The story is playtime for some characters from a much longer piece. Pilots, pretentious art critics, and ghosts ahead.
"I’ve got a ghost.”
"I’ve got a ghost.”
Amelia was only half listening. She’d been trying to signal the waitress so she could get a cup of coffee and something else to eat. If Helen didn’t put something besides bourbon in her stomach she was going to be really sick later. Amelia was trying her best to avoid that. She caught the eye of the waiter loitering near the bar and gestured him over. “What’s this ghost?” she asked, turning back to the table.
Helen blinked slowly at her empty glass. Her face was something Amelia couldn’t figure out. Her eyes were too far apart and too large for her face, huge and green. Her forehead was wide over her eyes, only partially covered by her straight black hair. Her cheekbones were high and prominent making her rounded features look too thin and her chin came to such a sharp point that her face was almost literally heart shaped. She shouldn’t have been beautiful but Amelia was finding she could look all day. Even when the green eyes were blurry and red, staring down into a glass of bourbon.
When she was sure Helen hadn’t heard her she touched her arm lightly. Helen’s hand flopped pointlessly against the oiled wooden table. “Your ghost?” Amelia repeated. She had been sure the sculptor was too far gone for her usual cryptic stories but she was willing to let her talk. Eventually Helen was going to get to what had been bothering her when they met earlier in the evening. Or she’d pass out. Amelia had never seen her drink this much so she wasn’t sure which would happen first.
Helen didn’t look at her; instead she turned her head to the side. The waiter was standing there in his white shirt and black apron, looking annoyed.
“Coffee and a plate of those cheese fries,” Amelia said, wondering if Helen would touch them. She’d already tried chips and salsa and a plate of mozzarella sticks. If she ate any more she was going to have to roll herself out of the bar.
The waiter nodded, a gesture that didn’t disturb a single slicked back hair on his head, and started to turn without writing anything down. An arm shot out and grabbed his with surprising speed.
“A glass of bourbon and a glass of coke,” Helen said with the careful enunciation of the truly drunk.
The waiter didn’t frown but he turned his eyes to Amelia, questioning.
She met his look and nodded without hesitation. If Helen wanted it she was getting it.
He did frown then, his smooth young face twisted in disapproval. But then the look was gone; he’d gone back to the bar.
“He doesn’t just haunt the studio.”
Amelia frowned; she’d been watching the waiter skirt the busy tables to get to the bar. He was saying something to the bartender who looked over at them. She stared back with a raised eyebrow. The bartender looked away and shrugged. He wasn’t going to cut them off yet. “Who’s he?” she asked, drinking the last of the water out of her glass. She’d cut herself off after three drinks once she saw how hard Helen was hitting it. One of them had to be able to give the cab driver directions.
She was surprised to see that Helen was looking at her. Her eyes were half closed but focused. “The ghost. He follows me everywhere, in the house in the yard, everywhere.” The hand that had been flopped on the table was gripping one of Amelia’s. It was hot and dry and strong.
Amelia nodded like she understood what Helen was talking about. She put her other hand over the one Helen was gripping. “That sounds bad,” Amelia offered with patient sympathy. If Helen wanted to talk about ghosts all night in her clear light accent, Amelia would listen. She’d probably listen to her read the phone book if that was what Helen wanted to do.
Helen shrugged, shoulders moving slightly under the light jacket she hadn’t taken off since they’d come in over three hours ago. Amelia was sure she’d been cold but her hand was hot. “It’s not always bad.” She was leaning forward earnestly, knuckles white around the empty bourbon glass. “He gets angry when I’m upset.” She bent so far forward that she was practically on the table. He voice dropped down to a whisper that Amelia had to lean in to catch. “He does things.”
Amelia’s eyebrows drew together in a hard frown that made her angular features look severe. “What kind of things?” she asked harshly, not liking Helen’s tone.
She was momentarily startled when the waiter made another stealth approach and two glasses and a mug were suddenly dropping in front of her onto the table. He was already walking away when Amelia turned to look at him. She thought that he seemed disapproving even from the back.
“Once. This was after I bought the house. I was in the studio in the back, working on the studies for the Half-Life series. You remember that one.” Helen was nodding encouragingly at Amelia as if to jog her memory.
Amelia nodded back. She wasn’t about to forget that series, even if she hadn’t met Helen at the gallery opening where they were unveiled, she would’ve had a hard time forgetting a room full of white marble amputees. “I remember,” she assured Helen. She’d wanted to kill her roommate for dragging her to a gallery on one of their free weekends. She’d wandered the rooms aimlessly, drinking the free wine and feeling out of place without her uniform. In uniform no one had to ask what she did, there was no ridiculous fishing small talk. There was the uniform and the captain’s bars and everyone just knew that she was a flyer. Questions about that she knew how to field. She could tell anyone what it was like to break atmo at 1500mph.
“One of the studies, I think the one of George, it fell,” Helen said, bringing Amelia back to the table and the dark bar. Helen was gesturing with her new glass of bourbon. Amelia noted that it was already half empty. Maybe she shouldn’t have stared down the bartender. “I’d spent weeks on those studies and I had Jean and Kelly coming in to start on the marble the next day. I had been up for days and I was so upset. I threw one of the pieces. Right through the window.” Helen almost smiled and shook her head, expression serious again. “I was just staring at the hole in the glass and then do you know what happened? All of the other windows shattered. Every single one.”
Amelia’s eyebrows crawled up. Helen liked to work in natural light and had turned the old greenhouse at one end of her yard into a studio. She’d given it a roof and ceiling fans and kept the clear glass walls. Amelia couldn’t picture that much broken glass. “Is that why those guys were working on it the first time I came over?” There had been a construction crew working in the yard, working into the evening because it was summer and there was still light.
Helen nodded. “It took more than a month to get the glass in and I decided on some other renovations since I’d already rented that space near the museum,” she said almost indignantly. She had hated working in the warehouse space even if it gave her and her assistants more room.
Amelia just nodded. Helen lived close enough to the base that one of the takeoffs could have broken her windows, a place that old, there was no way they’d been made of tempered glass.
“And when that ass from the National Trust turned down my grant application and had that quote in the Times the next day,” Helen’s voice dropped and she gestured sloppily with both hands in imitation, “Her work is simplistic. The attention it receives is more the mark of a great publicist than a great artist.” She concluded by tipping back what was left of her drink and dropped the glass negligently on the table.
Amelia’s hand shot out and stopped the glass from rolling off the side. She was looking for a way to get Helen to agree to go home soon. The other woman was tall and Amelia wasn’t sure she could carry her up the front steps if she had to. “Guys like that talk because they can’t do anything. If he could paint or something, he wouldn’t spend all his time trying to take other people down,” Amelia said, paraphrasing what Helen usually said about critics. She didn’t really know much about it herself but she remembered what Helen thought about it with the kind of clarity she usually reserved for the trajectory around Mars. But then the first time she’d heard Helen’s voice it was on the subject of critics. Wandering the gallery with a glass in hand, Amelia had stopped to look at a sculpture of a man reclining. He had looked completely at ease, shoulders relaxed, eyes half closed. At peace with himself somehow despite the stumps that descended from his shoulders. The right was shorter than the left and for some reason Amelia hadn’t been able to look away, trying to imagine what kind of crash could have taken his arms off like that. That was when she’d heard that voice.
“He said that because he doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body.”
Something about the clear anger and the imperious trace of an accent had made Amelia smile to herself. She’d continued to look at the sculpture, noting that the man was also missing his left leg below the knee. If he’d done a belly landing in of the old P-3’s he could have lost the arms like that when the console collapsed. She’d kept her ear tuned toward the voice beside her and continued to speculate about the marble man. If he’d rolled and the aft bulkhead had given way then that would explain the leg.
“He is one of the top critics in the world and head of the CME’s grant committee.” The man’s voice had been high and didn’t have any real force behind it. Amelia had known that he’d lose the argument.
“Are you saying you agree with him, Charles?” the woman had asked in a dangerous, smooth tone.
Amelia had shifted a little closer to the voices, taking a sip of her wine and turning her head slightly to see them from the corner of her eye.
The man held his hands up and had leaned back a little. “I’m just saying that this doesn’t have the depth of your other work. Amputees in classical poses-”
“Might as well be dogs playing poker?” The woman had turned away from the man, her dark hair swinging over her shoulder, head back, chin forward.
“I’m just saying that I-”
“Isn’t there something about them being at peace with themselves? They’re just so unselfconscious about being, not whole,” Amelia had said before she realized she was going to interrupt them.
They had both turned to look at her and she looked straight back. The woman’s dangerous voice had translated into a dangerous smile. “At least someone gets it tonight,” she had said triumphantly.
The Helen in front of her, hand gripping a coke glass since the liquor was gone, wasn’t smiling. But there was the same dangerous look in her eyes. “That was when the grandfather clock fell,” she said seriously, blinking to keep Amelia in focus.
“When did it fall?” Amelia asked, not sure why they were talking about that clock and feeling a little ridiculous that she couldn’t track a drunken conversation when she was completely sober.
Helen narrowed her eyes at the woman across the table. “When I got the call. The clock fell and all of the pictures in the hall, they just fell off the walls.” Her head turned slightly to one side, staring hard. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
Amelia shrugged, wondering if Helen was going to remember any of this in the morning. “Could have been a sonic boom from the base,” she said reasonably once she realized they were still talking about the ghost.
Helen wiped her mouth with her hand. “That doesn’t explain how the TV goes on by itself or the cabinets in the kitchen are all open in the morning when I have a nightmare,” she said with utter seriousness.
“I guess I’d have to see it,” Amelia said sincerely. She was a little superstitious in her own way. All pilots were. It wasn’t a safe job. It wasn’t dangerous either. It just required attention. Hard, undeviating attention, and in six hours shifts that wasn’t easy. The pressure turned into superstition. The remedy was luck. They had preflight rituals or charms or got their palms read before missions. She believed in luck like she believed in trajectories. She wasn’t sure where she stood on ghosts though. She knew her co-pilot would completely lose it if she told him she was staying in a haunted house when she was off base.
Helen shook her head hard, gripping the table like she might slip off her chair. “No, see that’s the thing. He’s jealous. The last time you stayed over all of the books in the study were on the floor. They were all over the room. He doesn’t like you.”
Amelia tried to follow this logic, briefly wondering if a drink would actually help at this point. It occurred to her that maybe it was some fear of commitment thing. Helen wanted to blame it on this ghost. She liked the sculptor better when she was being straightforward. If she wanted to scare her off she was going to have to do better than some windows and open cabinets. “I think I can handle it. I’ll even help you clean up the next time he has a tantrum,” Amelia assured her with a slight smile.
Helen was watching her closely, staring into her face. Amelia didn’t let her expression change under the scrutiny and finally Helen nodded, satisfied with something. “I want to show you something. Let’s get out of here.”
Amelia nodded, not sure how it had happened but more than ready to try and get Helen home. “I’ll be right back.” She slid out of her chair and went straight to the bar, not wanting to wait for the waiter and let Helen slip back into her drinking mood. The bartender printed out the receipt and she signed it.
When she got back to the table five minutes later she was surprised to see that Helen was standing next to it, her bright scarf tied haphazardly around her neck and her purse over her shoulder. Amelia made sure Helen was braced against the table and put her own coat on. She left a few bills on the table and led Helen with a hand on her elbow. Helen wobbled a little but made it through the maze of tables and settled her arm over Amelia’s shoulders to keep her balance.
Amelia put her arm around Helen’s waist and hoped the sculptor wasn’t going to fall and take them both down on the sidewalk while they looked for a cab. Luckily there were a few lined up outside and Amelia only had to catch the driver’s eye. He opened the door for them and she maneuvered Helen into the back seat. “Oakland Avenue off Gerard, in Hillcrest,” she told the cabdriver who pulled out into the street with a lurch.
Amelia let herself breathe a sigh of relief. As long as Helen didn’t get sick or pass out it would all be fine. “So, you never said how you knew this ghost was a guy,” she said lightly, leaning over Helen to buckle her in. If she could keep Helen alert or at least awake until they got back she’d probably be able to make it up the stairs.
Helen had her head back and she was tall enough that it cleared the seat completely and she was looking straight up at the ceiling of the cab. “Oh, that’s easy. It’s Carl Prince. They found his skeleton in the basement when I was renovating last year.”
Amelia stopped trying to jam the ends of the buckle together, her voice tight. “You have a body in your basement?”
Helen lifted her head slowly, her eyes red. “I did. And he doesn’t like you.”