Title banner: a photo of Lisa. Story title: Manhattan Melodies by Ruby

 

He had lost the ability to tell the seasons apart. There was only the bone-deep chill of The Craving, the kind that would turn the warmest spring day into a snow-banked purgatory, or the sweats that would soak through to his jacket. It had been months since he’d seen Vincent last, or maybe it was yesterday; he’d lost the ability to keep track of time, too.

Rolley hunched by the side of the building, warring in him the shame and need for a fix and the ache for a place just to rest for a while. Without wanting to, he thought of The Place, the cool bedrock and the earthen smell of freshly-dug soil, and he wanted to cry. But he refused himself that. This was his exile; this was what he deserved for standing there rock-still while they killed her. A woman’s voice made him straighten up in a start.

“Didn’t mean to frighten you.”

The woman was almost tall, with long chestnut brown hair in a French braid down her back. She was dressed in a tan cashmere coat; her whole look was the wealth that draws attention to itself by not calling attention to itself. Rolley wondered why on earth a person like her would talk to him.

“I’m alright ma’am…just not feeling well.”

The woman understood he wanted to be left alone. From a grocery bag she was carrying she extracted a big, perfect peach, its colors a sharp contrast to her clothes and the brick wall.

“Here, take this.”

Rolley couldn’t remember when he’d eaten last. He tried to not grab it out of her hand. “Thanks.” He noticed a building across the way had a piece of cardboard across a first-floor window. Perhaps it meant it was abandoned…

The woman went on her away. She was halfway to her destination when she remembered how the young man was looking at the building behind her. Oh, hell. He probably thinks it’s empty. I should’ve have said something. Maybe he just passed by. I hope so …

Rolley carefully lifted the flap of cardboard on the windowsill and eased his way in. He was hit by the scent of flowers, rotting ones, that even in the dim light of the apartment he could see heaped in bowls and vases and scattered on the floor. He heard a sound and had time to see just a flick of white in the corner of his eye before something struck him in the back of the head. He saw shattered bits of crystal raining down and had time only to think of how much they looked like raindrops before the cool tide that takes everything away covered him.

Lisa set her grocery bag down in the cellar of Lucy’s place. She could have just left it for Lucy to deliver with the leftovers at the end of the day, but her need to see them, any of them, won out. They were her people. No matter if they hated her, she had come from them, been raised by them, and, she’d realized too late, loved by them. Tears threatened to come, but she brushed them away, her dance training saving her again. She straightened up and put on a smile. Tapping a message on the big pipe, she hadn’t long to wait; people were always coming and going though the false back of a storage closet. To her surprise, a petite woman with honey-blonde hair stepped out.

“Catherine! I didn’t expect you.”

“I’ve been staying with Vincent for a few days, until the movers finish with the Brownstone.”

Lisa bit back the dozens of questions, but Catherine was too quick not to notice. She grinned. “He doesn’t know he’s part of the new arrangement.”

“Oh?” Lisa couldn’t help it – she grinned, too. Instead of jealousy there was an odd sense of peace at how happy this woman made Vincent. He seemed lighter around her, and she would sooner destroy herself than cause him pain. It made her feel less guilt over how she’d treated him in their youth … and during her brief return. She felt the danger of wishing she could have a nice long talk with him pull at her – to thank him for making her a Helper. She was sure that was his doing and his alone. She refocused on Catherine.

“He’s happy I’m moving of course, and he’s happy there’s a tunnel entrance, but he doesn’t know the house is for the two of us.”

Lisa laughed. “You’re probably going to just give him a gift-wrapped key for Winterfest aren’t you?”

“I am.”

Lisa laughed harder. “That’s wonderful Cathy; that really is. Well, I’ve got meet Elliot at the club. We’re looking over swatches with the decorators.”

“How is Elliot?”

Catherine’s interest was genuine. She and Elliot Burch had shared a…complicated history … but he’d come away a better man for it. Lisa had only to look at how he was devoting himself to the club and divesting himself of his tycoon plans to know that.

“He’s great. He spoils me of course, but he’s been good about not pushing out the entire neighborhood to make the Biggest or the Most Important New York City Nightclub. It’s going to be an amazing place though.”

“I don’t doubt it. Thanks for the fruit, Lisa. You should come down for a visit sometime.”

Lisa’s smile faded for a moment. “I know you or Vincent would be glad to see me, but I’m not so sure the others would. Let me stay an unpleasant memory.” She turned to leave up the cellar steps.

“Oh, Lisa,” Catherine began, thinking to at least attempt to salvage the situation. “When you see Elliot, tell him Cathy Chandler sends her regards.”

Lisa laughed, a real laugh, rich and deep. “I sure will, and I’ll tell him how much you adore getting catered lunches at work.”

“Very funny.” Catherine smiled warmly and was gone; the closet door closed. Lisa stood on the cellar steps for a long time.

***

Rolley awoke slowly, the wall of scent the flowers made pressing down on him. A cool cloth had been placed on the back of his head. He was lying on his back, the girl crouched in the corner of the room looking at him. Rolley noticed her eyes first, they seemed to be the brightest source of light in the room. They burned with a sorrowful madness Rolley could only guess at, but it frightened him. Her hair was streaks of colors, dirty blonde or light brown depending on how the slant of sunlight filtering in through the dirty curtains hit it. She was thin, too thin, and her white dress pooled around her like a drop cloth. Rolley couldn’t tell if the dress had been fine once and worn down to tatters, of if she was one of those rich girls who spend several thousand dollars on a dress that looks like it’s falling apart. He wished for a glass of water.

“I’m sorry,” he croaked. “I didn’t know someone was living here.” The girl said nothing, just watched him, an enigmatic smile twisting her lips. Rolley tried to sit up, but the ache at the back of head was too much. He groaned.

She spoke, a strange voice, thin and smoky, her phrases scattered like broken glass. “Not a thief, huh? Ha, liked that vase too. Oh, well, yes, yes. Poor bastard, ha, saw the cardboard and thought nobody’s home. Well, we know better, huh? I wonder what we’ll have for supper?”

Rolley closed his eyes. So this is how it ends. Strung out and trapped in some crazy white girl’s apartment. Oh, god, I could use some water …

He opened his eyes to find her crouched directly over him looking at his face with the interest a scientist might give a new species of mold. She smelled of decaying flowers and salt. A strange, spicy smell that for some reason made Rolley think of sailing ships. She spoke again.

“Thirst.”

“Thirst?”

“You’re thirsty, huh, swimming in your own sweat and not a drop to drink.”

Rolley decided to go along. “Yes, I’d love a glass of water, ma’am.”

The girl clutched her sides and started laughing, laughing so hard that she rolled off Rolley to the wall, nearly knocking over a side table piled with flowers, silver bowls, and glass balls.

“Ma’am? Ma’am! Oh, what a word – ma’am. ‘Maaa-Aaamm’. Terrible name, awful. Oh, you’re very lost, aren’t you my young man? So far from home.”

Rolley tried again. “What would you like me to call you?”

The girl took pause at that question. “What name do you think I am?”

Rolley looked at her. She was pacing the floor in front of him, the hem of her dress – evening gown really – getting petals and dust tangled in the lace, the low back leaving her shoulders exposed, her shoulder blades sticking out like two wings. Before he could consider the wisdom of it, Rolley blurted out, “Angel.”

“Angel?” The girl seemed to work the name over in her hands, the fingers flickering like sparrows. “Angel. Yes, Angel. Do you want Angel to get you a drink?”

“Yes, please. I’m dying for water right now.” Rolley managed to sit up this time.

The girl disappeared into one of the other rooms, and Rolley took stock of his situation. He knew he probably couldn’t make it to the window before she returned, and he strangely didn’t want to try, the scent of the flowers having their own narcotic effect on him. He looked around the room. It and its furnishings had been grand once, but the lights now held more broken bulbs than lit ones and a pitiful little stub of a candle flickered in a silver candelabra. That reminded him too much of The Place, and he closed his eyes tight against it. He was just beginning to wonder if Angel was coming back when she returned carrying a big silver tray with a pitcher of water and a cut crystal tumbler, a single dying rose propped limply in a jelly glass for decoration. She made a great ceremony of placing the tray on the side table and pouring him a glass. She gestured to a threadbare velvet cushioned chair and Rolley made it there on wobbling legs. He took the glass from her and drank it down in one gulp. He had never tasted anything so good in his life.

“Thanks.”

“You’re so very welcome. My, you’re a mess. What are you doing climbing through windows, hmm? Nothing valuable here, just paper dolls with paper roses…” She trailed off, intently fussing over a vase of flowers with brown blooms.

Rolley knew he should try to leave, but he was so tired. “I just needed to rest for a minute. I didn’t mean to bother you.” Rolley got up. “I’m going now… Just … show me the door please…” But already the cool tide was returning. And he was falling.

A surprisingly strong pair of arms caught him, and he was in the sleep without dreams again.

***

“So how is Lucy?”

Lisa felt that flutter in her stomach the way she sometimes did at Elliot’s questions. The innocent questions, the normal questions that nonetheless felt like Elliot carefully feeling his way to the truth she’d promised to keep safe. She knew he was aware of Something, from the time Catherine had tried to save his father. He knew Catherine was happy with someone else, a man no one seemed to have ever met. He knew Lisa would say she was going to a hair appointment or to meet a friend for lunch and not ask why she was carrying a big bag of fresh fruit from the market. He knew to accept the story she grew up in foster homes and her dance teacher had spotted her potential and taken her away to a better life. She had trusted him enough to tell him Campbell wasn’t her last name – she’d been a foundling and she picked it out off a soup can when she was filling out her forms for dance school. He loved that story. And so did she, as it was one of the few truthful ones she could tell him of her past. She felt those beautiful slate-blue eyes on her as she looked down at her bottle of water in the dusty, half-completed club.

“She’s good. We didn’t have to the time to say much besides ‘Hi,’ but business is booming. She’s thinking about opening for dinner some nights.”

“That’s great. We should go there again for lunch sometime. That Manhattan clam chowder is to die for.”

William’s special recipe. Lisa smiled. “It is. I was thinking about the club, and I was wondering if we should do a grand opening ball. Winter whites giving way to spring yellows, baby grand in the center of the room, all the waitresses in white, waiters with tulip boutonnieres, gifts for the guests.” She closed her eyes, picturing the music, maybe dancers on the raised stage, people laughing and clinking raised glasses of champagne …

Elliot interrupted her reverie. “And candles.”

Lisa started at that more than she meant to. “Candles?”

“Depending on what the fire department says, I see the room lit mostly by candles. It’ll keep things from looking too new and sterile. Cozy and romantic as hell, don’t you think?”

Lisa knew all too well how splendid that would look and nodded, taking a swig of water. “I do … It will look like a secret, enchanted world, a fairy tale in New York City.”

Elliot looked at her closely. “That’s beautiful. Are you sure you’re all right? You look a little peaked.”

Lisa squeezed his hand. “I’m fine, just waiting for spring. Now where in traffic is the decorator stuck this time?”

***

Rolley awoke with his skin on fire. Tiny pins were pricking every inch of him. His spine was turning to ice. The Craving dug its nails into his belly and roared. He was in a big bed in a bigger room, and he could not keep from crying out. He dug his hands into the sheets, and his body felt twisted by a boiling liquid that would propel him out of the bed and into the street for a shot. A blur of white appeared over him; hands blessedly cool as stone stroked his forehead. A voice. “Shh, shh, none of that. You’ll wake the neighbors. Come come drink this.” And there was Angel giving him another glass of water, laying a cloth on his forehead, and changing the sheets.

She seemed to do these things instinctively, and the white of her dresses took on the perverse image of a nurse’s uniform as she tended him over the several long days after that. He began to get a sense of the time passing with the amount of light that would seep through the grimy window shades. And when the pain was too much and all he could he could see and hear was Miss K crying out and falling, he would hear another voice pressing the phantoms out. Angel’s voice, singing to him, beautiful and melancholy songs, some in a language he didn’t now. And he would burrow in the sound of her voice and let the song take him far away. He felt like he was being pulled to a secret world, more secret than The Place, but somehow connected to it, floating over a sea of crystal and into a sleep as deep as The Abyss.

Around the ninth day since he’d been bedridden – or so Rolley guessed – he felt well enough to at least go exploring along the hallway. All he’d seen of the place was the living room and the marble staircase that led to the floor where Angel must have taken him when he passed out. The hallway was choked with flowers and bits of quartz and silver antiques like the rest of the townhouse. One room’s door was locked, but the second was open. Rolley stopped short. The room had a piano. Sheet music was scattered everywhere, and there was moss growing on a buffet table that held the remains of a smashed terrarium. Rolley wanted to return to bed, but he found himself putting the piano bench upright and dusting off the keys. One of Angel’s songs unfurled around his fingers and he began to play. Playing, the music filling his veins like it had before, blotting everything out.

“That’s beautiful.”

“How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough my young man … I can’t keep calling you that. What is your name?”

“Rolley.” He felt strangely unafraid talking to her this time, the music wrapping him in a layer of protection. It seemed to have a soothing effect on her. Her eyes appeared focused, and she’d lost some of that feral quality that made Rolley worry she’d strike out at him in a panic. He wondered how old she was. She looked a few years older than him, but there was something peculiar about her beauty. She had a young woman’s face, but it was one from an old photograph, the kind Rolley would see all the time in The Place, in books or in the oldest residents’ belongings. She’s lost out of time, just like her house …

Angel interrupted his thoughts by sitting down next to him. “Do you know Satie’s Nocturnes?”

“Yes.”

“Please play them.”

“Any one in particular?”

Angel considered, steepling her fingers together. Rolley noticed the slender tapered fingers, the large opal ring on her right hand, the delicate wrists. Her hands were beautiful. He remembered those hands bathing him, holding him up so he could make it to the bathroom, holding his hand when the worst of the withdrawal came and refusing to let go.

“Number Four.”

“Coming right up.” And Angel laughed, not the harsh laughter of her madness but a short, girlish one. One that seemed to take her by surprise. She blushed, flecks of rose quartz on her face. Rolley felt a warmth in his body he had not felt in a long time, and he began to play.

Rolley regularly played for her over the next month. He had no way of knowing when she’d appear. He figured the room with the locked door was hers. And he wondered how she had the money for this place. He decided she was just another of New York City’s eccentric heiresses. He would play for her symphonies and chamber pieces, folk songs and jazz standards. He loved it when she would sing. No longer in his delirium, he could watch her let the song fill her and spill out of her body, her arms moving in graceful lines like birds in flight along the shore. One night she sang “Someone To Watch Over Me” and Rolley found himself moved to tears. She went to comfort him and he embraced her; he breathed in her scent and he realized he did not want to let go. The room seemed to go underwater.

Rolley got up abruptly. “I think I’ll go lie down, feeling a bit off … some sleep should help.” He walked to his room, his mouth dry and his body aching. He lay down fully-dressed and stared at the ceiling, willing sleep to come. He heard the rustle of Angel’s dress. She stood in the doorway; they looked at each other. Rolley’s breathing became very slow and even. Angel walked to his bedside; she regarded him carefully. In one motion she slipped off her dress and got into the bed with him. They made a different kind of music together that night. And the nights after that.

Rolley felt the pangs of cabin fever into his second month at Angel’s. She rarely appeared before dusk, so he thought to go for a walk, leaving a note promising his return on his bedside table. The air and light of the city sidewalks felt strange, like what it must feel like for a deep-sea diver to surface. He could feel the mild warmth of the weather unable to make up it’s mind if spring had started yet, and he saw tulips defiantly pushing their tips up from flower boxes. It was a new year. A bank sign flashed March 10th. Rolley stuck his hands in his pockets and thought of how that meant Winterfest had been almost two months ago. He was thinking more and more of the The Place, but without the little stabs of unbearable pain and guilt that usually came with it. He also figured that made it over a year since he’d seen Vincent. That last conversation however still carried a bite, and he forced his mind away. A group of movers across the street caught his eye – men struggling to get a white baby grand piano through a building’s entrance.

Rolley watched them work, and, when the men came out of the building and drove away, he crossed the street. At the doorway, looking inside, he saw what would be a night club, an inviting place even when empty. The piano rested in the center of the room on a slightly raised stage. The stage was circular-shaped, with a runway that connected it to a larger stage, where a band or dancers could go, Rolley figured. There seemed to be no one around and the gleam of the piano was too tempting. He walked toward it and stood in front of it.

“Are you here to audition?”
The woman was familiar. She had been sitting at one the tables going over papers. She wasn’t angry and seemed to be genuinely asking. Rolley felt a strange confidence. Maybe it was in the new-old clothes Angel had given him: a pair of men’s trousers and a button-down, linen shirt. She’d soaked his army surplus jacket in a tub of warm water and rosewater and put it on the radiator to dry. It still smelled faintly of flowers. Only his ragged sneakers gave him away. But the woman wasn’t looking at his shoes; she was looking at face, trying to place where she’d seen him before.

Rolley took a deep breath, “Are you looking for a piano player?”

“Yes. The person we got fell through, and I’ve been scrambling trying to get someone. We open in five days. Five days! This really is just a bit too much. One break would be most welcome and…you probably want to run now don’t you?”

Rolley laughed. “It’s all right. What would you like me to play?”

“I know it’s a cliché, but we were hoping to open the music with Rhapsody in Blue.”

Rolley did want to run. That had been one of Miss K’s favorite pieces. But he didn’t. He thought of Angel. She had revealed very little of her story in their time together, but Rolley had a suspicion her situation involved an exile not unlike his own. She’d mutter names in her sleep, and moan, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please, Paz, please…” before she’d quiet as Rolley gathered her close. He thought of her singing and listening to him play, her reaction healing him as much as her nursing him had. He wanted to play, for her, for himself, for the woman he now remembered as the one who’d given him a peach many weeks ago.

“I know that one.” Rolley sat down and began the piece.

Lisa had only meant to have the young man play part of it, but once he started playing she sat down and let the music rush over and through her. There was the entire history of New York in that piece. Gotham in its glory and splendor, in its grime and rush, in the secret passageways known to a select few. The young man’s hands flowed like water over the keys. Lisa saw Elliot standing stock-still in the doorway. They looked at each other and smiled a conversation. And both burst into applause when Rolley finally took his hands away from the keyboard.

“That was wonderful!” Lisa said, “What’s your name?”

“Rolley.”

Elliot asked, “Where did you learn to play like that.”

Rolley felt that press of guilt, but it had changed; it was no longer the rock that crushed, the thing that only the drugs could blot away for a little while. It was a pain that could be carried. And to bury his music was to lose Miss K for good. He owed her more than that.

“I had an excellent teacher. Her name was Miss Kendricks.” Rolley didn’t notice that Lisa became still at the mention of that name, as Elliot did the talking.

“Well, you’re hired. We’re having rehearsals tomorrow, and you’ll met with the crew that’s putting on the opening night show. I know it’s throwing you in the deep end …”

Elliot trailed off and Rolley stepped in. “But that’s show business.”

And Elliot laughed. “Damn straight. Tomorrow at two-thirty.” Elliot walked away, and Lisa recovered enough of herself to walk Rolley to the door.

“Thank you so much for that.” Rolley could tell the woman wanted to say something more, but she looked unsettled, as though some phantom had appeared at her table. Rolley held out his hand to shake goodbye. “Thank you so much … Ms …?”

“Call me Lisa.”

“Thanks, Lisa, and I guess I should know the name of the guy who hired me.”

Lisa laughed. “That’s Mr. Elliot Burch.”

Rolley recognized that name; it was a name that appeared in newspapers and on TV. The world had faded to gray webs during his addiction, but he’d known that much. He almost felt like turning the job down, that he was getting into too much and too soon, but he thought of Vincent without wanting to, and how heartbroken he’d looked the last time he’d seen him. Standing there helpless as Rolley had climbed back down into hell.

“So, two-thirty then. I owe you one lady.” And Rolley walked back to Angel’s place.

Lisa didn’t hesitate; she threw on her coat and grabbed her purse and started for Below. It had been a two-whiskey-sour lunch with Catherine when she’d learned about Rolley. Since her testimony against her husband, when she’d learned how quickly her circle of friends could vanish into thin air, Catherine had been a lifeline in rebuilding her life. She’d learned enough from her husband to keep a secret account of her own. It meant she had to never worry about money again, but it meant a life cosseted in a gleaming apartment, turning down invitations from the New York City Ballet and ABT until one day the voice at the door buzzer asking to come up was Catherine’s. Lisa had wanted to refuse her, but her growing curiosity and concern about Vincent made her paste on a pleasant expression and open the door. Before Catherine had left, her airs had dissolved into tears, listening to Catherine talk for hours, and ordering in Thai. Lisa figured Catherine was surprised by this turn of events, too, but recognized in Lisa someone she could talk to about both worlds she traveled in. Lisa did feel jealousy then, because Catherine was clearly a woman who was loved by many Above and Below. But she admonished herself that she was responsible for the life she was living. And it couldn’t be spent screening calls. She and Catherine would meet again, once a month, afterwards. She hadn’t seen Vincent since she had parted to testify, and she was too cowardly to try to see him now, but Catherine had obviously been talking to him about her. When she casually suggested the splendid fruit sitting in the crystal bowl on the polished table might be welcome Below, Lisa promised to deliver a bagful a week.

It had been a particularly bad time when Lisa had learned about Rolley. She could always tell when the world was too much with Catherine, as their “lunch” would be Cathy downing a whiskey sour in a quiet corner of an expensive restaurant, Catherine telling her she had discovered a fondness for them in law school but “only drank them in emergencies.” It was obvious one was unfolding when she drank her first in barely three gulps and ordered another. Paracelsus had returned. Lisa shuddered remembering the stories the children would tell to scare each other about Paracelsus and his minions, the Giant Man and the Crystal Girl that would take you away at night, the Sylphs that whispered your deepest desire into his ear so he could possess you. All the more frightening for the adults’ refusal to talk about him at all, Father’s unfortunate knack for ignoring a problem in the hopes it would go away already in evidence.

Paracelsus wanted Vincent, and his endgame was enveloping them all in a wave that was total in its oblivion. Paracelsus had let himself be killed by Vincent. “…and the worst part is,” Catherine had said, “I’m glad he’s dead. I’m so glad I never have to worry about that son of a bitch again as long as I live, but I can’t tell Vincent that. He either wouldn’t believe me, or worse, he will.”

And Vincent was in free-fall.

“I think the only time I saw him this way was when Rolley walked away.”

“Who is he?”

“Do you remember a Helper called Miss Kendricks?”

Lisa felt a icy stab of regret. Miss Kendricks had been Madame Simone’s favorite accompanist for her dancing classes. She remembered her gently telling her not to take Madame’s reprimands to heart too much, as it was only because she saw the potential in Lisa that she pushed her so hard. She remembered a letter from Madame many years later mentioning Miss Kendricks death, and how she hadn’t even bothered to send flowers.

She swallowed hard. “Yes.”

And Catherine told her of her sad end and of Rolley’s dissolving into a mass of guilt and self-hatred. Catherine buried her face in her hands. “What if it’s my turn? What if this is when Vincent refuses to believe me and walks away.”

“He won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“No, I don’t, but I do know you’re not going to go gently into that good night. Go to him; be with him, however he needs you to do that. You’re stronger than he is now, Cathy. Remember that.”

She didn’t see Catherine for several weeks after that. She talked to Lucy and Mister Ang; they knew pieces of the story. That Vincent had lain stone-still for four days. That he had awoken and asked for Catherine first. That he was recovering and Jamie had threatened to get him in the leg with her crossbow if he didn’t stay in bed. That Vincent had left his bed to go to Catherine’s. That he had stayed there for one whole week. That life had refused not to continue, for all of them. That not long after that, she’d met Elliot at a fundraiser for the Harlem Dance Theatre and they’d spent all night talking over coffee and pie at Lucy’s place. She thought of all of that as she waved hello to Lucy and went towards the door to the cellar. She realized that some loves are bigger than the people who share them. That sometimes there are people like Vincent and Catherine whose love radiates out, knitting everything together and enabling a person to weather the storm. She put the false back of the closet back in place and breathed in that Tunnel air, mysterious and alive. She knew her way. She heard a sentry announce her arrival, and she walked past several curious faces on her way to her destination. Vincent was straightening his chamber after a class, one for older readers she guessed, as he put a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God back on the mantle. He made no effort to hide his surprise when he saw her.

“Hello, Vincent.”

“Lisa, this is … unexpected, but certainly welcome. What brings you here?”

“Do you remember Rolley?”

A shadow. Vincent looked ready for terrible news. “I will never forget him. What has happened, Lisa. Please tell me.”

Lisa grinned, feeling big as the sun. “I just hired him as the Carousel’s piano player.”

***

When Rolley returned to the apartment, he felt the subtle change in the air. Angel was curled up in a chair in the living room, twirling strands of hair around her fingers. Her eyes were gleaming in that way Rolley didn’t like.

“Soooo, enjoy your walk?”

“I got a job.”

She laughed, harsh chip of sound, “Fancy that, great news, just peachy. Well, goodbye then.”

Rolley was shocked. “The hell! ‘Goodbye’? Why?”

“Everyone leaves; every one always leaves. You’re just one more,”

Rolley was about to get angry when he saw she was trying not to cry. He knelt in front of her. “I’m not going to leave you.”

“Liar.”

“I won’t go tomorrow if you don’t want. I’ll stay right here.”

She relaxed at those words and put her arms around him. “You’re not my prisoner.”

“I know, but I want you to be happy.”

She stood up. “Rolley … you make me so happy, but there is more to me than you know. Than I let you know.”

“I’m not going to pretend I don’t know that, but you saved my life …”

“And you mine.”

“I doubt that.”

“Well don’t, and no more talk. Take me to bed.”

Rolley wanted to keep talking, but he could tell he would get nowhere. He embraced her again, her lips tasting like peaches.

Later that night as they lay entwined, she traced his face with her fingertips as if she were committing it to memory. She looked peaceful, but with a settled sadness that made Rolley’s heart ache.

“You want to go to your job, don’t you.”

Rolley would not lie. “More than anything.”

She smiled. “Then go. But promise me one thing. When I wake up, don’t be here. No goodbyes, no wet words and big soppy promises. Let me keep you as a dream, a dream of love to hold for always.”

Rolley felt tears come to his eyes. He knew she was right; it was time to leave. He cupped the side of her face. “I love you, Angel baby, Angel mine with the wild hair and the crooked smile.”

She laughed, a summer laugh, and kissed him, and there were no more tears as Rolley’s senses filled up with the song of her. He watched her sleep as dawn slid along the windowsill. He dressed quietly and kissed her on the cheek. He crawled out the window and did not look back. He was two blocks away when he realized tears were streaming down his face. He let them come; it had been too long without them. He saw a café open. He reached into his jacket pocket and was surprised by a small object. He pulled out a roll of hundred dollar bills, bound in string with a sliver charm tucked in. He smiled as he cried harder, wiping his face as he went inside for a coffee.

Rehearsal was wonderful chaos. With enough starting and stopping and fights and flubs that
Rolley knew opening night would go off spectacularly. The group took a dinner break and Lisa walked up to him.

“Having fun?”

“I really am. Is it always like this?”

“Pretty much.” Lisa looked serious. She looked to see that no one was nearby to overhear her. She looked Rolley dead in the face. “Vincent was happy to hear you’ve recovered.”

Rolley felt his blood turn to glass.

Lisa nodded, placing a hand on his arm. “Miss Kendricks played the piano for the first dancing classes I ever took. She was a good woman. And I hate when people say “it’s what they would have wanted,” but I doubt she’d want anyone who loves music like you to give up on it.”

Rolley looked down. A passing wish he’d stayed at Angel’s toyed with him, but he kept listening.

“Rolley, I know what it’s like to feel you can’t go home. To think you’ve spoiled things so much that they’ll look at you like you’re poison. But Below is different; there’s a grace there as deep as the Nameless River. And sometimes having grace like that can make us run away even faster. We don’t feel worthy of it. Of course, we don’t. You don’t have to believe it comes from God; it’s enough to know there are people who love and forgive you. And there are. Many of them in fact.”

Rolley looked up. “You talked to Vincent about me?”

“Yes, and about many other things. We talked for a long time, and I got some of that grace for myself. I need it terribly. I’m really good at running away, but I’m tired of it. I do know that during the worst of it, treating people like clothes I could try on and toss away when I got bored, there was always my dancing. I’m not proud of much, but I’m damn proud of that. We’re artists Rolley. We have to do what our bodies won’t let us not do, and if we’re lucky, we can do them in circle of friends and family that nothing and nobody can break.”

Rolley ached for a walk to clear his head. “I need time.”

“Take all you want. Just know they’ll always be there.”

Rolley nodded. He had no intention of ever going Below again, but it helped to hear Lisa say those things.

Rolley moved into one of Elliot’s buildings the following day. He noted that it seemed suspiciously fortuitous that the small apartment came furnished with a bed, table and chairs, and a battered, but in tune, old upright piano. He would play to stay in practice, and to rehearse for upcoming shows at the club, and sometimes he would play Angel’s songs, her image already starting to fade like something seen through a rain-streaked window.

He had gone back once since he’d left her about a month later. He had walked through the front door with a knot of dread in his stomach at finding it open. The place was empty, only a few scattered petals remained. A woman was standing in the living room. She was tall with copper hair.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have the wrong place,” he lied weakly, turning to leave.

The woman looked at him, seeing with blue eyes that unsettled him with their clarity. She spoke.
“Your friend is in a lot of trouble.” Her expression was not unkind. “Don’t come back.”

Rolley had nodded mutely and gone. His life settled into the rhythm of playing at night at the club and sleeping during the day in his apartment which slowly took on imprints of his personality in piles of sheet music and a small stereo on a side table he’d bought at a junk shop. He’d seen Catherine a few times. She would come with friends or alone. Rolley would tip his head in greeting, but studiously keep his eyes on his music. And she would take the hint and not try to talk to him.

It had gone on like this through the spring and the summer, and it was an early October afternoon when Rolley had been troubled by sleeplessness. It had been a few days of it, a prickling restless sensation that tumbled around his brain and made the sunlight seem sharper and the air crisper. Something is coming. He thought of the Autumn People from the pages of Bradbury and shivered. He decided to try for a nap so he didn’t show up at the club completely unrested. Closing his eyes he found himself drifting in a black space ridged in golden light. A woman was there. Angel? But it couldn’t be, because her eyes didn’t burn. She was dressed in clothes that seemed to be from another age, yet strangely modern. She smiled, and he heard a song that coalesced into cries. He awoke with a start.

His heart was beating fast and he glanced at the clock. He had better hurry or he’d be late. It was twilight, and its lovely amber and violet air filled the room. He had the window open a bit because it was an unseasonably warm day. That’s when he heard the cries again, coming from the fire escape.

He raised the window and peered out. There, wrapped in an old cream and silver dress was baby. A baby girl with brown skin and black hair and eyes that Rolley would recognize anywhere. Hazel eyes. Angel’s eyes. He carefully picked the unhappily fussing bundle up. He couldn’t take his eyes off her face and felt a bolt of something pass through his heart. He looked into those eyes, her mother’s eyes but without the madness or the sorrow. Eyes that trusted implicitly. Rolley held the baby to his chest.

***

Elliot and Lisa where looking over the drink menu for the night when Rolley walked in carrying the baby. The both walked over to peer into the crumpled dress in his arms. They all said nothing for a moment. Rolley spoke first.

“I found a baby.”

“I see.” Lisa held out a finger and the baby grasped it.

Elliot gently stroked his finger over her forehead. “She’s a beautiful baby.”

“She is,” Rolley agreed.

“Is … she yours?” Lisa asked cautiously.

Rolley looked at the child. He had turned over many things in his mind on the way over. He loved this child with a depth he couldn’t understand, and didn’t care much to try. It simply was. He knew he would keep her. And he knew how it would be. Mary would watch her while he was at work, and she would grow up knowing Dickens before most adults do. Brooke would teach her how to swim in the Fall’s pools before she was old enough for Y classes. Olivia would make her nightgowns and stuffed animals. Catherine would take her shopping for her first bra. And Vincent … Vincent would read her stories, and hug her when she was frightened, and make her believe she could do anything. They would help him raise this child and not ask or expect anything in return. But he was going to give something back. He knew on that walk he became a Helper, simple and true as that. He smiled at Lisa.

“She’s my daughter.”

Lisa beamed. “What’s her name?”

Rolley looked at the baby closely, a name smelling of roses and salt air pressed itself into his mind.

“Melody”

“That’s beautiful. Melody. Don’t you think, El?” But Elliot was busy grabbing a champagne bottle and glasses.

“We drink. We drink to the newest club member and to life not forgetting us.” Elliot passed out the full glasses. He raised his high.

“To Melody. Welcome to the party, doll-face.”

Lisa raised her glass. “To Melody. May you know love and hope.” She winked at Rolley.

Rolley looked at his daughter. “To Melody, who will be lucky enough to have a circle of people who will love almost as much as I will, and who will always remind her to share the light.”

“To Melody,” Elliot repeated.

“To Melody.”




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