The Mystery of Grace
|Author:||Charles de Lint
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On the Day of the Dead, the Solona Music Hall is jumping. That's where Altagracia Quintero meets John Burns, just two weeks too late.
Altagracia -- her friends call her Grace -- has a tattoo of Nuestra Señora de Altagracia on her shoulder, she's got a Ford Motor Company tattoo running down her leg, and she has grease worked so deep into her hands that it'll never wash out. Grace works at Sanchez Motorworks, customizing hot rods. Finding the line in a classic car is her calling.
Now Grace has to find the line in her own life. A few blocks around the Alverson Arms is all her world -- from the little grocery store where she buys beans, tamales, and cigarettes ("cigarettes can kill you," they tell her, but she smokes them anyway) to the record shop, to the library where Henry, a black man confined to a wheelchair, researches the mystery of life in death -- but she's got unfinished business keeping her close to home.
Grace loves John, and John loves her, and that would be wonderful, except that John, like Grace, has unfinished business -- he's haunted by the childhood death of his younger brother. He's never stopped feeling responsible. Like Grace in her way, John is an artist, and before their relationship can find its resolution, the two of them will have to teach each other about life and love, about hot rods and Elvis Presley, and about why it's necessary to let some things go.
She woke up when he got out of bed. As she lay there, listening to him pee, it occurred to her that she'd actually been sleeping. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a real sleep. She stretched languorously, appreciating the pull on her muscles and how the sheets slid across her skin. When the toilet flushed, she sat up to watch him return to bed, but he didn't climb back in. Instead, he sat at the end, pulling up his feet to sit cross-legged on the comforter.
"I killed my brother," he said.
He lifted a hand. "Oh, I don't mean literally. I killed him by neglect."
She leaned back against the headboard, pulling the sheets up over her breasts. A moment ago, she'd been comfortable with her nudity. Now she felt uneasy and goose bumps marched up her arms. She realized that for all their earlier intimacy, this was still a stranger's room. He was still a stranger, and she wasn't sure she liked the turn the evening had suddenly taken. No, scratch "evening." Make that late, late night. Almost morning.
If she couldn't remember the last time she'd had a real sleep, she really couldn't remember the last time she'd gone home from a club with a stranger. But he'd seemed so nice. He still seemed nice. Except right at this moment she didn't trust that he actually was what he seemed.
"Why are you telling me this?" she asked.
"I don't know. It's the anniversary of his death--he's always on my mind at Halloween. And I find that any time I'm really, really happy, I think of him and how it's one more thing he'll never get to experience."
"That's messed up."
"You're still not saying why you're telling me this."
He shrugged. Those dark brown eyes of his settled their gaze on hers and she found it hard not to melt into their warmth.
"I know we've just met," he said, "but I felt this real connection with you, right from the first moment."
She smiled, and relaxed a little.
"You don't need a pickup line anymore," she said. "I'm already in your bed."
He smiled back. "I know. I guess I just wanted to share an... I don't know... intimacy with you."
She let the sheets fall and scooted over the bed until she was sitting right in front of him, cross-legged as well, their knees bumping. She took his hands.
"Tell me what happened," she said.
It wasn't a long story, but it was long enough. His bedroom windows faced west, so neither of them saw the dawn pinking the city's skyline. She wanted to tell him what happened wasn't really his fault, but she knew that wasn't the way this kind of guilt worked. Intellectually, he already knew that. It was his emotions that were tripping him up. The tangle of love and memory and what might have been.
She wanted to make love to him again, but a pressure in her bladder told her that first she needed to use the toilet herself. She leaned forward and they shared a lingering kiss.
"Hold that thought," she said as his hand rose to her breast. "I just need to pee."
He stayed on the bed when she got up, listening to her use the toilet as she'd listened to him use it earlier. He waited, but there was no sound of flushing. There was no sound at all. After another few moments, he turned around.
"Are you okay in there?" he asked.
There was no response.
He got up and walked barefoot across the hardwood floor. The sun was up now. When he reached the bathroom door, he could see that the small room was empty. He stepped over to the bathtub and pushed the shower curtain aside. She wasn't there either.
He'd had his back to the bathroom, but surely he would have heard her leave the bedroom. So where did she go? She hadn't come through the bedroom. The only other way out was through the bathroom window, but it was too small to crawl out of and he would have heard the squeak of it opening because it always got stuck halfway up.
He backed out of the bathroom and looked around his bedroom. That was when he noticed the scatter of his clothes on the floor by the bed. His clothes. Hers weren't there.
Had he fallen asleep and she'd slipped out without him noticing?
He knew he hadn't, so she couldn't have.
Had she even been here in the first place?
That was an odd thought, except suddenly he wasn't sure of the answer. Real people didn't vanish into thin air.
He could remember her every detail. All the tattoos. The smell of her hair. The silky touch of her skin contrasting against the rougher texture of her hands--a mechanic's hands, she'd told him. He could remember her enthusiastic participation in their lovemaking, and his penis still had a touch of postcoital thickness.
He'd definitely had sex with someone--unless he'd just been jerking off in his sleep.
He sat on the bed and stared out the window for a long moment before he went through the apartment, turning on lights.
There was no one here.
It didn't look like there'd ever been anyone else here.
Great. He'd just fallen in love with a dream. Or a hallucination.
And surprising as that was, falling in love was exactly what had happened. He'd fallen for a woman he'd only just met, and fallen hard. Except it appeared that she was imaginary.
He rubbed his face with his hands. Halloween was always bad. It had been ever since the night Tim died. He'd always been able to bear the pain of the anniversary with a certain stoicism, hiding it from the world at large, staying busy, making sure he was around people so that he didn't have time to brood. But no matter how much he tried to distract himself, eventually he had to come back to the apartment, where the memories lay in wait.
To night had been different. He'd met Grace. She'd come home with him. They'd talked for hours, made love, fallen asleep in each other's arms.
Except he'd only imagined her. He'd imagined all of it. The sex. Feeling this incredible, immediate bond with her. Even sharing the story of Tim's death, which he never did with strangers...
Then his gaze rested on the two wineglasses standing on the coffee table. He remembered opening the bottle when they got back from the club. They'd each had a glass. There was still residue at the bottom of the glasses and the wine bottle on the table beside them was half full. More to the point, there was lipstick on the rim of one glass.
He looked back into the bedroom.
So she had been here.
But if that was true, if he hadn't just imagined her, then how the hell had she disappeared?
He waited until the hour was vaguely reasonable--staring at the clock until the digital numbers finally changed to seven--before he picked up the phone and called Danny. It rang a half dozen times before Danny finally picked up.
"Man," he said, his voice thick with sleep, "if you're selling something, it better be good."
"What could anyone sell you? You've already got everything you need."
"My point exactly." Danny paused for a moment, then added, "Jesus, John. It's seven o'clock in the morning."
"Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. I just need you to answer a question for me."
"The answer is: yeah, you're a dipstick. Now can I go back to sleep?"
"At the club last night," John said. "Was I with a woman?"
"Are you kidding me?"
John's heart sank. He knew it had been too good to be true. Except then Danny went on.
"She was awesome, man. I mean, not...
Copyright © 2009 by Charles de Lint
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