Nathan Jenkins hadn’t seen nor read the final chapters of the Harry Potter Saga, so Alan Rickman seemed like an odd choice for a fantasy lover. Unless he had misheard Helene, the woman in 6E. Sometimes the vents played tricks on him, sending voices to him like the random spin of a radio dial. There was a loud man’s voice of complaint about dinner or the president or the state of modern healthcare. Another woman’s voice would skewer his favorite time of the day with a tirade about horrible men, or worse, a fingernails-on-chalkboard song about lost love. And then there were the obnoxious young people who lived directly above him. He suspected the yelling and gunshots and whoops of victory stampeding through the galvanized steel had something to do with video games or bad movies, else the police surely would have arrested them for a few hundred murders by now.
In those moments when Helene’s perfect voice was clouded or overwhelmed by an intruder’s, he would press his oversized ear tighter against the Victorian vent, as if by sheer will he might send the interlopers scurrying away like the mice that sometimes stole his secrets. Instead, all he managed was to imprint a swirling floral pattern on his check and deep red lines across his ear that would remain there for hours.
He remembers the first time he awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of Helene’s voice floating up from the apartment directly below his. His transition from asleep to awake was seamless, and as he heard her talking – probably on the phone to a friend, it was as if the woman he had been flirting with moments before at a coffee shop on the moon had dripped out of the dreamspace and into the real world.
For the longest time, he did his best to avoid running into her. He had fallen in love with her voice, but was afraid he might be disappointed by her smile. Or her eyes. Or her body. Or the way she wore her hair.
But a chance meeting in the elevator (on one of the few days in the history of the apartment building when it was actually operational) shot that plan to hell.
The door was closing, but the prospect of a rare elevator ride made Nathan risk life and limb, mostly limb, as he stuck his arm between the closing panels. The doors pressed against his forearm with a gentle castigation, then opened in slow motion, like they were savoring the moment.
As they opened, he found himself staring a little too intently at the sole occupant of the chrome and mirror box – a woman in her mid-forties who wore her age like a badge of honor, and her lack of makeup like a promise of sincerity. She was wearing faded jeans that fit snugly across her not-too-thin hips, and a white t-shirt under a black jacket that neither accentuated, nor hid her appropriately middle-aged curves. Her hair was as black as ink.
Her eyes were brown. Her olive skin was dotted with a compelling constellation of freckles – the skin of a woman who defied sun-block perhaps on principle, but probably more out of habit or circumstance. He imagined her growing up on the west coast within walking distance of a beach. Or maybe on a Greek Island, just a sudden breeze away from a spray of ocean mist.
She smiled and the gentle lines that appeared around her eyes nearly broke his heart. Not because he found them unappealing, but because he found them infinitely beautiful.
They nodded hellos and rode six floors in silence. Hers, probably the uncomfortable kind. He had lost the lottery of good looks to a million other men, winning instead oversized ears and a too-big nose and a tired metabolism that kept him distinctly on the flabby side of average, no matter how hard or often he exercised (not often) or how much bacon he chose to leave behind in the buffet line (not much).
As the elevator doors opened in their deliberate dance, the air swirled her scent just enough for him to linger in it. Sometimes having a big nose was a boon, he thought. He was able to gather the scent of lavender in her hair, the slightest hint of perfume – something that reminded him of vanilla, and the tang of sweat that carried her unique signature, and hold all three in a daydream that lasted all the way to the front door of his apartment. That’s when the bitter smell of pot from 7D reminded him of the downside of having an unusually competent olfactory sense.
He had glimpsed her left hand while standing beside her. One simple silver ring on her index finger. A decoration. Perhaps a declaration. This only confirmed what his listening had already told him – that she was single. He had heard about the divorce. She was bitter for a time. But now she was enjoying the quiet. He knew all this from the simple math of adding up all the spaces between her words.
She had at least one good friend. Another woman, if he had correctly lined up the clues from his eavesdropping. Or a gay man, perhaps.
This is how he learned about Alan Rickman.
That night, after he could no longer hear her voice – sometimes he would wait for an hour or more, hoping she might call a friend or watch TV or hum to herself – he pushed up from the floor, feeling every one of his fifty two years as he stood. He stacked the three gray pillows he had purchased exclusively to make the awkwardness of lying on the humidity-warped wooden floor slightly less awkward, and made his way to the small desk that was the only piece of furniture in the second bedroom, a room barely bigger than a closet. His boxy computer sat on that desk like a prop in a movie about a lonely hacker who couldn’t afford modern technology. Nathan was stealing Wi-Fi from a neighbor, but he didn’t consider that hacking. That was just good luck.
He watched Alice in Wonderland first. Stopped it halfway through, wondering how much of what he had seen was actually on the screen and how much was the result of a contact high from 7D. Then Sweeney Todd, with much the same result. He didn’t care for science fiction, so he sped through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another film where Alan Rickman didn’t actually appear on screen, and a story that had been infinitely better as a novel. Douglas Adams. Hadn’t he died? Now there was a tragedy, he thought. He nodded off at his desk not long after pressing “play” on Love Actually.
In the liminal world where he’d first met Helene, he made sense of her love for Alan Rickman.
It was his voice. It had to be his voice. Perhaps she found him handsome in a way. But without that voice, Rickman was just another sixty-something actor wearing a face that could no longer hide his years behind a mask of pretending.
All that next day, Nathan’s thoughts were crowded out by a growing obsession – he needed a voice like Alan Rickman’s. Helene might be able to overlook his elephant ears and his Jimmy Durante nose and his tweedle-dum body if he had that voice.
His first attempts to become a better-sounding Nathan Jenkins were met with abject failure. He hired a vocal coach, once he learned such a thing existed, then spent half of his meager savings to listen to Jake Barnes yell at him to “use your diaphragm.”
“You sound like a goat,” Barnes had said in their first session. “A pathetic, bleating goat. I will fix that.”
He didn’t. Or couldn’t. Not even after seven sessions. Nathan didn’t go to the eighth. He went to a bar instead. He sat there at the counter sipping soda water, picking at the limp sliver of lime, feeling a familiar pinch between his eyes that was both a warning signal and an invitation.
And then he went home.
He paused on the sixth floor landing to wonder what the woman in 6D was doing right that moment. Someone had spray-painted a smiley face on the door. While he stared at the red paint, he rehearsed his best accidental meeting speech, mouthing the words he would say to her if she happened to be heading downstairs to walk across the street to Zuckerman’s Deli for a turkey sandwich. Turkey on whole wheat, though he wasn’t entirely sure of that. Turkey and ham are difficult to differentiate through an unwashed storefront window.
Then he sighed loud enough that the sound echoed off the pale gray walls of the claustrophobic space before climbing one more floor and shuffling down the hallway to his apartment.
He learned her name on a day when she had a friend over for drinks. A woman friend. Nathan could barely hear the friend speak for the first half hour or so of his evening listening session. But then the friend’s voice began to grow louder, the volume likely following a similar uptick in the amount of red wine consumed.
“Helene, you are insane!” she had squawked. He didn’t hear anything that followed, so smitten he was with the name.
Helene. It couldn’t be more perfect.
Some time after their fateful meeting in the elevator, he wasn’t sure exactly how much time, Nathan ran into Helene again. At a bookstore. Not quite by random. He had heard her say something about a book signing event. One she couldn’t miss.
Nathan had been to the bookstore just once before – on a disappointing field trip arranged by his former boss, Albus…no…Albert? Albert…something. No one but Albert knew where they were going that day, what exactly they would be doing while playing boss-sanctioned hooky from work on a sunny summer afternoon. But of all the places they could have landed, a movie theater, a baseball stadium, a park, or a bar – any bar, Nathan never could have predicted “bookstore.” He didn’t hate books, he just would have chosen a more interesting place for the one half-day a year when the losers who worked on the nineteenth floor were allowed to pretend they were something more than accounting drones.
On the evening of the book signing, Nathan spent an inordinate amount of time getting dressed. He felt like a fool as he tried on one shirt, then another, then another – fully cognizant of the fact that he owned no magical shirt that could make him suddenly handsome. Time decided his wardrobe him. He ran out of it while wearing the blue button-down shirt and the size 42 waist khakis that reminded him of his donut obsession in particular and his failure as a human being in general.
The bookstore was so full of people it seemed more like a rock concert than a book signing. Somehow, Nathan was able to weave his way through the crowd enough to glimpse the object of all this attention – a fit middle-aged man with a mop of un-brushed hair and serious eyes and a smile that looked like he was up to something.
Nathan scanned the audience looking for Helene, but there were at least a hundred Helenes here. And twice as many women half her age. Nathan glanced down at the book that everyone was holding. The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
“Do you have a ticket?” A young woman wearing a name tag was speaking to Nathan.
“This is a ticket only event,” she said, her smile betraying the kind of frustration that comes from having said the same thing a hundred times to a hundred different people, each of whom were hearing it for the first time.
“No, I was just…” He looked around at the bookstore. “I was just looking for a book.”
“We have lots of those,” she said. He expected her to offer help, but instead she simply walked away to another person who wasn’t holding a copy of the magic ticket, which he was beginning to think was the book itself.
He found himself in a relatively quiet corner of the bookstore, absently fumbling through a medical textbook. He flipped it open, but kept his eyes trained across the room to the spillover of anxious fans awaiting wisdom from their favorite author.
It could have been fate or coincidence, but the moment he looked down to see a chapter titled, “Assessment of Voice and Respiratory Function,” the author cleared his throat. His voice, amplified by a sound system that might have been state-of-the-art around the same time as Nathan’s computer, was resonant and distinctively British.
Nathan flipped the book closed and laughed when he saw the title: Surgery of Larynx and Trachea.
He listened to the man talk about his book and the creative process. He listened to the laughter that frequently filled the bookstore. For a brief moment on his way to the bookstore he had wondered if becoming a successful author might be enough to distract Helene from his outer shell. But that idea had been squashed with author’s clearing of his throat.
Yes, she might think this one is handsome, too, he thought. And maybe his books are better than most. But his voice.
He looked down at the book weighing heavily in his hands. Is there a way? he asked. He flipped through the pages again, this time studying them, looking for clues about the science of voices. Was there such a thing as a voice transplant?
He stayed in the bookstore for hours. He was a medical student or a surgeon, depending on which wave of false confidence he was riding in any given moment. When he drifted off into the half-awake space that felt most like home, he found himself holding a scalpel. He looked down to see the author from the other room lying face-up on a steel table, his eyes open wide in panic, his mouth sewn shut with white shoelaces. There was a dotted red line from just under his perfect chin to his breast bone and a smiley face painted in that same red around his Adam’s apple. Nathan whispered an apology in a reedy voice and pressed the blade against the man’s skin.
He coughed himself out of the daydream, feeling the sharp scratch of a dry throat as a punishment. The crowd had thinned considerably, so he stood and walked as casually as he could back to where the author had been speaking. Helene was at the front of a line that snaked around bookshelves, holding her book out to the author with the nervous excitement of a schoolgirl. He spoke as he wrote in the book, then handed it back to her with that up-to-something smile.
Nathan left before she could see him.
He spent days, maybe even weeks studying articles about the larynx and fighting off the encroaching fear that it was unlikely he could have his voice surgically replaced. During this time, he also tried to teach himself how to speak with a British accent, choosing to emulate the author (whom he had learned was called Neil Gaiman) rather than Alan Rickman, mostly because Rickman’s voice was harder to mimic. He knew he wasn’t very good at it, but it provided yet another distraction from the fact that he was no longer employed.
The news had come as a shock not only to him, but to the three other employees of Jenkins (no relation) and Associates who were let go on the same day. “Downturn in revenue,” is what his latest boss had said. “Losers without distinctive personalities had to be let go,” is what he heard. The other three shrugged their goodbyes and disappeared from his life like his parents had when he was eleven.
The word came to him in another half-dream while seated at the dark, rarely-clean corner table in Zuckerman’s. He didn’t know what to do with it at first, but after some research (at the library, since his unwittingly generous Wi-Fi neighbor had moved), he found a palpable hope in embracing the uncertainty of magic that had escaped him while attempting to challenge the certainty of medical science.
He didn’t have the money to travel to Europe or Asia, so he decided he would have to find a local gypsy. Preferably one with lots of experience in the art of stealing voices. Nathan was aware how crazy his thoughts sounded when spoken loud, so he simply never spoke them aloud. He let the scattered belief that he would find a way to a new voice settle into his head like falling confetti. The universe owed him far more than a deeper voice. But he was willing to settle the account with that.
Besides, the rest would come in due time.
Meanwhile, he had begun reading Neil Gaiman’s books. It began as a distraction – one more thing to fill the growing empty space – but quickly turned into an obsession. If the library didn’t have the book he was looking for, he spent some of his rapidly-dwindling cash to buy one. Used, if he could find it. New, if he couldn’t.
The obvious magic in Gaiman’s fiction didn’t do much for Nathan, but the stuff underneath it all – the il-defined things that lurked or loomed or haunted or waited – those fed Nathan’s hope. There is more to this world than meets the eye, he would mouth to an imagined Helene while pausing on the sixth-floor landing, staring at the spray-painted Swastika on the door. He heard himself saying it with Gaiman’s voice. He envisioned Helene’s reaction. A half-smile – the kind that says “you know me so well” and “let’s get coffee” and “don’t you just love American Gods?” and “I’ve been waiting for someone exactly like you to show up in my life, where have you been?”
Upstairs, he sometimes said aloud.
He made a point of carrying whatever book he happened to be reading in such a way that the cover, particularly the author’s name, was visible to any passersby. Only once since the bookstore event had he happened upon Helene heading the other way. She shouldn’t have been home – it was mid-afternoon on a Thursday. But there she was, walking out of the apartment building as he was walking in. Coraline was cradled under his left arm, but in his haste to position it so that the cover was facing Helene, he dropped the book. Face down, as fate would have it. She offered a polite “sorry” smile and kept moving, anxious to get somewhere.
But there was no following her on this particular Thursday. Not after she’d made eye contact with him.
He climbed to the seventh floor and sat in his computer room staring at the blank screen for nearly an hour, inviting an answer to his relational dilemma that never came.
Until, quite by accident, it did.
It was a Saturday – he could tell by the ebb and flow of faceless strangers heading nowhere or everywhere – and he was walking past the used bookstore in his neighborhood (the one where he’d found a coverless copy of The Sandman, Volume 2) when a woman wearing far too many layers of clothes, all of which were stained and moth-eaten, called to him by name.
“Neil,” she said.
He paused. No, Nathan. Nathan is my name. He looked at the book in his hands. Cover facing out.
“You look like the sort who might want his fortune read,” the woman said through yellow teeth and empty spaces where yellow teeth would have been an improvement.
“Are you a gypsy?” he asked.
She was taken aback at first and Nathan wasn’t sure if he’d said something horribly insulting, or if she’d simply been surprised that he had seen through her disguise to the truth.
“Yes,” she said. Then she looked him up and down, as if measuring him for a suit that surely would fit better than the thrift-store purchase he was currently wearing. The suit hadn’t yet found him a new job, but he had been pleased that it drew fewer judgmental stares than his usual outfit of too-tight copper brown jeans and a lilac-colored V-neck t-shirt hidden under a black jacket that might have once been part of a fat drum major’s outfit.
“Do you know any magic spells?” he asked. It was as direct as he’d ever been with a stranger.
“Most of ‘em,” she answered. “What sort of spell are you lookin’ for?”
“I want someone else’s voice,” he said.
She measured him again for that imaginary suit, then said, “Do you have twenty bucks?”
He did, but not on him. He asked her to wait – told her he’d be back in fifteen minutes, twenty tops. He waddled off down the street to his apartment building, prayed that the elevator might somehow be working, cursed the god of elevators that it wasn’t, then climbed the stairs to his apartment as fast as he’d ever, paying for the pace with wheezing that doubled him over at the sixth floor landing. He didn’t linger there for obvious reasons, stopping only long enough to offer a polite nod to the skull and crossbones spray painted on the door. When he entered his apartment, he headed straight for the kitchen to collect the last twenty from the Mickey Mouse mug in the cabinet above the sink. When he stepped out into the hallway, he nearly knocked the gypsy over. She was standing there with one hand on her hip, the other held out to him.
He scrunched his face into a question, then held the twenty out to the woman. She pinched it between thumb and forefinger, lifted it to her nose and took a long whiff, then began folding the bill this way and that. Nathan tried to keep track of her movements, but her fingers were surprisingly nimble. A moment later, she held a tiny swan in her hand. A single laugh escaped her chapped lips, then she unceremoniously stuffed the swan-twenty down the front of her shirt.
“Whose voice do you want?” she asked.
“I’m undecided on that,” said Nathan. “I was going to say Alan Rickman, but then I heard Neil Gaiman speak and…”
“Alan Rickman? You mean Snape?”
She laughed and held her hands to her chest. “Oh my, you do aim for the stars, don’t you. That’s gonna cost more than twenty.”
“I don’t have…” He did a virtual walk-thru of his apartment, looking for loose change and forgotten hiding places. “How much for Neil Gaiman?”
“Never heard of him.”
“I might have a five somewhere,” he said. He slipped his key into the lock and turned the knob. “Wait here.”
“Don’t have no where else to be,” she said.
He left the door open and walked through the living room back into the kitchen. He opened each cabinet in succession, from left to right, trying to jar his addled brain to remember where he’d hidden the rest of his money.
“You check the cookie jar yet?” Nathan jumped, bumping his head on one of the open cabinet doors. The gypsy was standing next to the stove.
“How did you?” He gathered his composure, rubbed his throbbing head, pulled down at the edges of his suitcoat to straighten the wrinkles. “No. There are only cookies in the cookie jar.”
“Are the cookies in the cookie jar any good?”
She walked to the counter, lifted the lid, pulled out a cookie and bit into it.
“You’re right,” she said. Then she grabbed a handful and stuffed them into one of her many coat pockets.
Nathan stood dumbfounded.
“I don’t think I have any more money after all,” he said. He started to guide her out of the kitchen and into the living room.
“Might not stick, then,” she said. “Costs more to make spells stick.”
He weighed his options. He had already given her his last twenty. It was unlikely he’d get that back. It was even more unlikely that she could deliver on her promise of magic. He wasn’t a complete idiot – he knew there were plenty of con men and women who would do or say anything for a quick buck.
“How do I know you’re a real gypsy?” he asked when she wouldn’t budge from the living room.
“Do I look like a gypsy?”
“I don’t know what gypsies look like.”
“They why’d you ask if I was one?” She picked up a framed photo from the table by the door. It was a picture of his mother when she was a child. Time and tired sunlight had faded the image into that of a ghost. There wasn’t much left of her. “Pretty girl,” she said.
He took the frame from her and set it back down.
“Alan Rickman’s voice,” she said.
“Close your eyes.”
“You want his voice or not?”
He nodded, then closed his eyes, certain he would regret this decision. At first, all he could hear was her raspy breathing, then he felt her breath on his face. He had expected it to smell rank, but it was sweet, like vanilla. Like fresh-made cookies. He felt her fingers wrap gently around his neck. Then they began to squeeze tight. He squirmed but didn’t try to break free. He pictured her magic as tendrils snaking from her fingers through his skin to his larynx. He felt his throat constricting into something new. And just about the time he thought he might pass out, she let go. He opened his eyes and was alone. He opened his mouth to speak and nothing came out.
He ran into the hallway, looked both ways. It was empty. He ran back into his apartment and searched every corner for evidence of the gypsy. There was no sign of her. He walked into the bathroom and studied his reflection in the mirror. His neck was marked with bruises the shape of fingers. He tried speaking again.
That night, he lay down on the floor in his usual spot, cradled by his faithful gray pillows, his big ears trained on the vent. A few voices came and went, but none of them belonged to Helene. He fell asleep and dreamed he was an orchestra conductor who had lost his rhythm. When he awoke, it was dark inside and out. A familiar voice filtered up through the vent.
“I’m sorry,” Helene said. “I can’t do this any more Dorian.”
Who was Dorian?
“It’s over, Dorian,” she said.
And then silence. Or was that crying?
Nathan opened his mouth to say her name. All that came out was a croak.
The next morning, Nathan took a cold shower, put on his too-tight pants and a t-shirt and a relic of a turtleneck to hide the bruises, then walked out of his apartment. He turned as he always did toward the stairwell, but paused when he heard the muted bell of the elevator. He spun around and walked in through the opening doors, pressed “1” and waited.
The doors closed like a reluctant book, then the elevator started descending. One floor later, it stopped. The doors opened even more slowly than they’d closed and there stood Helene.
She nodded her hello, then walked in and stood next to him. She pressed the same “1” he had a moment earlier and for reasons he couldn’t quite articulate, this thrilled him.
He wanted to say hello, but he hadn’t tested his voice. What if he still sounded like a goat?
What the hell, he thought. “Rainy day,” he said. The voice that filled the elevator wasn’t his own. It was rich, resonant, deep. And quite possibly British.
She looked up at him, tilted her head slightly. “Is it?”
He blushed. Was it raining?
“In England, I mean,” he said. Again, that amazing voice.
She laughed and he could have lived the rest of his life in the middle of that sound.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” she asked.
There was a frog in his throat but he dared not clear it lest he lose the voice. He practically gargled his response.
“Once. The last time the lift worked, I think it was.” He had never called it a lift.
She smiled, turned a half-turn toward him and held out her hand. “Helene,” she said.
He mirrored her action. “Nathan,” he said.
“I was just heading out for coffee,” she said. “Would you like to join me?”
Nathan was certain she could hear his telltale heart.
“That sounds lovely,” he said. The words were too garbled. He cleared his throat, prepared himself for the worst, then repeated himself. “Pardon me. Frog in my throat.” Alan Rickman, he thought. “I was trying to say – that sounds lovely.”
“Good. It’s a date then,” she said.
The elevator lurched to a stop at the ground floor and they waited together for the ancient doors to peel themselves apart. Nathan gestured for her to go first, an action he had seen more than a few times in the movies but had yet to use himself. That small act brought a smile to his face.
They stepped out onto the sidewalk just as the sun slid behind a fast-moving cloud. Helene looked up at the sky that peeked between the skyscrapers.
“Huh,” she said. And at that, it began to pour.
They ran across the street to a coffee shop, ordered tea and sat at a small table near the window. She asked him what he did. He told her the truth; that he used to be an accountant but was currently between jobs. He asked her what she loved. She seemed surprised by the question, then answered, “books.”
“Tell me about one,” he said.
She told him about The Ocean at the End of the Lane and then Neverwhere. She talked until time didn’t matter, her enthusiasm never waning. Nathan loved the way her mouth moved when she spoke. The way it turned from a smile to a smirk without hesitation or apology. The way it puckered up into a thought before the words tumbled out.
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally. “I don’t know what got into me. I guess I had a lot of words in the queue.” She reached across the table and touched his hand. “I’m afraid I need to get going. Work calls me. But next time, I want to hear you talk.”
They stood, said their goodbyes, and he watched as she walked through the door into the rain, then dashed down the street. He must have stood there for a long time, because when he finally snapped back to reality, his table had been cleared and an impatient man in a bespoke suit was pushing his way past him into the seat he’d vacated.
“Sorry,” the man said, though he wasn’t. “Thought you were leaving.”
“I am,” said Nathan. In his goat voice.
He spent the rest of the day in a frantic, and ultimately unsuccessful search for the gypsy woman.
He stopped listening at the vent. He stopped pausing at the sixth floor landing. He avoided bookstores and libraries and coffee shops. He found a stash of money he had forgotten about in a box under the kitchen sink and used it to buy a better job-hunting suit. He went on interviews, studied the classified ads for cheap apartments.
He walked everywhere, pausing on every bridge to look down at the traffic or the water below for a sign or an answer or a sufficiently deadly landing spot.
He kept one eye out for the gypsy and the other out for Helene. And he only spoke when he absolutely had to.
Weeks after their coffee date, he walked into an office building and wove his way through the morning crowd to the elevator. He punched the button for the tenth floor. He stepped off and walked to the glass door for the accounting firm of Fitzgerald and Scott.
“I’m here for an interview,” he said to a woman who was facing away from him at the front desk. The woman turned and looked up at him.
Her hair was different. Shorter. Grayer. Her wrinkles more pronounced than ever. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it.
“I kept hoping I’d run into you again,” she said.
He sighed. She’d already heard his goat voice. There was no point in hiding it anymore. “I’ve been…busy.”
“You look good,” she said.
“You too.” And she did, despite looking ten years older than she had the last time he’d seen her. Or maybe because she looked ten years older.
“And you’re over your cold,” she said. “Well, of course you are. It’s been weeks. Has it been weeks?”
“I think so,” he said. He hated the sound of his voice. Hated it. Hated it. Hated it.
“Mr. Scott is busy with another applicant at the moment, but if you’ll have a seat…”
He didn’t wait around for the rest of the sentence. He ran out of the office, turned the wrong way and ended up at a door marked “Stairs.” He felt like a fool for running, but what else could he do? He paused at the sixth floor landing, noted the spray-painted question mark on the door, then continued down the stairs. He burst out of the spinning front door and walked into pouring rain with a pressure in his chest that felt like a heart attack. He wandered for blocks among the blurring crowd until he finally collapsed on a park bench.
A shape emerged from out of the mist and walked toward him.
“I know lots of spells,” the shape said. “Got another twenty?”
“What’s his deal?” The young intern pointed to the man curled up on the floor next to the radiator.
“Him? The usual. Schizophrenia,” said the woman in scrubs. “Thinks he’s somewhere else most of the time.”
“Hard to say. Used to live in New York. Could be there. Or Narnia for that matter.”
“So why is he here?”
“His wife left him years ago. And then he went a little nuts. He’s a writer, though, so he was probably nuts to begin with.”
“He looks familiar.”
“I always thought he looked a little like Mickey Rooney,” said the woman.
“I don’t know who that is,” said the intern. “I meant – I’ve seen his face somewhere.”
“Back of a novel, maybe.”
“Yeah, that must be it.”
She sighed. “Just wait until you hear him speak.”
“Does he talk a lot?”
“Not much, and mostly to himself. But his voice…it’s incredible.”
“God yes. Deep, rich. I think he’s English. Or maybe he just thinks he is. Breaks your heart, really. Such a waste. He should have been an actor.”
“His mother comes around once in a while. You can’t miss her. She looks homeless. Smells homeless, too. But she’s really quite sweet. So patient with him. She tells him stories. Clever stories. I try to eavesdrop when I can.”
“A writer, huh?”
The young intern looked back at the man. He had climbed up onto a table and was standing there like he ruled the world. Or at least the room.
“Shouldn’t we get him down?” The intern made a move toward the man.
“No, no. Actually that’s a good sign for Nathan. It means he’s going to have a good day.”
“So where do you think he is, exactly?”
Nathan stood on the ledge of the office building, looking down at the street far below. The crowd had grown to at least a hundred people. Some of them were yelling at him to jump. He closed his eyes and saw Helene. She was lost and alone and afraid. Her hair was as black as ink. She called to him.
He allowed a half smile, then spread his arms wide and willed them to become wings.