himself up to standing. Regarding her from more equal footing, he saw that she was tall, easily five-ten to his six-two. Her feet were bare, her skirt snug to the knee with a fluted hem he associated with black and white movie starlets. The top he’d seen down was a soft cotton-jersey hoodie with a generous vee-neck. The outfit should have looked ridiculous.
“You’re not going to tell me,” Ben sighed. If there was anything he’d taken away from his time with Kat it was an understanding of contentious female behavior.
“You’ve been married,” she countered with a grin.
“I’m going outside for some fresh air,” he said. “If you still exist when I get back, I’ll start asking questions.”
He pushed past her and out into the corridor.
“You shouldn’t smoke!” she called after him.
He made his way to the stairwell and down to the exit, fumbling for the pack of Camels in his pocket. So much for quitting. The snick of the lighter and the crinkling of of the burning tobacco soothed him. The pleasure of the nicotine in his blood was secondary to the ritual of lighting and take a first lungful of smoke.
After three drags he crushed the cigarette under his work boot. He looked up the fourth floor of the building. He could just make out, about halfway down the stretch of windows, a face peering out through the soot and cobwebs which obscured the glass.
“Jesus,” he muttered, pulling open the heavy steel door. He stomped up the stairs and back down the hallway.
“I’m real, you know,” she said before even entered the room.
“Do you have a name?” he asked, pausing in the doorway.
“Sadie,” she replied, a little too quickly, as if she were trying to convince herself. “Sadie.”
“Short for Sarah?” he asked, a memory surfacing of a long-forgotten babysitter who’d called herself Sadie. She’s sung him lullabies from old Broadway shows.
“If ever I would leave you,” Sadie sang, rising to her feet, “it wouldn’t be in summer—“
“What is that?” Ben snapped.
“Lerner and Leowe,” she replied, straightening her skirt. “Seeing you in summer, I never would go—“
“Singing that song.”
“Sorry,” she apologized. “It just popped into my head. I didn’t even know I could sing.”
The Crux of It
“The last one named me Marcheline, but he also thought I was a mirage,” she said, her brow wrinkling fetchingly. “I liked his hat and rifle, but the desert was no place for a girl like me.”
“What does that even mean?” Ben doused the basket of French fries with salt and vinegar and pushed them to the middle of the table. “Please don’t tell me you like ketchup.”
Sadie wrinkled her nose. “No. Not at all.” She flipped the lid on the squeeze bottle of Heinz. “What is it?”
Ben plucked a fry from the basket with a sigh.
“How long ago were the French in Algeria?” She pulled a pair of fries out, popped them in her mouth and licked the salty grease from her fingers. “What’s on these?”
“Légion étrangère, the French Foreign Legion, I think?” He could almost see her thoughts whirling behind her eyes. “He was a nasty man. Beat his wife. Not a Frenchman, spoke Basque.” She looked at him. “Was that an awfully long time ago?”
Ben templed his fingers, examining the beat up table beneath. “What are you talking about?”
“The last one, Claude. He found the bottle in the sand. No finesse, just smashed it with his rifle butt. And there I was in a little cotton sundress in the middle of the Algerian marshes, surrounded by a press-gang of drunken criminals in silly military uniforms who thought I was some kind of heat-induced madness.” She knocked an ice cube against the inside of her glass with a fingertip. “And I had the worst craving for dry syrah and cheese.”
Ben sighed. “It’s malt vinegar on the fries.”
Sadie swiped a finger through a splash of vinegar on the table. “Mmm. Malt vinegar.”
The waitress came over with a pair of coffee milk shakes. “Anything else, you two?”
“He bought me shoes,” Sadie said, wiggling her newly flip-flopped feet for the waitress. “In some cultures, that means he owns me.”
The waitress frowned at Ben.
He flushed deeply. “She’s hungry.”
Sadie looked at him in wonder. “I am hungry. Thank you.”
“Seriously, Sadie,” Ben said, “If your name is actually Sadie. Who are you?”
She looked up from her milkshake with a faraway expression, licked a drop from the corner of her mouth. “That’s the crux of it.” Her eyes held secrets and histories. “Who am I?”
“He’s sweet,” she protested. “This man called Benjamin. He’s sweet.”
“Soraya,” he interrupted, using a name so ancient, she’d forgotten it was hers, “we’re not discussing this.”
She looked around the room—a gargoyle on a pedestal leered, death heads and Dia de los Muertos skulls grinned, a framed shroud hung on one wall, a lithograph of an etching from Dante’s inferno dominated the other. The plaque on his desk read Seth Kerberos, but she knew better than to name him.
She settled her gaze on him, crisp French blue shirt, monogrammed platinum cufflinks, the knowledge of the world in his black eyes. “I’ll bargain for him.”
“You have nothing to bargain with. You still owe me, and I hold what’s yours.”
The intercom buzzed. A tinny female voice trilled. “Mr. Kerberos, the gentlemen are here.”
He grinned, a feral flash of teeth, and pressed the response key on the intercom. “Thank you, Alicia. I’ll be just another moment.”
She shuddered. His voice was like nothing else in the world. The whisper of velvet, the caress of a cello’s C-string, the howl of a wolf, the wail inside a cyclone. Ice and granite.
“He found you, the poor soul. You toss your pretty hair and say what needs to be said. You deliver.”
She would have gone, she would have vanished from his office as quickly as she’d been summoned but for a tell. A twitch of the first two fingers of the left hand. A staccato sixteenth note tap-tap against the heavy oak table that served as his desk. He was distracted.
She stopped, paused on the balls of her feet, her bare toes curled against the antique carpet, and spoke without turning to face him.
“There’s nothing I could offer you?”
His curiosity gathered around him like a breeze. It lifted the dark curls from her shoulders, rose goose-flesh on her arms.
When she turned, he was standing, and she could just see behind the glamour, the golden god she’d met that day at the river, tall and strong, sword glinting, crimson robe flirting with the hot wind, and through that the fallen divinity, the blackness.
“There might be something.”
“For my family?”
“If you can procure what I covet.”
“And sweet Benjamin?”
“You can keep him.”