Ella woke with cold toes, despite the warmth of the room. Her sleeping body had withdrawn its warmth, leaving her extremities chilly and tingling. She sat up and massaged her feet through her socks, then looked around. Christopher was gone.
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She stood up and padded into the hall, wincing at the cold tiles under her feet. She heard vague sounds from the kitchen, and peered inside to see Manuel sitting at the table, reading a Stephen King novel. A bowl of sugary multicolored cereal sat close by, and as Ella watched, he dipped up a gigantic spoonful without looking and lifted it to his mouth. Huge, comical crunching noises filled the silent kitchen. Manuel seemed to notice that he was being watched. He put down his book and turned to her.
"Hello," he said. "I'm sorry, but Christopher is gone."
"Oh. Uh. Where?"
"Chicago. Urgent business. Would you like a bowl of cereal?"
She regarded the sugar-crusted nobbules bulging from the top of his bowl. "I'm okay, thanks. What time is it?"
"Middle of the night. Do you like pinball?"
"Er? Oh, right, Christopher showed me your room. I haven't really played in a long time."
"Maybe now would be a good time to start?" Manuel replaced the spoon in his cereal bowl and stood up. "I have a few calls to make before morning, and I would not want you to be bored."
He led her out of the kitchen, down the hall, into the narrow corridor of the game room. He switched on the light and gestured at the rows of brightly-painted machines. "Which do you like?"
"Um." She glanced over them. Fantasy motifs, science fiction motifs, strange designs she couldn't fathom, movie-themed machines. "Which do you recommend? I mean, which is the best?"
"Twilight Zone," Manuel said. "No question."
"Yes. You see, Pat Lawlor, after designing the Addams Family pin, was given complete creative control over what was done next. He made TZ next, and so the TZ is more complex than most pins, though Cirqus Voltaire and Arabian Nights are close. Between the various modes available normally, and the wizard mode of-" He broke off. "I'm boring you, yes?"
"No, no." Ella looked around at the silent machines. "I just have no idea what you're talking about."
"Mm. Well. Here-" Manuel went to one of the machines and fiddled around underneath it. A moment later, it came to life in a burst of light and sound. "Here. Try it. It's set to freeplay, so no need for quarters. I'll come check on you in a bit, yes?"
"Um. Sure." She moved forward and pressed the Start button.
"You open this door with the key of imagination." Said an electronic Rod Sterling voice.
Manuel left her staring into the machine, pressing flippers with fixed, monolithic concentration.
Half an hour later, he returned to set a glass of claret on a nearby table for her. He couldn't tell if she noticed or not, but when he returned an hour later, the wine was gone, and she was still playing.
Christopher stood in the pool of light cast by a nearby streetlamp, his coat collar drawn up almost to his ears. The autumn wind had come down chill and unrelenting, sweeping past his exposed neck as he stood awaiting an unwanted ride to an undesired meeting. There was probably a deep irony in that.
A car drove up the empty road and came to a halt beside him. The front window rolled down, and a shadowed face leaned out to peer at him. "Are you Downing?"
"Thank you, sir. I have instructions to take you to the Temple in Chicago. Is this in keeping with your Will?"
An acolyte, Christopher thought. Out loud, he said: "Yes. Thank you."
The man stepped out and opened the passenger door for him. The car was not- thankfully- a limousine, but rather a massive Cadillac, low and sleek like an aerodynamic battering ram. Christopher ducked inside, and the acolyte closed the door after him.
As his eyes adjusted to the low light, he saw that despite the limited space, Midian had outfitted the car with a full sidebar. Stylized bottles gleamed at him from the gloom behind the driver's seat, accented by a fully-stocked champagne bucket, glittering with fresh ice.
Christopher leaned forward and opened a wooden cigar box secreted behind the store of bottles. And- yes- several cubes of hash wrapped in waxed paper, next to a pipe carved with the head of a stag. Midian had thought of everything. He sighed and closed the box.
The car began to move.
Christopher fixed himself a gin and tonic, and sat back in the chilly leather as the miles of road spooled out before him, like unwound film in a projection booth. Spool after spool passing from nowhere to nowhere in a silent, endless flow.
They went walking in the woods before sunrise, Manuel dressed in a dusty gray coat that made him look even more like a down-on-his-luck merchant to Ella's eyes.
"I would expect to hear from or see Christopher sometime today," Manuel said. "If not, I will make an effort to contact him."
"Is there some reason you don't want to tell me what he's up to?"
"Only that it is his affair, and his choice how much or how little to tell. He is in Chicago, meeting with someone for business concerns."
"Nothing illegal, I hope?"
They walked for a while. The leaves rustled beneath their feet. They were falling, but had not yet turned to brittle brown skeletons. The little path wound down toward the northward valley, and through the thinning foliage of the trees, Ella could see the distant twinkle of headlights on the far-away highway.
"I always meant to ask," she said. "And I'm sorry if this sounds kind of stupid-"
"You will be fine, I'm sure."
"What's it like to live this long? I mean, what does it feel like? I can't even imagine it, all the years piled on top of one another, centuries and decades...you know..." She broke off, embarrassed.
Manuel looked amused. "Have you asked Christopher?"
"More or less."
"Well. In reference to whatever he said: Not like that." Manuel smiled. "For Christopher, it is a pile of broken days and nights. Not so for me."
"No. There is only one now, and it is now. It is always now, however much time should supposedly pass, and it will always be now. Wherever I have been, whatever I have done, now I am here. Poetic, yes?"
Ella smiled. "Sure. And you never think about the past?"
"I think about the past a great deal. But always as the past. I would be a fool to ignore what has come before, but I would be just as much a fool to count money I have already spent." Manuel paused. "Also, I suspect time is not what it appears to be."
"Just a thought. To answer your question more definitely, no, I do not worry much over the past. Things I have done, where I have been, these do not worry me."
"The future, then?"
"Yes, but only in the way an animal does." He turned to look at her. "Have you ever seen a dog or a cat sniffing at the air before a storm?"
"Sure. And throwing up grass." She grinned.
He smiled back. "Hopefully I will not be doing that. But I am that animal, sniffing the air, walking in circles, wanting to tuck my tail between my legs."
Manuel shrugged his curious European shrug. "Perhaps the air pressure is changing. Why do you sometimes look up suddenly, as if hearing a far-off noise?"
Ella blinked. "I do that?"
"Yes." Manuel smiled again. "Unless you are playing Pinball." His smile faded. "You may want to make plans to move here soon, if it becomes necessary."
She blinked again. "Uh? Well, I mean, I've got college and- it's not that I don't like you and Christopher fine- necessary?"
"Just a passing thought. I did not mean to worry you."
They paused, an odd tension between them. Ella looked at Manuel, and without being aware she was making a decision, decided to trust him. "Well. Speaking of plans, I've got a free pass to a concert down in Estabrook next Wednesday, and I could probably get more out of Damien. Christopher said he went to a Led Zeppelin concert once. Do you guys still do that?"
"From time to time."
"You should come down with me, then, and Christopher too, if he's back. Get out of the house. I mean, if there wouldn't be a danger of..." She gestured at him vaguely.
"There would not. Thank you." He smiled. She smiled back. The tension evaporated like early-morning fog.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.