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The Fall of Never

Ronald Malfi


  In the darkness, shivering, she ran.

  —someone let the baby out someone let the baby out someone let the baby out someone—

  She burst through clawed tree branches, her body wracked and sweating, her bare feet raw and bleeding from the frozen earth. Her heartbeat pulsed just beneath the surface of her face; her throat burned with each wheezing breath. And for a moment she thought she would faint. Around her, the darkness became blindness…and the floating orb of the moon, wide and faceless beyond the sprawling canopy of bare trees, blurred and smeared, double, trebled, augmented to a greasy horizontal smudge. Only now, thrust into a wooded clearing, was she able to pause and catch her breath, and to wipe her eyes. Runaway tears had frozen the sides of her face, her temples.

  —someone let—

  She heard a branch snap behind her. Uttered a breathless scream. Turning, she could see nothing, and could only feel her pulse throbbing inside her head and through her arms and legs, rushing the blood, warfare-like, through her body. Was she breathing? She couldn’t breathe. Was she dreaming? She couldn’t tell for certain…

  Another cracking branch, like bone: closer.


  Something shifted in the darkness ahead of her. Its proximity paralyzed her.


  Pressing her eyes tight, she willed herself away from this place, turning, turning, and called out for her sister, her sister, her—

  She could hear him breathing—too close now.

  She turned to run, her eyes still shut tight, the fingerlike tree limbs probing and cutting and clawing at her. Her mind summoned images of running brook water, of forested hillsides crested with snow…of the shape, shifting, materializing, fiendishly childlike…of her sister warning her to write it down, write it down, and not to forget it, any of it…

  Her legs pumping, she ran. Her heart nearly bursting through her chest, she ran, and she found she could not stop, and though she was running, she was not going anywhere. She was running underwater; she was running in a dream.

  A dream…

  And she awoke. And she opened her eyes. And she was there, in bed, safe, warm. But afraid.

  Because you are here. Because you are right here.

  And she was.

  And she was.

  She screamed. She could not will herself back to bed, could not pull her solid form from this black woods and tuck herself back, back…could not force herself to believe she was not here.

  A frozen hand fell on the back of her neck. She stumbled and fell face first to the forest floor. The side of her head struck something hard and unforgiving, and her vision briefly flickered. She dug her fingers into the soil but could not rise, could not move. Behind her, someone shifted, moved. She could hear breathing aside from her own.

  “No,” she whispered. It took all her remaining strength just to get it out. “No…please…”

  “Please,” a voice hissed from behind her. Very close.

  “Please,” she managed again, breaking the word into hitching sobs just before the tears came. She could not think, could not move, and she felt herself falling deeper and deeper inside her own head: here, in my bed, in my room, safe, warm, here, here, here here here here, please God put me back in my room and not here here here—

  The shape moved around her. She could hear footsteps crunching the dead, frost-covered leaves. And before her mind shut down, she was vaguely aware of long, icy fingers brushing back her sweaty hair.

  “Pretty,” said the voice.

  Part One

  The (Hidden) Book of Frost

  Chapter One

  There is a cadence to Manhattan—an explicit hum-hum, steady-steady, walk-run. Most people who have lived there the majority of their lives recognize this only on a subconscious level, weaving in and out of the steady-steady like motors on a track, if they even register it at all. In a way, the looming presence of the city is comparable to the consistency of skin—it’s there, it’s vital, yet it’s infrequently observed. Strangers, on the other hand, feel the presence right away. It is like something falling on them, smashing them, squeezing them until their hearts burst and their brains shut down.

  Kelly Rich knew what it meant to be that stranger. Her first year in the city, she’d felt the icy grip about her body, the calloused fingers of the metropolis probing her skin for attainable access. She was young, the ink hardly dry on her divorce papers, when she made a pact with herself to play the Manhattan Game. Unaccustomed to chance, she woke up one morning suddenly and completely cognizant of the fact, and found herself suffering through a hunger for newness, for challenge. In her mind she recalled glimpses of the city from her youth—a city that commanded authority and remunerated only those who faced its cold, cracked pavement and gray-chiseled skyline with unflinching audacity. The notion both excited and terrified her. And maybe it was a bad decision—perhaps she was being too hasty, even running away yet again—but she didn’t think it was. She was through not living. So, Manhattan…

  There was the string of dismal, one-bedroom apartments coupled with a cast of roommates, most of them more colorful than a box of Crayolas. There were countless shift jobs—seven at night until three in the morning at the twenty-four hour developer; days in the Village, charging tourists three bucks a pop for Polaroid snapshots. Clever girl. She waited tables and found that she was good at it and that she could actually make some decent cash, but hated it just the same. Pink outfits and nametags had never been her style.

  I’m going to crack here. I’m going to lose it and die here.

  Often, the streets managed to coax tears from her. She’d listened to the city’s clutter from her tiny apartment, mostly in the dark, mostly in frightened contemplation about her future. She felt sluggish, lethargic, and digested a constant string of poetry—Shelley, Byron, Tennyson, Browning—as well as countless midafternoon cocktails. With an absence that was nearly cataleptic she chewed her fingernails to the skin; she watched the minutes roll by on her bedroom clock, too uninspired to stir; listened to the vague cacophony of neighbors through the plaster walls.

  Die here…

  Then, one morning, she saw the line. It was lit up before her like an airport runway. In fact, it was so perfectly defined she was surprised she hadn’t noticed it before: the line. The straight-and-narrow. The path. It was as easy as slipping into an old habit. Routine. And, after one year of living as the city’s worn and rugged doormat, she just shook the dirt off, simple as that. She’d become one of the masses, another faceless mover in a packed sea of occupied perambulators. And that was one of the two things she had always wanted: normalcy.

  The other thing was art.

  Josh Cavey looked up from his cappuccino and smiled at Kelly as she stood shivering in the doorway of the café. She hustled over to him, wrapped tightly in a thick wool coat and a knitted hat, and slid behind the table opposite him. She shook the last of the cold from her body in one quick shudder.

  “It’s freezing out there,” she said.

  “It’s good,” Josh said. He was an average-looking guy in his late twenties, with cropped, russet hair and a silver loop in each ear. “Wakes you up.”

  “I’m awake, all right,” she said, setting a notebook and a large manila envelope on the Formica tabletop. She opened the envelope and slid out a series of black and white glossies.

  “Coffee?” he asked.

  “I’m good, thanks.”

  Josh sipped his cappuccino, the steam rising from the Styrofoam cup and up in front of his face. Kelly was aware of his eyes on her and didn’t look up to meet them. Instead, she concentrated on the photographs, and on the aroma of coffee beans and fresh pastries suffused throughout the air.

  “I want to tape those hour
segments today,” she told him, flipping through the photographs. “Remember those segment ideas we talked about yesterday?”

  “I’m not senile.”

  “I want it to be totally natural. I’m going to stay out of the shots today too.”

  “Smart idea. Those bags under your eyes might not look too flattering on film.”

  She paused in her work and stared up at him. If she’d ever found Josh Cavey attractive—and she had, though it now seemed like a very long time ago—she now only saw him as a transient, as someone who has stepped into this slice of her life merely to disappear before the beginning of the next. Whatever special attraction she had felt for him when they first began working on the project together had gotten lost somewhere along the way. And that was just fine by her; the last thing she needed was another person in her life.

  “Are you starting again?” she said.

  “What?” He held up his hands, feigning innocence. “I’m just being perceptive. That’s usually considered to be a preferred skill for a cameraman and video producer. You should be pleased.”

  “I just haven’t been getting enough sleep lately.”

  “Something wrong?”

  “No,” she said, looking back down at her photographs. The one on top depicted an obscenely obese woman stretched out across her groaning mattress with a plate of brownies resting on her enormous belly. Above the woman’s head was a framed picture of President Richard Nixon giving his V-for-Victory salute as he stepped off an airplane.

  “Something must be on your mind,” he pursued. “And I can tell by the way you’re looking at me that you want me to shut the hell up, which only reaffirms my belief that something is wrong. Is this project stressing you out?”

  She drummed her fingers along the tabletop. “No,” she said, “I love the project, you know that.”

  “I know it. You want to jab your pen in my right eye? Go on, I’ll be a good boy and hold still for you. When you reach gristle, though, just promise to stop pushing. I’d hate to have you puncture my brain.”

  “You’re so morbid.”

  “Normally you admire that.”

  “Normally it isn’t six-thirty in the morning, Josh. Besides, you don’t look so great yourself, you know.”

  “True—but I was out all night last night. Found my drunk self wandering from club to club with friends who…hell, maybe they weren’t even my friends, who can remember now? But that’s me, not you. So in the interest of our friendship, please tell me what’s been bothering you lately?”

  His words shook her. Alone, it was easy to convince herself that she was fine, that she was stressed but was fine; however, it became increasingly difficult to foster such a belief when the words started coming from other people…

  “You know what?” she said finally, sliding out from the booth. “Order me that coffee after all.”

  She moved across the floor, slipped into the café’s bathroom, and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Okay, Josh was right—there were deep purple grooves beneath her eyes. Also, stress lines had formed around the sides of her mouth. Deep. She’d been biting the inside of her cheek lately too—a nervous habit she thought she’d left behind during her childhood.

  I kicked that habit, she thought. Yet, here you are again. An old goddamn friend, right?

  It was easier thinking about the project, easier to get her mind off this inexplicable growing tension that had been building up inside her for the past month or so. Some nights, she would wake up in a cold sweat and bolt for the bathroom before she vomited on the floor. Occasionally, when riding the subway, she’d be gripped by an overwhelming sensation to urinate—urinate so furiously that she feared something had ruptured inside her. The feeling inside her was so strong, and so indescribable. At any moment, she expected one of Shakespeare’s ghosts to materialize before her and profess some unavoidable, impending doom.

  “You’re running yourself too hard, darling,” she whispered, her eyes running over her reflection in the mirror: dyed black hair; a crescent moon of earrings along the outer cartilage of her left ear; unpainted fingernails gnawed down to the quick. There was even the light pink tissue of a road map scar along the top flesh of her left hand—the consequence of a drunken night and a broken glass at some loud club.

  A shudder passed through her body.

  Who am I? Who have I become? And what has been happening to me this past month?

  Disgusted with herself, she looked away. Turned on the cold water, ran her hands through it, washed her face. An image surfaced in her head then: the image of a beacon…a flashing red light, blinking as if in code, as if desperate to gather her attention…

  “Yes,” she repeated. “Working too hard.”

  Her stomach felt queasy and she took three deep breaths before exiting the bathroom.

  Outside the café, Josh stood on the curb holding Kelly’s coffee in one gloved hand, shivering against the wind. It was only mid-November and already the temperature was teetering on freezing. It was going to be one hell of a cold winter. “I was starting to get worried about you,” Josh said, handing over her coffee.

  She tried to sound composed. “Thought I fell in, did you?”

  “Just some strange folks in this city, gotta be careful,” he told her. “Last time I used the bathroom here I was almost mugged. And what’s with those guys who stand in front of the urinals with their hands on their hips? Whack-jobs. I mean, it’s like watching fucking Superman take a piss. I don’t get it.”

  She laughed and a billow of vapor blew from her mouth. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen that before.”

  “No,” Josh said, absently considering, “I guess you haven’t.”

  Nellie Worthridge was eighty-seven years old and had no legs. When she was twenty, she lost them in an automobile accident—along with her father. Now, she was a withered old thing with a surprisingly pleasant disposition and an animated face that lit up whenever Kelly and Josh turned up outside her tiny West Side apartment. Nellie Worthridge was Subject Number Four of the project, a woman Kelly had read about several months ago in People Magazine, back when the project was still in its infancy. For most of her life, Nellie relied on her motorized wheelchair to get her from place to place and, when in the comfort of her cramped but immaculate one-bedroom apartment (which she hardly left, except to shop for groceries and to play Wednesday night bridge), she frequently ditched the chair and moved about on the palms of her hands. It was sad, but Kelly’s first impression upon seeing such an acrobatic maneuver was that the old woman looked a bit like some withered old wind-up toy. After their first meeting with the woman, as she and Josh took a cab back to the Village, Josh had commented on how much Nellie Worthridge reminded him of his own grandmother.

  “Just something about her, I guess,” Josh had said. “In the way she talks, or in her mannerisms or something. I don’t know. I guess deep down, all old ladies are the same animal.”

  That was back when Kelly thought she might actually want to sleep with Joshua Cavey, that she might actually be attracted to him. Not because of the grandmother comment, but because of Josh’s line of thinking, and the countless other expressive comments he made, and also in the divine things he saw in ordinary life. He was, in a word, refreshing. But even then, despite her attraction, she realized that a relationship was the last thing she was looking for. In the Big Apple, even refreshing things went stale rather quick.

  Like most elderly people (although this was just an assumption on Kelly’s part—she had never really been close to anyone considered “elderly”), Nellie Worthridge awoke at the crack of dawn and was already brewing coffee when Kelly and Josh arrived at her West Side apartment.

  “It’s a cold one out there this morning,” Nellie said from the kitchen vestibule. “It’s going to be an angry winter, you mind me.”

  “I believe it,” Josh said, dropping to one knee and unpacking his recording equipment.

  Flipping through the notes in her notebook, Kelly backed agains
t the wall between a picture of Jesus and a crocheted tapestry of a rainbow. Nellie’s apartment always smelled like a fusion of body odor, lemon Pledge, and camphor—the same smells she subconsciously associated with a high school gymnasium. Despite her handicap, Nellie was a fastidious woman who kept her apartment so ridiculously spotless, one would guess the apartment’s owner had died some time ago and no one had been inside the place to make a mess in a matter of months.

  Kelly heard Josh mutter something to himself while searching through his labeled videocassettes. From the kitchen vestibule, she could hear the motorized whine of Nellie Worthridge’s wheelchair as the old woman urged it forward along the floor.

  “Coffee, dear?” the old woman offered, easing her chair to a stop in front of Kelly.

  “No thank you, Nellie.”

  “It’ll warm you.”

  “I’m warm.”

  “Are you all right?”

  Smiling, Kelly looked up from her notebook. “I’m fine.” And thought: Do I really look that bad today? “How are you feeling, Nellie?”

  “Oh,” said the woman, “I’m getting by. These winters now…make my bones ache. And I’ve been having these headaches, just these really bad ones. They come and go.”

  “Has Doctor Jennasyn been to see you lately?”

  “He was here not two weeks ago,” Nellie said. She was trying to crane her neck around to watch Josh set up the camcorder on its tripod. “Gave me some pills for my arthritis.”

  “And the headaches?”

  “Wasn’t having the headaches then,” Nellie said. “Just started up past couple days. They’ll pass eventually. Everything does, after a while.”

  Josh straightened up, slipped off his leather coat, and said, “I’m all set, Kell. Where do you want me set up?”

  “We’ll start with some kitchen shots,” Kelly told him. “Is that all right with you, Nellie?”

  “Fine, fine,” the woman said, waving a hand. “Should have come sooner, filmed me making the coffee. I can put on some English muffins, if you two’ll eat them. I don’t mind making food long as it’s not wasted.” She managed to bring the wheelchair around and directed it toward the kitchen. The motorization made her entire body vibrate and she looked like a wooden puppet from the back.