Hourglass, Page 3Myra Mcentire
“Desperation? My boarding school was in Sedona. No shortage of ‘spiritual healers’ there. I guess the news that a concerned brother was throwing around a surplus of cash to help his loopy sister spread pretty fast. And none of the people using traditional methods could help me. They all wanted to drug me into a vegetative state or commit me.” I let go of the iron bar and bit down hard on my bottom lip, stopping short of telling him they succeeded, angry with myself for being so honest. If he was a fake like all the others, maybe he would feel guilty and go away before inflicting any damage.
“I’m sorry,” Michael said. No pity, just empathy. His expression was easy to read, or he was a really good actor. He reminded me of old Hollywood, very Cary Grant–ish, except for the slightly shaggy hair.
“So what’s different about you?” I asked, growing weary of the conversation. Already anticipating the disappointment. “What kind of promises are you going to make?”
“None that I can’t keep.” The set of his jaw was resolute, his voice full of certainty.
“What are your qualifications? Did you climb a mountain and meet with a guru?” I asked, baiting him. Wanting a reaction. “Did you have an out-of-body experience, and now people speak to you through mirrors and mud puddles?”
“Listen, I can understand why you don’t have a lot of faith”—he kept his voice low and even, but I suspected a hint of temper—“but what if I can help you? Why wouldn’t you let me?”
“What if I don’t think anything’s wrong with me?” Not anything I expected him to be able to fix, anyway.
“I didn’t say there was.”
“Offering to help me implies I’m in distress. I’m not currently.”
“What about ten minutes ago when you tried to put your drink on a piano that wasn’t there?”
“That wasn’t distress. That was …” I sucked wind.
He saw the piano.
I punched him in the stomach. Hello six-pack. Even with the protective layer of muscle, he let out a rush of air and bent over, wrapping his arms around his middle.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I apologized, shaking the feeling back into my tingling hand. The streetlights seemed to flicker, and I wondered fleetingly if we were in for another storm. “I needed to make sure you were really here.”
“And there wasn’t a better way to do it?” Michael groaned. He was lucky I aimed high. I’d considered kicking him, but remembered my lethal shoes at the last moment.
“Stress reaction.” I shrugged and stepped out of my high-heeled weapons before I had the urge to do any more damage, appreciating the feel of the cool concrete beneath my feet.
Michael straightened, looking down at me and sizing me up. I couldn’t tell if he liked what he saw. Was surprised to find that it mattered.
“Why were you worried about whether or not I was real? You wouldn’t shake my hand a few minutes ago, even though your brother saw me.”
“It’s been a different kind of day. My world’s been turned upside down and sideways.”
“Probably for the best anyway.” He gave me a grin that made me wonder what he wasn’t saying. “So tell me, what’s been so different about today?”
“I’ve never seen a full jazz trio before, for one thing. It threw me off. The rules must be changing.”
“What are the rules?”
“I see people from the past.” The bells in the clock tower on the town square loudly chimed the hour, but I kept my voice low. “They’re like a film projection, no substance, and when I try to touch them, they disappear. I’ve sure as heck never seen three at once accompanied by a piano.” Or a horse-drawn carriage.
“At least they sounded good. That bass was smooth.” He inclined his head toward the building, where the music spilled from the open windows. “Still is.”
“You don’t seem to be impressed. No one’s ever been able to see or hear what I do. What’s your story?” I asked, although it was clear. He was as screwed up as I was.
“Let’s just say my mom thought I had a lot of imaginary friends.”
I tilted my chin up to get a better look at him. “So it’s been happening since you were little?”
Michael nodded. “You?”
“Four years.” The bells stopped after ten chimes, and the air felt eerily quiet. Time for a subject change. Distract and divert. “I really am sorry I hit you.”
“You’re forgiven.” He winked. “I think I can handle a tiny little thing like you.”
I bit my tongue. So we would work on the male chauvinism.
“If you help me, how does it work? Do we have … sessions or something? What are you going to do to me?” Oops. Scary, scary light in his eyes. I cleared my throat. I would need to watch my phrasing. “I mean, for me.”
The light didn’t fade as he answered. “I’d like to start by hearing your story.”
“Simple enough.” As if reliving every terrifying moment was easy. As if I wanted to make myself vulnerable to a total stranger. I rubbed the knot of tension forming at the base of my neck.
“Emerson.” I loved the way he said my name. Or maybe I just liked watching his lips move. “I know this is hard for you, but I want you to be honest with me. You can trust me.”
He obviously had not heard the rule that you never trust anyone who says “you can trust me.”
“We’ll see how things go. When do we start?” I asked.
“How does tomorrow sound?”
The next morning I dressed in my favorite jeans and a black fitted T-shirt, slipping on my black Converse sneakers for comfort and courage. They always made me feel ballsy. Twisting my hair into an updo, I pulled out some of the pieces the sun had made blonder than the others. I took a little more care with my makeup than usual, playing up my clear complexion. All for breakfast with Michael.
I walked through downtown slowly, enjoying the peace. The humidity hadn’t kicked in yet, and after yesterday’s rain I could almost smell the crisp air of the approaching autumn. I was a sucker for falling leaves, hayrides, scarecrows, and especially Halloween. When your everyday life was as spooky as mine, Halloween really was all about ridiculous amounts of candy and the Great Pumpkin—as long as I stayed home to answer the door. None of my visions had ever rung the doorbell, so I was generally pretty safe with Charlie Brown on the television and a contraband stash of Twizzlers in my hands.
Michael and I were meeting at Murphy’s Law, the combo coffeehouse/café/bookstore owned by Lily’s grandmother. Not only is the woman a saint, but she makes killer Cuban espresso and apple empanadas that taste so good they’d make a nun cuss. There was only one downside to the location.
When I’d suggested Murphy’s Law the night before, I’d been too flustered to consider that Lily could be present during the meeting. I was saved from having to develop a plausible story to tell her when I ran into her on the sidewalk, heading away from the building. She had her camera bag slung over her shoulder.
“Lily! How did the shoot go?”
She faced me but continued walking backward. “Pretty well. Except for the bats the boss failed to mention. That and the film crew. At least I was only hit on by one production assistant this time.”
“Wow, just one guy? You must be losing it.” Lily’s boss sometimes worked in conjunction with documentary filmmakers. She claimed most of them displayed more entitlement issues than the whole of the English monarchy. And most of them thought they were entitled to her.
“Losing it? We can only hope.” She reached into her camera bag, fumbling around before pulling out a huge blueberry muffin wrapped in a napkin and taking a bite.
“Are you in a hurry?” I asked, trying to be nonchalant. I tilted my head toward her camera bag. “Another shoot?”
“Clean up from last night, maybe a little Photo-Chop.” She stopped walking and looked at me. Her eyes widened along with her mouth, and she treated me to a glimpse of chewed-up bread. “Look
at you, all sexy first thing in the morning. Where are you going? How did the party go?”
I mentally debated telling her about Michael. There was no way I really could without giving her the whole story, and Lily was mostly in the dark about my … visions.
“Nowhere really. And you didn’t miss a thing.” Except a jazz trio, some broken glass, and the most gorgeous guy who ever drew a breath. “Go. We’ll talk later.”
Lily raised the hand that was holding the muffin to look at her watch. She hated being late, but I could see the desire to interrogate me in her expression. I hoped manners would beat out curiosity.
“You’d better,” she said over her shoulder as she ducked down the side street that led to the photography studio.
Pausing in front of the coffeehouse, I placed my palm to my stomach, trying to quiet the butterflies fluttering inside. I couldn’t decide if I was anxious because of the upcoming discussion or whom I was about to see. I pushed through the front door, setting the bell attached to the doorframe jingling, breathing deeply to inhale the rich scent of brewing coffee. And to calm my nerves.
Michael sat near the back, reading a paper in something that looked like Spanish. After I ordered I joined him, tucking my backpack under the table and pulling out a chair. He had a day’s worth of stubble and was dressed almost exactly like me in a black T-shirt with a well-worn pair of jeans. I took a moment to appreciate the snug fit of both. The boy’s muscles had muscles.
“Are you really reading that, or are you just trying to show off?” I asked, lowering myself into the seat.
He looked over the paper, opened his mouth, and a torrent of foreign words flew out.
“Okay, sorry, just asking. Wait, how many of those were curse words?”
Michael laughed, flashing white, even teeth. It was a good sound, comfortable, like he did it a lot. I wished I could laugh like that. His smile distracted me just as much as it had the night before.
“What language was that?”
“How did you learn Italian?”
“My grandmother.” Michael put the paper down and leaned across the table toward me, unexpectedly intense. “What do you want?”
“I already ordered an espresso,” I answered, reflexively leaning back.
“No, I mean what do you want from life?”
“Good morning to you, too. Isn’t it a little early for philosophy?” I pushed a stray strand of hair back from my face and shifted in my chair.
“Why does the question make you uncomfortable?”
“I don’t go around discussing my deepest desires with strangers.” The waitress brought my drink and empanada to the table. When she walked away, I continued. “Technically, you might not be a stranger, but still, I just met you yesterday.”
“I’m not so strange.” Another distracting flash of white teeth. “Let’s start with something simpler than what you want from life. What do you want from today?”
I wrapped my hands around the cup I held to blow on the contents, feeling the steam rise to my face. Maybe he would think I was just … warm … instead of blushing.
Michael looked at me as if he had all the time in the world to listen, so genuine he threw me off balance. The butterflies in my stomach stirred. I wasn’t ready to be completely honest with him. Maybe I never would be. I wasn’t a very good liar. But avoidance?
At avoidance I was a master.
“Why don’t you tell me about yourself? I’m sure I would be more comfortable with this whole situation if I knew more about you.” There. He couldn’t argue with that. And I really did want to know more about him. A lot more.
Michael placed his hands on the table. His fingers were long, his nails squared off but a little longer on his right hand, making me wonder if he played the guitar. He wore a silver ring on his left thumb.
“I have a sister; her name is Anna Sophia. My mom is in real estate, high-end historical homes, very successful—a lot like Thomas. She’s also my hero. My dad has been out of the picture since I was eight or so.” He gave me a small smile. I wondered about the rest of the story. “I grew up outside Atlanta, and I’ve been working for the Hourglass for almost a year.”
Since my Internet research returned void, I knew nothing about the Hourglass, but the mental image in my brain involved Marlon Brando in the back room of an Italian restaurant surrounded by cigar smoke and heavily armed men named Paulie and Vito. I needed a clearer picture. Or at least a less frightening one.
“What does the Hourglass do, exactly?” I asked.
“Consulting jobs, mentoring.”
“How did you find them? Or did they find you?”
“They found me. I was assigned a mentor, who helped me learn about my ability. When I came here for college last year, I started doing small consulting jobs. Talking to kids who needed a friend, gathering information, stuff like that. Then things changed. When my mentor died”—he paused, taking a deep breath—“I asked for more responsibility. I wanted to give back what I had been given.”
Michael’s eyes and the set of his mouth expressed pain and something else, maybe anger. I could only guess how much emotion was swirling underneath the surface.
“I’m sorry about your friend.”
“Life is about gains and losses,” he said, the pain winning out over the anger in his eyes. “You know that firsthand.”
Except my life was too heavy on the losses. “What kind of job am I? Consulting or mentoring?”
“Part of what I do is talk to people who are struggling to accept themselves. I listen.” He shrugged.
“Like you’re listening to me.”
“Yep.” He grinned, and the butterflies in my stomach were sucked up into a hurricane. “I’d listen to you anyway.”
I stuck my face in my tiny cup again. After I took another sip of coffee I asked, “So you’re already in college?”
“I’m getting ready to start my sophomore year. What about you?”
“Thomas’s plans are to enroll me at Ivy Springs High School for my senior year. I only have a semester left because I’ve done summer school the past two years. Really, I just want to take my G.E.D. and get it over with. But Thomas won’t let me.” I laughed, but there was no joy in it. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to the scene of my public mental collapse. “I wish he would. I need a break.”
“My guess is that if anyone deserves a break, it’s you,” Michael said, his voice full of understanding. “Maybe you can find another alternative for school that you and Thomas can agree on.”
“Maybe.” But doubtful. “Anyway, I’ll try to get myself straightened out as soon as possible. So you can move on to keggers, football games, and sorority girls.”
“I don’t drink, I prefer professional baseball, and sorority girls aren’t really my type.”
I bet they wished they were.
“And Emerson,” Michael said, resting his forearms on the table and looking into my eyes. “Just to be clear. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Uncomfortable with the sentiment and his proximity, I looked away. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. But I disagree. No offense.”
I heard him sigh. “I know you have more questions. Why don’t you go ahead and ask them?”
Stalling, I twisted my napkin between my fingers under the table. Michael could see the same things I could, but he wasn’t freaked out. He came across as calm, comforting. Talking to him almost made the tightness in my chest go away. I wanted to trust him. I wanted to ask him questions. I wanted to know why it was different for him than it was for me, because it obviously was.
“What was it like the first time you saw a vision from the past?” I asked in a low voice.
“My mom found a deal on a house in the Peachtree District of Atlanta. Civil War era.”
I thought of yesterday’s experience with Scarlett and couldn’t suppress my gro
an. Right after I started seeing things, I was forced to go on a field trip to one of the unfortunate Civil War reenactments we’re so given to here in the South. I’d had no idea who was dead or alive. I didn’t come out of my room for a week afterward.
“The things we see … what are they?” I met his eyes. “I mean, I have no idea why, but I never really thought of them as ghosts. But I don’t know what they are. Do you?”
Michael leaned closer. “I call them time ripples, rips for short. Almost like time stamps left by those who make a deep impression on the world while they’re alive. That’s the basic definition.”
“Isn’t that the same thing as a ghost?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Michael answered, frowning and drumming his fingers on the tabletop. “It involves theoretical physics, but I’d be glad to—”
I held up one hand. “No, thanks. I’ll just believe you. For now.”
I thought about his definition. The man I saw yesterday came immediately to mind. I was sure he’d made impressions in his own way. “Time ripples. At least that explains why I see people from the past. It makes sense, as if crazy ever could make sense. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize.” He frowned again. “I don’t want you to edit anything you say.”
“You won’t have to worry about that.” I gave him a bleak look. “Most of what comes out is complete truth. My edit button is broken.”
“Good.” Michael leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest and stretching out his long legs underneath the table. His black biker boots were huge next to my small sneakers. “I’m a big fan of the truth. I hate it when people hide things.”
I knew all about hiding things.
“How many people know the truth about you?” I asked.
“My family, the Hourglass.” He cleared his throat and twisted the ring on his thumb. “A few good friends. A select few.”
I wondered if the select few included a girlfriend. I wanted to ask, but figured I should probably keep things professional. “Was it hard? Telling them about the things we see?”