Part I: Dancing in the Shadows
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"One measures a circle, starting anywhere."
The diner door opened, the chill October wind whistling through the gap. Christopher stepped inside and pushed the door shut behind him, cutting the wind off in mid-moan. He straightened, removing his hat, and looked around the diner. He saw her almost at once, and could tell she had seen him as well, though she kept her eyes on the book in front of her. He made his way down the aisle and slid into the booth across from her.
She looked up, saying nothing. Her eyes were wide and watchful, caught somewhere between wonder and caution.
"Would you mind if I took my coat off?" Christopher said. His voice was low, mellow, musical; its accent unplaceable, but with a trace of English at its roots.
"Sure." She closed the book without marking her place and set it aside. "I...do you smoke? We could move to the smoking section if you want."
"I sometimes smoke, but no, I'm fine. Thank you."
She looked around. "I..." She looked away. "I'm really scared right now."
"Yes, I see." Christopher appeared to consider. "Let's start with the introductions, then, if you like. Then we won't be strangers to one another anymore." He offered his hand across the table. "Christopher Downing."
She examined his hand for a moment, then shook it. Her own hand was cold and dry. "Elizabeth McKay."
His eyebrows went up. "I don't suppose-"
They were interrupted by the waitress.
"Coffee, please. Lots of cream." She turned back to him. "Did you want anything?"
"Coffee would be fine."
The waitress disappeared. Christopher returned his attention to the woman who had brought him here. "McKay," he said. "You are George McKay's daughter, aren't you?"
"You remember me?"
"Oh yes, I remember you. Little Ella McKay. You couldn't have been more than six years old at the time-"
"I was five."
She is five, and she cannot sleep. She lies with covers scratchy on her neck and watches the lights of passing cars slide over the roof and down the wall. A monster- probably a monster- is watching her from the closet, but she ignores it. If she doesn't look, it can't find her. She knows this with a certainty that belongs only to five-year-olds. The covers are scratchy against her neck, and the night stretches out, out, out. The night is forever-long.
She doesn't hear the front door open and close downstairs, but she feels it. The door is a heavy, oaken thing. When it closes, the thump reverberates through the old house. She hears voices downstairs, distant murmurs with their consonants rounded off. She slides out of bed, cold nubbles of carpet on her bare feet, and goes to her door.
She peers through the crack between door and wall, out into the darkened hallway. Dim yellow light spills up from the downstairs rooms, giving the hall a faint and unearthly glow. She opens the door- slowly- slowly- no squeaking hinges- and creeps out into the hallway. This is forbidden territory, dark and mysterious in these long night hours. She creeps down the hallway, her five-year-old feet too light on the carpet to make the wood below creak, though the house is old and creaks easily. She goes to the stairs and sits down on the top step.
From here she can see a wedge of light between the stairs and the first floor ceiling. The light is coming from the dining room, from where the voices drift up to her. They are clearer now, and one of them is her father. The other is unfamiliar, mellow, so quiet that she still cannot make out what he is saying. She scoots down the stairs on her bottom, first one, then a second, then a third. The wedge of light grows larger.
She leans forward, resting her head against the cool wood of the bannister, and looks into the dining room. There is her father, sitting at the big dining table with another man. Each of them have a fluted glass of something in their hands, and a fat little bottle on the table between them. She cannot see her father's face- his back is to her hiding spot- but she can see the stranger. His face is framed in the warm glow from the nearby lamp, as clear and crisp as it will always be in the eye of her memory. As she looks down at him from her hiding place on the stairs, he looks up-
And directly at her.
"Quite frankly," Christopher said. "I'm surprised you remember. You were five years old, after all."
"You freaked the shit out of me." Ella crossed her arms. "It was really scary. You were one of the Adults, but it was like you could see right into my world. It shook me up."
"All from that one glance?"
"I was a kid. That was all it took."
Their coffee arrived. Christopher tore the top off a container of cream and sniffed at it. "Ella McKay," he said. "World grows smaller all the time."
She picked up a packet of sugar and shook it between her fingers. "The thing is," she said. "Like you said yourself, I was five. That was eighteen years ago."
"More or less."
"More or less." Ella tore open the packet and dumped it into her coffee. "I can still remember you, as clear as I can see you now. It's one of the clearest memories I have from back then." She leaned forward. "Christopher, you look exactly the same. Not similar, not really close, exactly the same."
"Eighteen years isn't as long as all that. I've aged well for-"
Christopher said nothing.
"My whole life has gone weird on me," Ella said. "The past five months have been really, really surreal, and I don't think I can believe that this isn't connected. And I don't believe that you just aged well, or took your vitamins, or that I'm remembering things wrong." She was quivering now, her nerves wound tight. "Are you really going to sit there and tell me that I'm wrong?"
Christopher said nothing. He stirred cream into his coffee, watching the the liquid swirl and coruscate around his spoon. "I need a day," he said, still looking down at his cup. "Come back here tomorrow at this time. If I come too, we'll talk."
"And if not?"
"Then not." He stood up, then paused, looking over her shoulder. A moment later he blinked, retrieved his coat and hat, and set a five-dollar-bill down on the countertop. "For the coffee," he said, and made his way back down the aisle to the door.
From her place at the booth, Ella watched him shrug into his coat, set his hat upon his head, and disappear out into the chill October night.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.