Are You Adaptable (part four)
Beloye slipped past him to sit on the bed; she couldn’t pull on heels standing.
He moved to hover, studying her through each stage, of wedging her foot in, zipping, scrunching, one boot, the other boot. In a mimicking tone that sounded like no one on earth, never mind Stenner, Dan said, “Look at Beloye. She’s upset.”
“He didn’t say that either.” She grabbed her purse and left.
She ought to have taken another twenty minutes, dressing; and she ought to have taken a jacket, going out the door. Her boots weren’t right for the rain. Gutters puddled, slick leaves lay plastered flat to the bricks. Beyond the trees Beloye saw white clouds drive across the face of others deep pewter, gravid with the next downpour.
Radice’s was two streets from the corner. She could be sitting down with a cup of coffee that much sooner, crossing Green Mount Cemetery. It wasn’t curiosity alone, coming on strong at this thought, but a fluttery surge of adrenalin. Beloye scorned this in herself, that Stenner’s ghost story could scare her in broad daylight.
She saw a mournful, suffocating spirit, a woman stuffed in a box, lodged under a patch of grass…some eternal resting place that had seemed right to a relative. A Tolhurst type, winning at last by attrition. A parent, making the improper child conform.
She was giving a lot of backstory to this ghost.
But how did you know? Maybe they were abroad at any hour, anchored and indignant, wanly peering through raindrops, wanting so badly to contact one with whom they could share…
Share their story, Beloye supposed. Share their fate.
“This is not the place.”
Stenner touched her arm lightly, pointed up the brick pathway. “Your intuition is good, though,” he went on. “Walk with me a little farther and I’ll show you.”
Intuition, Beloye thought, wasn’t the word. She had too much imagination. Even so, she was pleased, rather than startled, to have come across Stenner. Or had he come across her? She must have been standing, contemplating a tree, the way normal visitors at Green Mount would contemplate a plastic wreath—
Did it look good, propped like that? Was it enough money?
“Look around,” Stenner invited. Shaggy cedars bent heads in Greek-chorus clusters; oaks, even half denuded, black and latticed against the sky, interlocked twigs and sheltered their charges.
Green Mount was a park where no one loitered. Only an elderly generation who’d bought their plots decades earlier remained to be interred here. Otherwise, people used its walkways, tooks shortcuts over its swards, admired its fall leaves, let their dogs run unleashed.
She felt no paranormal vibe. She saw the tilted headstones, but Stenner wanted her to see the local merchants, the apartments above their stores, the money towering up beyond, the high rises.
“There are vast sums to be made.”
He looked fixedly at one tower in particular, with its three abutted promenances, center thrust out like a ship’s prow, flankers receding, all encased in silvered glass. Of this, the panels fit so seamlessly, that moving clouds, then a passing helicopter, appeared like stories multiplying on an array of television screens.
“Stacked human units, the choicest spaces selling for seven, eight figures. This is a nice little area, right? See all this undistinguished, unpreservable, unprofitable, real estate? You got a genuine, old-fashioned coffee shop, Radice’s over there. You got a dry cleaner’s, carryout, curio shop…dash em all off the street and put up another tower. But,” he laughed, “you can’t encroach on burial ground.”
“Then, what you were thinking…”
Vantage points must converge where they stood. Who knew what could be seen from the tower penthouse? From the studio rentals above the storefronts? What sport for pranksters?
“I don’t see what they would have to gain,” she tried.
She felt intolerant, all at once, of obnoxious conversations with men. She jerked a strand of hair from her collar, and turned a sharp eye on Stenner. His expression was amiable, encouraging. “Yesterday, you said you thought someone was playing a trick, making spooky effects to scare off dummies. Just now you started talking about the tower. You want me to guess something, is that it?”
“Oh, well,” Stenner said, and, “Nah. It’s only a topic of conversation.” He added, “I don’t think we need to stand here. You came out without a coat. Why don’t you let me buy you a cup of coffee?”
“I’m meeting Nola.”
“I like Nola.”
He carried everything. He insisted on it, as though he thought the task wasn’t safe for Beloye… In heels, toting a heavy purse and a large coffee, she might misstep. She found a table where they could wave to Nola from the window.
He popped his box-top. “Take what you like.” He had ordered a dozen kolachkes to go. “I figure I should have something for my mom, when I see her later.”
Beloye wanted to know what Stenner did for a living…whether he had a first name. But, she felt obligated. Yesterday he’d mentioned some kind of surgery.
“How’s she’s doing?”
Mom, he told her with a crinkly smirk, the two of them sharing disrespect for the ailing (though Stenner meant it, and Beloye didn’t), had just had her right knee replaced. The left she’d had done two years earlier. He put his coffee down. “She doesn’t want therapy. She says she’s busy. I’m busy.” He picked his coffee up. “Dealing with this, for one. I tell her, you’re gonna find out you can’t fix everything with surgery. One day, the doctor’ll say, no more. You won’t have the choice. Lose some weight. Move a little. She’ll have to do what she could have done in the first place, and…ask me…not needed any operation.”
He looked inside his cup, put it down once more, looked out the window. Beloye looked out. Oddly, she had the impression she’d just seen Nola pass beyond sight, blocked by someone’s black umbrella.
Stenner, exasperated with his mother, needed more coffee. He drank half of it on the way back from the counter to the table. Then Nola, in white sneakers and windbreaker, dovetailed with Stenner, coming from the doorway to the table.
“Nola, it’s good to see you.” He drank the rest of his coffee. “I can’t stay.”
He took his jacket off, reached into a pocket and took out his phone; then hung the jacket on the back of Beloye’s chair, telling her, “I don’t want you to be cold.”
“Nola, I’ll be in touch,” he said then.
Nola had turned her back on him to study the menu above the counter. Beloye handed Stenner his box. “Don’t forget,” she said. He met her eyes with a look that seemed conspiratorial, as though her words had some other meaning.
She watched him walk up the street. Nola said, “Sit down, Nola.”
“Oh! Nola, sit down. Sorry.”
“I don’t care about you and Stenner.” The corner of Nola’s mouth seemed to stray from some restraint; her hand was clenched on her keys.
“There’s nothing to care about.”
“But I want you to understand. Do you know how I met Stenner?”
“You didn’t say.”
“I was at the library. I was looking at this thriller, to see if I wanted it. Stenner came up behind, and said to me, you know what’s wrong with those books?”
“Stenner works at the library?”
“Why would you think that? Don’t interrupt.”
Then, on the verge of speaking, Nola interrupted herself. From over the straw in her Coke, she eyed Beloye.
“Ask Stenner where he works, if you want to know. Don’t ask me.”
“So he told you…” Beloye prompted, meek.
“He said, this guy, the hero, is some kind of rogue agent, right? The government has to go begging to a guy named Tracer Snowe…go figure…when there’s no one else can save the world… He’s that smart. So what happens? Everywhere he goes, the enemy knows exactly what he’s doing. He can’t arrange to talk to someone, even, without getting shot at. You’d think for less money, they could get the stupidest guy…and they’d hardly tell the difference. The government should bid the job out, right? I mean, Beloye, this know-it-all, who didn’t introduce himself yet, was going on like that, reading over my shoulder. So I got the book anyway,” Nola finished. “Maybe I shouldn’t have.”
Are You Adaptable
(2015, 2018 Stephanie Foster)