Shadows In The Shape Of Men

Shadows but no substance, in the shape of men

Round and down and sideways they go

Adrift without direction, eyes that hold despair

Then as one they sigh and they moan

Help us someone, let us out of here

For a split-second, a perverse thought struck her … what would happen if she told Mr. Conway the truth?

‘Oh … by the way, I’m a former addict!’

The contract clearly said that Mr. Conway had to give her a month’s advance warning if he ever wanted her out. So if she told him outright, would that be … insane?

Maybe. But in a strange way it would feel good to prove that she still had the guts to stand by who she was. She could always go back to the motels until she found something else.

Also, doing something insensibly crazy like this would feel even better than the oh-so-sensible promise she had made to herself: That come summer she would have earned enough of her own money to pay back Jeremy and return to university and finish—guess what—her law degree. After she had become a real lawyer, she would spend the rest of her life helping people who had found themselves up to their throats in shit, just because they had made a few bad calls at a time in their lives. Yeah, she would go back to university and then she would be like that lawyer in the John Grisham-novel … what-was-its-name-again…?

But she hesitated … and then she told herself sharply not to think crazy thoughts again, not to ruin it all on a childish whim, and to smile normally to Mr. Conway.

He didn’t smile back at her.

In fact, he just kept staring at her, with both hands immovable in his pockets, and she felt increasingly uncomfortable. When she first had met him an hour ago, his eyes had been narrow slits. Now they were even narrower—as if he was always scanning his surroundings, or people in them. He was short, stocky, in his early 60s, tanned and with compact muscles bulging under his army-green t-shirt. As he stood there, obviously annoyed about having to look slightly up to her, he reminded her of a badger she had once seen—in a cage.

“So you were due in Restaurant Nicolo Monday morning, Miss May?” he said.

She swallowed, but kept up the smile. “Uh-huh.”

“Waiting tables?”

“That’s the exciting part.”

“I see,” Mr. Conway said, nodding gravely to himself. “I still don’t understand, though, why you want to live out here in Montara – so far away from downtown San Francisco, a young woman like you.” He looked down into the asphalt of the driveway for a moment then directly at her: “If you know what I mean?”

“Sometimes it’s nice to be away from downtown San Francisco, exactly because I’m a young woman.” She took a chance and winked at him. “If you know what I mean?”

He scowled at her, but removed one of his hands from a front pocket, reached into his back pocket and then pressed two cold, small keys firmly into the palm of her open hand—and held them there. For a moment she was afraid he would not let go.

“Take good care of them,” he said. “The locks in this house are brand new. They cost a fortune.”

“I will.” She quickly put the keys in her pocket.

“Good.” He turned and with another set of keys, he opened two of the expensive locks and then pushed open the big white-painted door, which led into the ground floor of the old house. He motioned for her to go ahead, and she stepped into the hallway with her rucksack. The door just on the left had the nameplate, ‘General McAuliffe’. It was her room.

She stood a moment in the hallway, taking it all in once more—but with a mixed feeling of being estranged and high on joy at the same time. This would be her place, a real place to live. It didn’t matter that the house itself was … old. There had been a granite boulder on the front lawn with a year chiseled in it: “1846”. She had briefly seen the rooms when she came, and was again pleasantly surprised about how pristine everything looked, as if somebody cleaned the old woodwork every day and painted it at least once every six months. A big copperplate lamp in the ceiling lit up the entire hallway and there was a faint, recurring creaking sound somewhere, as if you were on a ship. Somewhere on the other side of the house, she could hear the muffled booming of the Pacific surf. She had already felt more than a few needles in her stomach, when she walked from the bus and couldn’t stop herself from looking down the cliff along the road. It grew ever steeper as she had made her way to the house. She had had to concentrate not to stare for too long at the waves vaporizing against the rocks below.

Behind her, Mr. Conway cleared his throat—loudly.

“Leanne May, you are now officially a resident of The Fremont Home,” he then said, with a notable tone of resignation.

She just nodded, stepped into the hallway and hoped he would accept that as a satisfactory closing of the conversation. She desperately needed to be just herself now.

Apparently she got at least one wish today. For Mr. Conway didn’t say anymore. Instead, he closed the hallway door behind her.

The woman, whose real name had never been ‘Leanne May’, was finally alone

*

For a long time, she sat on the bed, thinking hard about all the things she had to do, all the things she wanted to do. When she finally realized that her mind was just going round in circles, she got up and began to pull off her blouse and jeans. They were sweaty from the walking from the bus station and up the hill to The Home. She really, really needed that shower now. The room had a minor shower cubicle, and a tea-kitchen and not much more—aside from the bed and desk, of course.

A big black and white framed photo of Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe hung on the wall above her bed.  He was standing somewhere outside, presumably near the front line, but his uniform looked immaculately clean and without any folds that were not supposed to be there. With determined dark eyes, set in the chiseled face of a middle-aged man who had known what his role in life was, it appeared as if he was scouting the horizon for something—perhaps another enemy to beat. She felt it was going to be somewhat unsettling trying to sleep with him hovering over her bed.

For a few moments, she considered ways to cover him up, and how to avoid that Mr. Conway would notice. He had specifically instructed her not to put anything on the walls. That probably meant not taking anything down either. It wasn’t long, though, before she decided that she could live with the general. She had had to adapt to many things, why not continue with him? She suddenly longed for a TV, or a radio—something that could distract so she didn’t have to think anymore. She ditched her clothes in a pile on the floor. Then she hurried into the shower and turned on the warm water.

It wasn’t as warm as she had hoped for, and it took a long time for it to become even moderately comfortable. The old cheap-shot—Mr. C—had probably not wanted to pay for proper heating, she thought gloomily as she soaped herself over and over again with a minuscule piece of soap she had taken from her last motel. She also briefly thought about where she had put the cutout from the paper and if she wanted to confront Conway with it. She decided not to, although the wording on heat had come off as rather unambiguous:

ROOMS FOR RENT – HOME BY THE SEA

ATMOSPHERIC OLD HOUSE OF HISTORIC VALUE, MONTARA BY SAN MATEO, BED AND SHOWER, $400/ MONTH, HEAT AND WATER GUARANTEED. EXHIBITION ON FIRST FLOOR WILL OPEN FOR VISITORS SOON, RENT NEGOTIABLE IN RETURN FOR PRACTICAL WORK.

But maybe she had read what she wanted to read? Who put an ad for rooms in the paper these days, when everything happened on the Internet? It had been blind luck she had even found the crumbled newspaper under a bench at the station and even luckier that she had actually read it and made the call. It was a bit far away from Frisco for her taste, but the rent was ridiculously low. On the phone, she had soon convinced Mr. C—who mumbled something about ‘damn expensive bureaus’—that she would be perfect for copy-editing the final versions of some texts that went with this private exhibition of his.

Hey, I went to Ohio State University, but you don’t need to know that I never finished…

Nevertheless, how hard could it be? She had seen the exhibition once and it was rather small, and—she hadn’t been able to stop herself from thinking—rather boring. Who would want to stop here on their way to Frisco to read old letters from veterans, all the way back to the War of 1812? However, it was important to his grandfather, from whom he had inherited the house … or something.

Fine, mister—whatever lets me get away with less than five hundred bucks a month…

Maybe she shouldn’t have lied about Tim, though. It had been years since she had spoken to her stepbrother. She was still not able to think about it more than a few moments. It wasn’t because he was dead. It was because at that moment her mum had called to tell her that Tim had been blown to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, she had had the cell-phone between her ear and shoulder because she was busy adjusting the needle in her right arm. After her mum had hung up, she had been sitting like a statue for almost half an hour. Then she finally pulled out the needle. She dumped its contents in the toilet. Then she spent the rest of the day diving into Jeremy’s whiskey collection, just to take the worst of the withdrawal symptoms.

Nevertheless, for Mr. Conway the story about her brother had been the true icebreaker; the part about his heroic service in Afghanistan, anyway—most of it guesswork from mother’s infrequent contact across the Atlantic. Whatever her outstanding moral debt to Tim for inventing all kinds of shit about their relation, it had served a very important purpose that almost made her dizzy with relief. Mr. Conway had wanted to see her right away, and she had only been a few days in the Bay Area.

When he actually saw her, though, he seemed suddenly to get second thoughts. She had done her best to shine up herself and she had even secured a direct phone number to Mrs. Nicolo, whom he could call for ‘a little backup’, although they had only known each other on the trip in the Nicolo family truck from Sacramento to San Francisco. Mr. Conway, however, was no Mother Theresa, looking for ‘lost women’ to take under his wing, and The Fremont Home was no pet social project, like Nicolo’s Restaurant. She had been afraid he would actually make the call and say something bad about her to Mrs. Nicolo. She’d rather lose the room than that job opportunity. She still couldn’t believe Mrs. Nicolo had asked her. It was as unreal as a second rate Hollywood-movie.

Here and now, she pushed the memory of Tim away as she tried to rub some heat into her skin. She could still not feel any real heat. Although the weather here would never be as harsh as in Cleveland—or even back on the Hebrides of her childhood—winter had indeed come to California. The mornings in particular were as cold as the white chill she sometimes felt inside, after waking up on yet another strange bed. When she arrived in Frisco she had felt acutely aware of a need to find shelter, somewhere to stay for a long time, somewhere out of reach. She hoped the radiator in the main room worked properly, and she berated herself that she hadn’t checked before paying the first 6 months. What kind of ‘shelter’ did she expect to find by the bloody sea, anyway? She had gotten a room on the side of the Home, which faced the ocean and the wind and…

However, there were far bigger messes: She needed to think of something that would somehow negate the crap she had done to herself. She needed to do something new that would make the past unimportant, or less important. She gritted her teeth and rubbed her arms and thighs and her face more fervently with the ever-smaller piece of soap. It was one thing still to have the kind of control that allowed her not to give in to a whim and blurt out something insanely stupid about her past missteps in front of a card-carrying patriot like Arthur Conway. Another thing was being able to get all the threads untangled in her mind—and find out what she was actually going to do.

Finally, she threw away the soap. There was nothing left of it anymore. She leaned her head against the shower cubicle wall, felt the hard tiles against her forehead, wet tangled strands of her long hair in between, allowing the sprinkle of the water to caress her back. It was finally warm enough so that she could relax and just feel it.

She was not a loser, not stupid. She was not. Sure, things had happened that were serious enough—but she had gotten good grades before those … things. She had done well. She wanted to do something right again. Why couldn’t she?

She could blame her parents of course, Lin who had killed herself when she needed her most, or Jeremy … But wasn’t it really something in her character? She could get all the good grades in the world, have all the good intentions, all the opportunities, and yet she let herself slip back on a path where she just threw it all out the window; all the gifts she had been given. What were they worth if she worked so hard on grinding herself down? Wasn’t that the very definition of lack of self-insight? Or … being stupid? When she could even define it like this, and still couldn’t get her act together and do something to move past the destructive streak—or whatever the hell it was … did she really deserve anything else than being labeled just that: Stupid?

That doubt was a constant companion and all she could do was trying to fight it off whenever it came.

There was of course another possibility to quench it … but no.

She had been clean for almost half a year now, and she had been sober for a little over a month—not a drop of alcohol, although the yearning to just loose herself through the welcome burning of absinth or whiskey in her throat… it was still there. It was as if it would never go away, and she needed all her strength of will just to keep it at a tolerable level.

She tried to turn up the heat of the water even more, but it was already at max and that, apparently, meant just a little bit above tepid. In some motel rooms where she had stayed, she had showered for almost an hour, turning up the heat at full volume, coming out of the bathroom red as a scolded lobster. It had worked, though—at least temporarily. It had provided the necessary distraction. Still, it wasn’t enough. For some reason, she hadn’t picked up smoking yet, the obvious distraction. She wondered why. It seemed like an odd kind of abstinence to have the knack for, when it was rather obvious that you couldn’t really stay away from anything else.

Her cell phone rang.

She rushed out of the shower, and almost slipped on the wet floor tiles. She grabbed on to the sink to prevent herself from slamming into the floor on her back. She still managed to hit her knee, though, on the corner of the shower cubicle.

“Aw – goddammit.”

The phone buzzed on. It was deep in her rucksack, which was on the bed.

She rummaged through all the little side-pockets of the rucksack until she found it, but then saw who it was. For a moment, she just held it, staring at the display as if the little Nokia was an ugly and perhaps slightly dangerous piece of flotsam, which the thundering Pacific had flung in through her open window, although that was quite impossible. There was at least a 100 meters from the cliff’s edge, which began where the strip of grass outside her window ended, and then down to the inferno of the waves.

The phone fell silent.

She threw it back on the bed. It landed beside the steel nozzle of the first thing she had unpacked and which was now tugged safely under the pillow.

She then slumped down on the bed, wet hair dangling in front of her eyes.

That was stupid, missy – maybe you didn’t know the number but still … why should it have been him? Why would he even have my number?

She got up and went to the bathroom again, suddenly conscious that she had been naked in front of the open window. If any of the other residents had decided to go for a stroll along the garden fence just now to look at the waves, they might have gotten a little more to look at … not as if it mattered an awful lot after all the things she had already done to her body. She didn’t want to give Mr. C another reason to be suspicious of her, though. It was clear that he had already been thinking hard about whether or not to give her the room, and only the cash had convinced him … for now.

She came back into the room, with a towel around her body. She began drying her hair with another towel. Then she changed her mind and pulled down the blinds, too. Somehow, it felt better that way. She sat down on the bed again, looking at the phone while she rubbed her hair thoroughly with the towel. She expected it to ring again, but it didn’t.

For the first time Carrie wished she had a cigarette.

*

Carrie nearly got a shock when saw the black-haired boy staring at her outside the window. She considered – briefly – that somebody from the other rooms might decide to take a walk around the house and pass through ‘her part’ of the small garden-strip that separated the rooms from the cliff and the ocean. Maybe some of the other residents had a thing for looking at the ocean, so close to a free fall? Maybe they just liked to take a walk now and then, like normal people. She hadn’t really expected anyone to go out, though – not past her window.

After she got dressed, she had skittered around in her room, sorting out the mess, big towel wrapped on her head like a turban to keep her wet, long hair in place. She should have gotten that haircut long ago. It would be one of the first things on her to-do list before Monday morning and Restaurant Nicolo. In fact, she was just thinking about the haircut, and where to get it, while sorting through the four different town-maps, and that was when she cast a casual glance out through the window and froze as she locked eyes with the boy.

Carrie’s second almost-shock came, when she realized ‘he’ wasn’t really a boy—but a girl with her hair tightly gathered in a bun behind her neck. The girl had frozen as well. She was, in fact, not a girl but rather a young woman about Carrie’s age, in her early twenties. She wore tightly fitting old cowboy jeans and an open skin jacket: It looked as if she hadn’t been able to make herself throw it out. It did look a little too small for her…

The woman had a boyish body with only a few curves. Maybe the light had flickered in the rain-laden clouds behind her, and confused Carrie. However, the realization that ‘he’ was actually a ‘she’ only made the woman’s deep, ebony black eyes more mesmerizing. They looked like two pieces of night sky.

The young woman was looking at Carrie with a mix of what appeared to be embarrassment and curiosity. Then she seemed to gather her wits and flashed a brief smile. She sent Carrie a vague nod, as if she was just another passer-by, who had accidentally looked too long on Carrie on any public street, and by doing so had broken unwritten rules of politeness.

The woman turned and walked to the fence and stood for a few seconds watching the sea, and then she began moving away, obviously feeling uncomfortable to be standing right outside Carrie’s window now that the spell of anonymity had been broken. She went further to the left, away from Carrie’s window towards the backend of the house. Then she stopped, almost immediately, as she was reminded that the garden strip narrowed to almost nothing now. It was impossible to walk around the house from this angle, unless you wanted to crawl over the fence and scale the cliff.

Carrie just … stood in the middle of her room, her towel-turban feeling awkward and shuffling the maps in her hands, having completely forgotten what she wanted to with the goddamn things. Had it been a bad idea to roll up the blinds again? No, she had been dressed and she needed the little sun that seemed intent on breaking through the ocean fog during these early hours. She had been in the dark for too long.

Because there was nowhere to go near the backend at the house, the girl reluctantly had to backtrack and ended up outside Carrie’s window again. Unlike before, it seemed that this time she had decided it would be even more awkward not to show some kind of recognition that they had become aware of each other just before. She nodded hesitantly again. Then, as if she was afraid that Carrie couldn’t hear over the roar of the surf, said in a louder-than-normal voice:

“I didn’t mean to pry. I was just taking a walk … getting fresh air.”

Carrie had to mobilize extra will for a few seconds before she was ready to smile. She had counted on being utterly alone for the rest of the day; alone to think, about all the things she … needed to work out. At last, she got her act together. She returned the smile:

“It’s all right,” she said aloud, too. “You live here?”

It was a stupid question; just as it was stupid standing there half-shouting. She went over and opened up the window. There were quite a few locks on it as well, but none which needed a key. At last, she got it open and stretched out her hand.

“I’m Leanne.”

The girl took it.

“Ghazala. I live in ‘Sherman’.”

“Ah, the room,” Carrie said.

“Of course.”

“You must have ‘McAuliffe’, yes?”

“Yup. Tony and I are best buddies.”

The other girl didn’t seem know if she should smile at this. Carrie quickly diverted the topic:

“So… I’m just staying here temporarily, until I find something better.”

Carrie wasn’t entirely sure about this, but it seemed like the right thing to say. She wasn’t sure about anything today, which, to her annoyance, wasn’t big news. Ghazala seemed to sense her unease. In a soft, careful tone she said:

“I live here with my father. We are also looking for somewhere else to stay. My father has been negotiating a deal for a small bungalow in Corona, but I don’t think we can afford it.”

Carrie nodded solemnly, as if she was already well informed about this. Then she squinted against a sudden burst of sun that had managed to slice through the heavy clouds, and leaned on the windowsill with her elbows. She had briefly to hold up one hand to shield her eyes from the sudden light. It only lasted a few moments then the clouds had mushroomed again and choked the rays. There was a dim glow behind the clouds now but they looked thick and fat and not as if they intended to give up so easily again.

Ghazala looked over her should towards the gray ocean. “In Pakistan we lived almost as far away from the sea, as one possibly could. In Kashmir.”

“Oh …” Carrie blurted, “isn’t that where— ”

“Yes,” Ghazala nodded quickly. “But it’s not as bad now as it was.”

“So … uh … what brings you to ‘land of the free’?”

She laughed, a short dry laugh: “Certainly not our own free will.” Then she frowned, as if something had stung her across the eyes. “My father was an official in the local government. He met an American woman, a soldier, during your invasion of Afghanistan two years ago. Some people didn’t like that.”

Ghazala looked like she regretted saying this, then she gathered herself:

“It’s … complicated, as you Americans would say.” She flashed a strained smile.

“—It’s none of my business … !” Carrie said quickly.

“No, it’s … fine,” Ghazala said. She cast a brief glance over her shoulder, towards the ocean. “Look—are you doing anything right now?”

“No…”

“There’s a small place down the road, to get something. The only place around here I think,” Ghazala said, nodding in the direction of the only road leading away from The Fremont Home, down to Montara.

“The ParadIce place?” Carrie asked.

“Yes. Would you like to go? There’s not much to do around here today for me.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I go to the university,” Ghazala said, “and I work at a hair-dresser in my spare time, but today is my day off—and I don’t feel like studying.”

Carrie didn’t feel sure that this cloudy day was right for ice cream. But after that shower there was something demoralizing about the prospect of staying in her room with the good General, who already had made something of his life, and seemed to be waiting for her to do the same—a task she was definitely not up to before Monday. And for her all her foreignness, Ghazala seemed like somebody it would be nice to share at least a cola with … after too long alone, on the road.

“Oh, why not,” Carrie said. “Gotta get to know your new neighbors, right?”

A faint smile showed briefly on Ghazala’s lips. Carrie turned from the window to rummage through ‘the Pile’, as she now had dubbed the second-level order she had managed to impose on her personal items. She turned to the bed instead and took her old gym-jacket

“It’s rather cold today,” Ghazala commented..

“Oh—I ’ll be fine,” Carrie said, zipping up the jacket too close to her throat so it bit into her skin and she had to pull it down a little. “So, uh, what about the other tenants?” she asked swiftly, while messing about with her shoes and rummaging the Pile for her purse. “Do you plan on inviting all of them for ice cream, too—or do I get special privileges?”

Ghazala shook her head: “Leanne, you are the only other tenant.”

(image credits after story)

*

ParadIce was an ice-cream parlor, cheap seafood diner and postcard shop all in one. However, its full selection of offers wasn’t something you realized until you had stepped in through the front door and almost bumped into the stand with oddly oversized postcard reproductions from the 50s and 60s. As they walked over the miniscule parking lot before ParadIce, Ghazala looked determinedly relaxed. She had brought Carrie here along a gravel path, which ran alongside the main road. It was as if Ghazala already knew all there was to know about the terrain near the Fremont Home, for she had lead on with quick assured steps.

Unlike the garden outside Carrie’s window at the Home, there was no fence here between the two women and the vertical fall down towards the agitated sea, which was coiling itself into a pit of white snakes around the rocks below. One or two times, Carrie closed her eyes instinctively, even though it was crazy because that would just make it more dangerous to walk there. But it was the only thing to do, she felt, which would keep her from looking down too long, and being captivated by the hypnotic pull of the white snakes. She didn’t say anything to Ghazala about that. What would she say?

When I was eleven, I fell down a cliff in Scotland and almost killed myself, could we please go another route?

No. She had deliberately chosen the Fremont House nestled in its alluring safety and seclusion out here on the edge of the rugged coast, west of San Francisco. She wanted Ghazala to like her. She wanted to start over. There was only one choice: Close your eyes hard and tell the past, and all things in it, that it was now invisible and therefore didn’t matter.

ParadIce’s shop sign was yellow and complete with two big white balls glued to the sign after the ‘e’. They denoted the scoops that topped a plastic cone icon, which had fallen off the sign long ago and only left a lighter, more faded triangle in the paint. Birds had shit on the white scoops and the shit had grown black, so they looked like two large eyeballs staring at her.

Carrie and Ghazala went in.

They found a table near a window on the side of ParadIce that faced the ocean. The windows were slightly damp but Carrie couldn’t see if it was from the fumes from the kitchen or the mist outside. There was a big sign beside the counter displaying all the variations of ice cream that could be made for you. Carrie eyed the silent, balding man behind the counter, who shuffled some fries with one hand and stacked small boxes of cones with another, and looked concentrated, as if there was nothing more important in the world.

Carrie ordered a coke with nothing to eat. Ghazala ordered nothing to drink and a cone with three scoops of vanilla ice and a blood-red strawberry on top. It looked remarkably fresh, but also unnaturally pumped—like it could burst at any moment. Carrie looked at the strawberry for a moment and then Ghazala bit over it and swallowed it whole along with half a scoop.

“Aren’t you hungry?” she asked.

“No.”

Carrie stared hard out the window and, for a moment, she couldn’t help following the billowing vapors of mist with her eyes. The mist itself seemed to follow the waves of the ocean.

“You’re a strange one,” Ghazala said.

Carrie forced a smile: “I beg your pardon.”

“No, no—I don’t mean it in a bad way.” Ghazala shook her head and wiped ice cream from her lips. “I mean … you don’t look like the average drifter.”

“I didn’t think I looked like a drifter,” Carrie lied.

Ghazala ignored it. “You look like you don’t belong here—or on the road.”

They had talked a bit about Carrie’s sojourn across the States, on the way down here. She had said that she just traveled from place to place in order to find work, and she hinted that she had had an alcohol problem. She had not mentioned anything about Jeremy or his particular business, or the missing money or anything else that might come off as less acceptable in Ghazala’s eyes than a ‘heroic struggle’ with alcohol. Perhaps that was what aroused suspicion? Carrie found to her dismay that even if she had acted in those films, she certainly didn’t have an acting talent of any significance. Perhaps that was exactly why she had wound up where she had?

Ghazala bit her lip slightly, then said: “You look like you belong in a … school, I suppose.”

“I went to university.”

“‘Went’?”

“I dropped out.”

“Why?”

“It … didn’t really work for me.”

“Oh … ”

Ghazala looked quickly out into the mists. Then she ate the last of the cone in one bite. She had devoured the whole ‘Super-Pack’ homemade ice cream very quickly.

“I was just … you know … not cut out for school,” Carrie tried.

“You look smart.”

Carrie couldn’t suppress a short—joyless—laugh.

“Believe me,” Ghazala said and blinked at her. “I know people …”

She glanced discreetly at the sign again up at the counter. It was as if the Pakistani woman suddenly wondered if it would be rude to order another one, or upsetting. Carrie couldn’t quite make out what she thought about the prospect of Ghazala throwing herself over another X-large cone with scoops, but she supposed a thin girl like her didn’t need to worry about such matters. Jeremy had had a fit each time she gained an extra pound, but she didn’t feel she had the strength to exercise and it was very tempting to put all sorts of other things in your mouth when a day’s work was finished.

“I like studying,” she then said. “The authorities that got us here made sure I could continue my studies. I went to a university in Kashmir also.”

“What do you study?” Carrie asked.

“Politics.”

“Political studies?”

“You sound like it was a foreign fish!” Ghazala exclaimed and smiled.

Carrie felt something loosen up in her: “Uh, no—I’ve just never been much into politics. That’s all. I’ve never voted.”

“Why not?”

Carrie shrugged: “I guess I’ve never felt it would make a difference. But I kind of regretted it the last time. I think Bush stole that election.”

“Oh, but he did,” said Ghazala. “He got less popular votes than Gore.”

“Well, that’s our system.”

“That’s why someone need to study it,” Ghazala said earnestly, “to make it better.”

“How can you make it better? I thought you said on the way down here that you hadn’t even gotten a permission to stay permanently, much less citizenship.”

“It will come,” Ghazala said and shrugged, too, as if it was already decided. “Do you want something else?” She nodded at Mr. Silence behind the counter. He looked as if he in turn was watching something in the deep fryer, as if it was still alive.

“Maybe … I am a bit hungry, anyway,” Carrie said. “I wouldn’t have chosen this place if there wasn’t the small store on the other side of the highway, but I may regret it later. I don’t feel like cooking in that mini-kitchen up in my room.”

“And you can sit on your bed and eat,” Ghazala said. “You won’t like sitting at that table.”

“Do you sit on your bed and eat?”

“All the time.”

Carrie wanted to say something, but it was as if she couldn’t, not without feeling … wrong somehow. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to get something to eat. She didn’t want to tell Ghazala more about herself, really. But how to avoid it? Perhaps it had been best to take that room over in Montara, but they had little kids and a dog and although the suburban family of four seemed as friendly as if they had been picked right out of a commercial pamphlet urging people to move there, Carrie just hadn’t felt at home at all. She needed some place solitary, and yet out in the open, and far away from everything. It had seemed like a good idea to choose the Home, not just because it was cheap but also because there appeared to be more privacy, even if you lived in a hallway with rooms of other inhabitants. But those doors were closed, like another motel … She could deal with that. But now she had already broken the first promise she made to herself when she came to Frisco: Don’t get personal with anyone, not until you have gotten your life together.

“Have you changed your mind?” Ghazala asked and glanced at the menu. It was a slip of paper printed from an average computer and laminated to the table.

Carrie shook her head. “No—no, I could use something to eat. I haven’t had anything since this morning.”

“Let’s eat then.”

Ghazala didn’t order anymore except a Dr. Pepper. Carrie had fries and a fish that tasted like it had been in the freezer for too long. She felt awkward eating alone and tried to finish quickly.

For a long time, Ghazala sat with her hands folded under her chin and looked at Carrie eating. None of them said anything.

Carrie ate more quickly, wondering if she should just stop and say that she wasn’t any hungrier. But the problem was that she was hungry. She had only had a coffee and a bagel for breakfast and that had been her only meal all day. She had to get herself together and cook some proper food. Soon …

“Why haven’t you asked me why my father and I had to go to America?” Ghazala said and broke Carrie’s reverie.

“I … thought it wasn’t any of my business,” Carrie answered quickly, swallowing a mouthful of two or three half-chewed fries with some difficulty. Then she drank deeply of her new cola.

Ghazala’s eyes mirrored the nearest mist bank outside for a moment. It seemed heavier now. There was a sharp sputtering from the deep fryers on the other side of the counter. Then Ghazala said:

“My father is a professional IT-engineer. He worked for the local government in Kashmir. He was … hired as a consultant for your US Army in Afghanistan, because he spoke the local language—Pashto.” She smiled like it was all a joke and took a zip of her Doctor Pepper. “He was also very good at making the local jury-rigged computer solutions work.”

“So he helped the army install computers?” Carrie asked, and sucked hard on the straw that dipped into her coke.

“No, silly,” Ghazala snorted but not with too much malice “—he helped the local governments, or what goes for government, in various areas of Afghanistan. They need to come into the modern age. They need computers, right?”

“Right …”

“So that’s what he did.” Ghazala looked out the window again. The horizon was just a thin line now. It washed in and out of graying clouds and mist, as the sea stirred. “There was more money to be earned.” She smiled joylessly.

“Did you go with him?”

“Sometimes.”

“So why did he stop?”

“He didn’t. He was stopped.”

Carrie knitted her brows. She tried to sit more comfortably on the plastic chair but she might as well have sat on the asphalt outside.

Ghazala continued, delivering every word slowly and sharply as she was edging something into stone: “My father was seen as a traitor by various Taliban factions so they burnt down our house. My mother and I was home … She …”

Carrie stopped moving about on her chair.

Ghazala shrugged and looked away: “I was the only one who escaped, but I was badly burned. I was in a US Army field hospital for about a month.”

She pulled off her jacket so Carrie could see her bare arms. Carrie had once seen a horse that had burnt to death, back on Skye when she was eight or nine. It was Chisholm’s barn and lightning had struck that night. The nearest help was in Portree, too far away. Her father and all the neighbors went out to help but they could do nothing but watch it burn down. Her mother put her and Tim back to bed because she didn’t want them to hear the screams of the horses that Mr. Chisholm had not been able to get out in time. In the morning, the men had pulled out the carcasses and laid them on the ground. Carrie had snuck out with Tim and watched from behind the fence. When the men had gone inside to talk to the constable, who had finally arrived, Carrie and Tim had snuck over to one of the horses. What was left of the horse’s skin was black and dark red, and reminded her of charred wood that had gone strangely pulpy, as if it had bubbles all over which were hardened.

“It boiled …” Tim had whispered, looking impressed.

Carrie felt like throwing up and crying at the same time. She had run inside again. That was almost 15 years ago, and she thought she had forgotten what it looked like.

Right here and right now, Carrie became aware that she had covered her mouth with her hands. She took her hands away quickly:

“I’m sorry—I …”

Ghazala put on her jacket again: “It’s okay. It’s normal to react like that.”

“Couldn’t they—I mean … surgery or …”

Ghazala shook her head: “Not out there. It was too late before somebody thought it would be worth flying me to Lahore in a helicopter. But they saved my life.” She shrugged again and grinned, as if she had just been showing off a particularly daring tattoo. Something churned in Carrie’s stomach.

“Does it hurt?”

Ghazala shook her head again: “I’ve got plenty of painkillers.”

*

They went back along the small path at the edge of the cliff. The sun was low in the gray sky and the fog banks seemed to have thickened, as if they were getting ready to fall over the coast with the darkness. Carrie was glad that Ghazala seemingly knew the way, because there wasn’t much light and she still felt jittery walking so close to the cliff. She tried to look at Ghazala’s back and not down into the frothing surf. They walked in silence. When they approached the house, the sky had deteriorated from gray to a dark blue that looked as if it was rising over the horizon like a wave, larger than all the others. But it was a wave that was slow in coming, taking its time to swallow all light as it crept in on the coast. It was her first night in the Home by the Sea.

She was grateful Mr. Conway had lit the lamps on the front porch. As they went up the stairs, she noticed a man in the window of the room next to Ghazala’s. It was an elderly, thin man with dark skin and steel gray, short hair and beard. He wore a pullover that seemed like it was a size too big for him. He was hunched over a laptop that emitted the only light in the room, and he didn’t notice them. He just sat, hands folded under his chin, looking at the pale light from the laptop screen, as if waiting for an answer he had just asked it.

Carrie glanced at Ghazala.

“My father,” she whispered. “He is always working.”

Carrie didn’t know why Ghazala whispered, but she automatically did the same: “So … he has got work here already?”

“Kind of,” Ghazala said. “I can tell you tomorrow. You want to go to San Francisco with me tomorrow?”

Carrie felt uncertain. Something began knotting itself hard in her belly, twisting round and round, harder and harder.

“Leanne?” Ghazala looked at her, concerned.

“Oh – tomorrow? Yeah, why not?”

“Okay.” Ghazala nodded and then went to work on the many locks on the white oak door. Her key got stuck several times, because apparently the locks weren’t designed to be opened easily, because they weren’t as new as Conway claimed, or both. But Ghazala was patient, humming softly to herself. Only a single time did a curse almost escape her lips.

“Brand new locks my a—”

But she choked it.

And finally she succeeded.

Carrie hesitated for little while longer, then followed Ghazala into the hallway.

“Next time let me try first,” she said to Ghazala. “We had a lock which was a bit like that on a barn door where I lived as a child, but much more cranky. I think I know just how to twitch this kind of lock right.”

“Oh!” Ghazala exclaimed, “—why didn’t you say so then, before I spent five minutes wrestling with it?”

“I guess I forgot that I had seen worse locks. I do that a lot, when I get too caught up in my own world.”

Ghazala’s smile had returned, very faintly, but slightly warmer. As if there was still some of the dead sun left in it.

Perhaps that was enough, Carrie felt.

Together they went into the Home.

*

Last edited 29 Dec 2014

***

In memory of all the women only a few people, if anyone, ever really knew

***

Credits:

“Point Montara Shore” by Cary Bass-Deschenes @ Flickr.com

All photos tagged with a Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0. Unported.

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