Part II: Rust Door
The short, forgettable young girl walked across what to her young eyes seemed a vast veldt - late-summer grasses still and brown for as far as she could see. She wasn’t afraid. She waded through the wild stalks with grim intention as the exhausted sky above seemed to steep in milk. Humid, close air, and something else besides: a kind of buggy whining that seemed to come from everywhere invisibly, like a vibration from a different dimension.
In orphans, or in girls whose parents cared so little that they may as well have been orphans, there may arise in girls such as these a certain courage that well-cared-for children never need to develop. So it was with her, short-statured, bland, even stunted-looking, as if she didn’t enjoy nutritious, or even regular, meals. She walked across the field as if toward a destiny desirous. Above her head a flock of crows spiraled together in a strange and great funnel. They made no sound. She noticed them and felt emboldened.
After several minutes, during which time a gaggle of leaping grasshoppers parkoured ahead from grass to grass as if to show her the way, bizarre ashen grasshoppers larger than any she had ever seen, she saw, in the near-distance, the gable of some building out here. She looked behind her. The very first doubt had entered her mind, but she was not afraid, for she had learned some time ago that her tears would summon no helper. But would this work - that was the question. The little girl was reminded then of how desperate she was. If this didn’t work, there was no home to go back to. At least, no home that would welcome her back without cruelty, without a measure of revenge.
The building grew larger as she approached it. The grasshoppers veered left and right, and the stalks hid them, or swallowed them, and she saw them no more. She parted the last veil of grasses and emerged before a simple shed made of wood, rising up from a foundation of mortared fieldstones, a homely and derelict outpost, even ramshackle, and yet possessing an aura like one of habitation. But the front portal was boarded shut. She tried to pull a plank from the door with her bare hands, but the boards were too rough and her strength no match for the brutal nails that bit through plank and bulwark. A sign was hung on the door, but she couldn’t read, and hadn’t learned, no matter how loudly her mother screamed at her.
She stood before the door for a moment, both arms at her sides. Waiting, taking in clues. The building seemed to be talking in a language she could only faintly make out. It seemed to be moving, too, though not in the normal way of animals. Moving perhaps in the way that sea-grass does, a sort of inward intention made barely manifest in the familiar above-ground world. She walked around back, noticing, as she looked skyward, the crows had gone. Coming around a corner, she saw the woods very close. Voracious trees growing tightly together, as if squaring up for a fight with one another. A muggy gloom grainy and vague that slouched beneath the canopy. She glanced at these woods but didn’t pay them much attention.
What was behind this abandoned building. She rounded the corner and a gust of hot wind came from nowhere, or came from the grasses themselves, shoving them over so that they canted like bamboo. Her lank hair flipped stiffly from her face, and she faced a cellar door like that of some tornado-alley vicinage, a rusty bulwark, with strangely sharp edges. The girl made a clicking noise with her mouth, smiling with an oddly acclimated brightness out of keeping with this surly hot scene. She approached the door and looked at it. Two handles, studded with odd bumps, like flair on a biker’s jacket. No lock present. She tried the handle and the door shifted. She tried with both hands and the door rose up but the effort staggered her and it came heavily shut with an iron slam that sounded like a bomb in all that quiet. A smell like shit had come from the briefly-opened door.
A precocious anger. If these doors didn’t open. She planted her feet and gripped the handle with both fists and with a salty curse she hauled at the door, stepping with it as it crept up, her elbows bending inward, cursing, walking with the dead door as she pried it to life, rust flaking from its naked hinges, hauling at it, not breathing, in the end dragging the thing open until something broke and it fell as if exhausted to the dirt that may have been called the backyard of the place if such homey language made sense here.
Carrion breathed from the pit of the building. She plunged into the darkness heedlessly, excitedly even, her legs making mincing careful prance-steps down what proved to be a deep and unevenly-spaced stairwell. Soon the milky skylight dwindled to a distant ambience, neither hot nor bright, implying only distance. A dessicate dirt floor announced she had reached bottom. She knew not to call for anyone, for somehow she knew that none would answer in a language that made sense. It was oppressively hot. There may have been something breathing down there with her, but she didn’t focus on it, for she felt invulnerable. No more of this. Never again, no matter what it took.
She stepped into her own kitchen, advancing on the intruder, who was her agent. Max made no move backward, but he seemed to want to. She took the coffee cup he had set down, the aroma of the Speedwell-roasted beans earthy and dark, like the chocolate of Moctezuma. She lifted the cup to her cruel lips and began to drink it scalding. He watched her keenly, and with something like incredulity. Losing ground to her. She drank it down, gulped it even, her throatwork moving like a snake’s full belly. She set the mug down empty, resoundingly, and dragged a long wrist across her lips. Val hadn’t broken eye contact with Max since she had stepped into the kitchen.
“You know why I did it?”
Max questioned her with his eyes.
“C’mon,” she said, smiling coldly. “You know what I mean.”
A sickly red light seemed to emerge from the hard dirt floor itself as the rank and humid moments passed, or it may have been there all along, and she only now noticed it after having gotten used to the peculiar thick darkness that pervaded. No longer blind, she set to looking for the stage, what the old man at the candy store had described to her as being a sort of platform, his teeth blackened with tar, a strangely palsied and decrepit old man with a voice like power itself, a teller of truths the sum total of which was an outright lie. She didn’t care. The cost was plain. The rewards immeasurable - or, rather, the sort of reward that she could never in a million years of dreaming and planning have ever conceived as being possible. As she herself would have put it, even at such a young age: to hell with it. Anywhere was better than home.
“How old were you?” Max asked.
“Nine,” Valeria replied. Then, she shrugged, her shoulders both sharp and smooth, by odd turns, she an abnormal goddess, at one time considered the most beautiful person in the world, though, really, she had been all along, and still was, and it was only to seem fresh that critics in her world had ever stopped saying so.
“Brave thing for a little girl to go all the way out there,” Max averred, his eyes laughing, perhaps even mockingly.
“Not really brave,” she replied.
“What did you go by back then?”
“I went by Stacy.”
Stacy saw a humped shape in the darkness, with glass eyes that stared with blind hostility. A dead thing lying on its side, four legs outstretched, knobby and half-starved, stiff hair up in hackles. She smiled at it. Bolder now. It was all coming true, after all. All that remained was to kneel on the platform and say the words, imagining all the while what she most wanted. Which was the easiest thing in the world for her to do, as she thought of nothing else.
“When did they bring you in?” she asked him.
“Before I knew you,” Max replied. “I knew of you, of course, from the Frangiapani shoot, but before I met you. They just showed up at my condo. I was selected, I guess.”
“I would have figured it would have been a stranger, that’s all. Or one of my staff, who might as well be strangers.”
Max reached into the rear waistband of his pants, but then stopped himself. He placed both hands palm-down on the island. “Indulge my curiosity, if you would. What did you have to say, when you were down there?”
“Nothing much,” she replied, smiling curiously: a broad and vulpine grin. Max stood up straight again, guarded now. She pointed at the coffee stand. “Why don’t you make yourself a cup.”
“Are you in a hurry? Go ahead.”
Max waited. Then, he turned, doing so, as if obeying a command. She might have attacked him then, with his broad and athletic back turned to her, and the hideous .38 police special that was tucked into his rear waist, she might have pulled back on his shoulder a little and tripped the trigger and shot him in the calf muscle without ever having to draw it out. She felt resigned to her fate, though; she couldn’t account for it. Surely the debt could not be paid by being shot. Surely the remittance would happen elsewhere. And yet, she felt ready, even as she bought as much time for herself as she could, even while she watched him chuck the spent filter.
“Hey there. Max,” she said. He turned warily, his eyes narrowed. She pointed one impossibly long finger at the trash bin. “They’re compostable.”
He looked at her quizzically.
“The filter. It’s biodegradable. The staff have a compost pile out back.”
“Are you serious?”
“Have you ever known me to speak frivolously?”
He sighed through his nose and retraced his steps to the bin. He removed, with one finger and thumb, the dripping filter. The top of the bin thumped shut. He left the filter at the edge of the sink. The element had flared to life again and soon the white kettle was trembling with the energy of the heating water.
“That coffee is good.”
“It is,” she replied. “Cheaper than Keurig.”
“I never thought you’d give a shit about how much things cost.”
“Well. I paid your salary, didn’t I?”
Max laughed, almost in spite of himself. He looked away from her, closing a hand over his mouth, his eyes shining with the wet power of regret. She watched without looking away, faintly smiling all the while. Then, he looked back at her. As if he, too, was desirous of deferring what was to come.
“What happened down there?”
Valeria watched him, lips curling tighter. She said nothing for a long moment. The house was as silent as a reality without sound, which may very well be the sort of place that Max had been tasked with sending her.
Then, the kettle began to shriek.
What happened in that eerie pit below the abandoned building all those years ago? Will Valeria survive this hostile encounter with her agent? Will Max ever take a sip of that delicious Just Brew coffee he is brewing? This and more to come in the thrilling conclusion to our good ole fashioned serialized short story: Deep as Glass! Thank you for tuning in!