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Beauty's Folly
    by Eugie Foster
Beauty's Folly
Artwork by Liz Clarke

When we lived uptown in the big house with the whirlpool spa in the backyard, Father told me never to talk to strangers, that only criminals and rapists loitered in alleys. He still believed that, even after our fortunes changed and we had to move downtown.

I believed him too until we arrived in the tiny apartment. Our landlady, a woman with purple hair, and her son, a youth wearing a sky-blue skirt that swirled when he walked, welcomed us with a bonsai rosebush dotted with sunny, yellow blossoms. Its pot was painted purple and blue, like her hair and his skirt. I adored the flowers, but I was more cheered by the gesture of goodwill.

Father had been as wrong about the poor as he had been about everything else: Mother, the stock market, and the leniency of the IRS. After that, I became an ambassador, the go-between for the world outside and my family. Someone had to. My sister, Luella, shook with terror whenever she went out, afraid to look up, much less speak to anyone. And Father, when he wasn't pulling double shifts at the factory offices, shut himself in his room.

So it was natural for me, when I heard the music, to chase after it.

I found the musician hunkered in an alley. As alleys went, it was nice. Between a donut store and an all-night laundromat, the air was perfumed by fresh pastries and eau de dryer sheet. Even the graffiti was fanciful. In the middle of a gang logo, someone had painted a window overlooking a forest. And within that, the nearest tree trunk was splashed with street graffiti suggestive of another window, perhaps one overlooking an alley.

I approached with a friendly smile and my hands in view, because despite what Luella says, I'm not a fool. Still, at a yard away, I began having second thoughts. Sitting on the ground, the brim of his hat obscuring his face, his head came to my shoulders. Standing, he would tower over me.

His hat bobbed, and he blew a delicate trill on his instrument. It was a wooden recorder, big as a saxophone. I watched his fingers, remarkably dexterous for their size, skip over the holes. His skin was the darkest I'd ever seen, so black I couldn't tell where his wrist ended and the shadows of his coat sleeve began. His fingernails had a luminous quality, like they'd been glossed with liquid pearls.

"What kind of recorder is that?" I said.

His answer was a fluid scale that spanned astonishing octaves from soprano to bass.

"You're very good. How come you don't play on the corners where there's more traffic? You'd get more money."

A flurry of notes rose, wistful and amused. Conspicuously absent was either donation cup or hat.

"Don't you play for handouts?"

The music stopped, mid-stanza.

"I'm sorry if I offended you. I'll leave --"

"Don't go." His voice was a deep rumble, almost a growl. He moved faster than someone his size ought, and his fingers clamped my wrist. I knew better than to scream, because nothing frightens a man more than a screaming woman, but my heart galloped in my chest.

"Sure, okay. I've got nowhere I have to be. What's your name?"

He released me, and while I longed to bolt away, his legs looked to be twice as long as mine.

"Eloy."

"What tune were you playing, Eloy?" I used the cheerful tone reserved for unknown dogs and lunatics, and took a tentative step back.

"Beauty's Folly."

"That's the title?"

"You are Beauty?" His words were thick and broken, like English was a foreign tongue.

"My name's Annabel."

Despite my best efforts, I flinched when he moved, relaxing again when all he did was offer me his recorder. At a loss, I accepted it. It was lighter than it looked.

"Beauty's Folly," he said. "Play."

"I wasn't -- I can't play."

He waited. Not wanting to anger him, I set the mouthpiece to my lips. I'd never learned an instrument, although once I'd blown through a friend's harmonica. I expected something like the loud and unmelodic bray from that time. Instead, a single note sounded, sweet and clear.

I gasped. "Did I do that?"

Eloy rumbled, deep in his throat -- a chuckle. "Roses. Your folly."

"What? I don't --"

He held out his hand, and I gave back the recorder. The brim of his hat shifted to reveal the shadowy curve of his chin. The line of his mouth emerged beneath a tangle of inky hair that poured in a mane around his face. His lips were thin and pale, and his face sloped back like a wolf's muzzle. When I saw his eyes, I made a noise. They had no whites, no change in color between iris and pupil. They were a pair of liquid orbs too big for his head. Utterly inhuman.

"Marry me?" he rumbled.

I fled, expecting to hear chasing footsteps or to feel his weight smash into me. I reached the end of the alley with only my panting breath loud in my ears. I glanced back once; Eloy was gone.

Back home, I told my family about my encounter. Luella, predictably, was terrified.

"He could have been a rapist," she said. "What were you thinking, approaching him like a streetwalker?"

Father peered from the ledger in his hands. "It's wonderful how you get along with everyone, Annabel, but you should be more careful. I don't like you chatting with crazies."

My indignant reply was lost when the doorbell rang. The grating buzz was so different from the chimes of our last home.

A delivery man stood at the door, his arms overflowing with red roses.

"You Annabel?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Delivery for you."

I stared at the basket of long-stemmed beauties. "They can't be."

He squinted at the number on our door and the card in his hand. "Address on the card matches. Says 'For Annabel.'"

He thrust the roses at me, and I staggered into the apartment with the basket, a confused "thank you" halfway out. Only he wasn't done. He stuck a box into my arms stuffed with rose-colored silk -- yards and yards of tiered evening gown, complete with train. Next came a satin bag that held a crystal vial of rose-scented perfume, the expensive kind sold in posh boutiques uptown. And finally, he tossed a little velvet box on top of the pile. Luella helped me juggle dress, perfume, and roses so I could open it. An antique ring nestled in the box, set with rubies and diamonds. The gems sparkled from a traditional rose cut, framed by curlicues of gold rosettes.

"I didn't order any of this," I said. "I can't afford --"

"Everything's paid up," the man said. "Sign here."

Father stood with eyes glazed and wide. He stumbled over the dress, his face becoming by turns white then flushed. "Who sent this?"

The delivery man shrugged. "Card doesn't say. Maybe you won a sweepstakes or something." He tapped his clipboard.

I signed. What else could I do?

I closed the door after him, leaving me to face the alarm and accusations of my family.

"Annabel," Father said, "when Luella suggested you were playing the tease with strange men, I never once believed her."

"I'm not --"

"But these expensive gifts are the kind a man buys for his mistress." His face crumpled, and his voice broke. "Do you miss all the extravagance we used to have so much?"

"Daddy, no! I swear, whatever you think I've done, I haven't."

"I hope not."

Luella helped me lug my mysterious windfall into the bedroom we shared.

"I'm sorry," she whispered when we were alone. "I know you wouldn't, aren't . . . I didn't mean to make Daddy so upset."

I scowled and pushed the dress to the back of the closet.

"I worry about your reputation. I wish you would too." She took an appreciative sniff from the crystal vial before setting it on our dresser. "And I'm afraid you'll trust someone you shouldn't."

"I worry about you too, y'know." I tucked the velvet ring box in the bottom of my drawer. "I wish you would go out and meet people. If you gave them a chance, you might find someone you like."

Luella grinned. "Now wouldn't that give Daddy a heart attack?"

We giggled, little girls sharing a secret.

There was no space to put the roses in our bedroom, so they clustered around the window beside their bonsai cousin. Father ignored them, and when he was home, Luella followed his lead. But when he was away, she often drifted over to inhale their perfume, sometimes reaching out to stroke their delicate petals.

Days passed, and the roses wilted and died. I threw them out, and our lives settled back into their routines. I ran errands and did the shopping, doing temp work as retailer and receptionist when the agency called me, while Father worked long hours in the factory. Luella kept our apartment tidy and acquainted herself with the moods of the temperamental stove.

Sometimes, when I passed the donut shop, I thought I heard recorder music, but I never ventured into the alley again.

One day, I came home after an afternoon of answering phones and alphabetizing files to find Father already there, with Luella both excited and dismayed. He paced our living room, his eyes alight.

"I'm flying to New York tomorrow," he announced. "One of the factory accounts belongs to an old business associate. He's split from his old partner and looking to expand. I called him up and asked if he'd hear my pitch, and he wants me to give it in person."

"Daddy, that's great!" I said. "And so generous of him to fly you up."

Father lowered his eyes. "He's not."

"Then how did you book the flight?" Credit cards were another indulgence the IRS had appropriated from us, leaving us with only a household debit card for emergencies. Our account balance was nowhere near enough to afford plane fare to New York.

"I'm so sorry, Pumpkin. I should have asked you first, but there was such a rush."

"My ring." His hangdog expression told me before his ashamed nod that I'd guessed right. "You pawned it."

I struggled against the surge of outrage that made me want to scream and stamp my feet. It was childish; I hadn't even worn it. But it had been mine. The thought of it, safe in my drawer, had reassured me -- a pretty, gold safety net.

"I'll make it up to you," Father said. "Once I get this new job, I'll buy you a dozen gold rings to replace it."

"I'm not mad." It was lie, but a necessary one. "I'm sure you'll wow them tomorrow."

Luella packed his overnight bag. I smiled and made the appropriate excited responses throughout dinner. But after Father had gone to bed, I locked myself in the bathroom, turned on the tap, and bawled into a towel. I was a spoiled brat for resenting what Father had done, spoiled and selfish and silly.

After I cried myself out, I had a long, hot soak, and felt better.

The next morning, all of us trooped to the subway station -- the express line to the airport. Luella and I took turns hugging Father and wishing him luck and a safe journey.

The apartment was emptier without him, but also charged with anticipation, awaiting his homecoming and hopeful good news. We scrubbed the place from corner to corner. I defeated the dingy gray walls, forcing them to gleam, and Luella declared war on the dust bunnies and dust elephants.

On the day of his return, we made a sumptuous feast: Luella's signature casserole and homemade biscuits, with strawberry ice cream for dessert. But the hour when Father should have stepped off the subway platform and made his way home arrived without him. I phoned the airport and the subway. His flight had landed on time, and there were no delays on the track.

All that night, we waited. In the morning, I tried to track down the man Father had gone to see. Unfortunately, we didn't have his name or number -- a foolish oversight, in hindsight. Father's supervisor at the factory was at a loss, and the few people who would still talk to us in New York hadn't heard from him either.

We tried to comfort each other and carried on our lives, going through all the obligatory motions of eating, working, and waiting. One day, I woke up and discovered the refrigerator was empty. We were out of everything -- milk, eggs, bread, cheese -- so I left Luella a note and headed out to restock.

As I passed the donut shop, a mournful strain of music stirred the air. It echoed my mood so perfectly; I stood stock-still, caught in the spell of it. Without meaning to, I drifted to the alley's mouth. Where I had thought to find Eloy with his recorder, there was only alley.

The trail of notes led me to the graffiti window of painted brick. Something glittered at my foot. It was my ring, the antique one with the rubies and diamonds, the ring Father had pawned so he could finance his ill-fated trip.

I did what I had longed to before; I put it on. The music soared. In front of me, the graffiti window took on shape and dimension. No longer flat paint, it was a portal through which I could see a living, moving forest. Leaves stirred and flickered in the breeze, and a fluffy seed pod floated by. I could smell the bouquet of green growing things -- moist life and musty decay. I strained to hear the shush of wind as it streamed through branches.

I didn't hear the wind. I heard my name, faintly, as though shouted from a distance. It was Father.

He was in there, past the breezy grove with its swaying trees, somewhere. I lifted my hand, the ringed one, and felt the forest wind. Playful at first, it turned insistent, tugging and finally dragging me forward. My foot came down on a carpet of grass. The light spilling through the canopy dazzled my eyes, and I blinked them shut.

When I opened them, I was in a bright, hospital foyer surrounded by hallways and escalators. On my right, a wall of elevators sat ready, and on my left, an untended reception desk stood spotlighted by the sun.

"Hello?" I called.

The single word boomed, shattering the stillness. Places like this were supposed to be full of noise -- the clamor of busy, waiting, and harried people. But it was silent. No voices, no footsteps, only me.

A file lay on the desk with Father's name scrawled in bold letters on it, and beneath it, a number: 417. I'd swiveled to the elevators and pressed the up arrow before it occurred to me that the folder had been turned so that someone on my side of the desk could read it.

The elevator chimed, and I boarded it and pressed the 4 button. A familiar dizziness fluttered in my gut as it rose. The doors slid apart, depositing me in a featureless, white hospital ward. The air was harsh with disinfectant, an acrid, sterile smell.

Room 417 was the only door with a number. It was a small room with a privacy curtain erected. The curtain jangled and clattered when I yanked it aside. Beyond the plastic barrier was an occupied bed, the blankets rumpled and twisted.

Father was tucked beneath the covers, asleep, his chest rising and falling. I exhaled; I hadn't realized I'd been holding my breath.

"Daddy." I touched his shoulder. "Daddy, wake up."

He opened his eyes. "Annabel?"

I fell into his arms. He hugged me, and I was a little girl again, secure that Daddy would take care of everything.

"I was so worried," I sobbed. "We both were. Luella thought you'd been kidnapped."

Father rocked me like he used to when I'd run to him with my childhood bumps and fears. "I'm fine, Pumpkin. I'm fine."

I wiped my damp eyes on my sleeve. "What happened? How did you get here?"

Father frowned. "It's a bit of a blur. I've been trying to get someone to discharge me, but I haven't seen anyone."

"Did you make your flight okay?"

"Oh, yes, I flew to New York. Never realized how badly they treat people in economy. Shameful."

"And you met with the man you were supposed to?"

"Of course. I gave him my pitch. It was a good one too. Reminded me of when I was important, and I could buy my girls everything they wanted."

"You're important to us, Daddy, and we have everything we need."

He continued as though he hadn't heard me. "We were about to call in the lawyers to finalize the deal when the police barged in. Somehow they'd gotten the notionthat I was a trespasser. I told my friend to set them straight, but the fool didn't say a word, only watched as they carted me off. Next thing I know, I'm here." He yawned. "At least it's quiet. You don't mind if Daddy takes a nap, do you, Pumpkin?"

"But we have to get you discharged."

"Fine, fine. You do that." Father's eyes drooped shut.

"Daddy?" I shook his arm. "Daddy!"

A knock sounded. Before I could answer, the door swung open. It was the hulking musician in the alley, Eloy. I could not have been more astonished if someone had told me I'd been elected president. He'd exchanged the ragged layers of a street person for a doctor's uniform -- white lab coat and stethoscope slung around his neck. He crowded the room, his uncanny features stark in the hospital fluorescence.

"Hello, Annabel," he rumbled. "You look lovely. Did you like my gifts?" His words, unlike the occasion of our first discussion, were articulate and clear, though still accented.

"I -- it was you that sent the roses and the dress and perfume?"

"And the ring."

The jewel glittered on my finger.

"Are you a doctor?"

"In a manner of speaking."

"Can you discharge my father?"

He shuffled his feet like a nervous boy, a fanciful impression for someone his size. "He's not well," he murmured. "The man he flew to see refused him outright on the phone. But he showed up anyway, raving about his starving daughters selling themselves on the street."

"Oh, no." I gripped the bed railing until its edges dug into my palm. "He's been under so much stress. I'll take him to a psychiatrist back home, make sure he gets help."

Eloy regarded me. "No."

"What do you mean 'no'?"

"He must stay here."

"Why?" I had to crane my neck to glare at him.

"Because I insist." He turned to go.

"Wait!" It was a crazy idea, but I ran with it anyway. "I -- if I stayed here with you, would you let Daddy go home?"

Eloy bent his neck, and I saw the glimmer of one black eye over his shoulder. "When I asked you to marry me, you fled."

"You scared me."

"I am repellent to you, even though no longer a beggar performing for handouts."

I could think of nothing to say.

"Still, you would remain of your own will, for his sake?"

"Yes."

"Very well."

The walls blurred and ran, spinning away in a rush of motion. I covered my eyes, sickened and dizzy. When I recovered enough to peek through my fingers, the walls were still, but both Father and Eloy were gone.

I sat on the edge of the newly emptied bed and buried my head in my hands. Long moments passed in this posture, and I began to feel silly. The fright and disbelief I had anticipated had stood me up. Maybe I was in shock. If so, shock was grossly misrepresented in the popular media.

As I didn't feel like throwing a tantrum or gibbering in fear, I went exploring. I got on the elevator and picked a floor at random. The doors opened to an identical hospital ward, except this one was patterned a discreet plaid in pastel blue and grey. I wandered the plaid hall, past plaid doors and over plaid tile.

I'd been avoiding the doors out a sense of propriety. Nice people didn't barge into hospital rooms. But curiosity overcame good manners, and I pushed open the next one I came to. It revealed a tiny room with a wooden folding chair facing a plaid wall. Disappointed, I tried the next door and found an identical arrangement -- chair, wall, empty room. The chair was different, with a taller back and padding on the arms, but it was still a chair. The next room was the same, and the next. Each chair was different, but that was all.

I did the only thing left to do. I sat in a chair. The one I chose was an executive model with cushy lumbar support and coasters. As I swiveled back and forth, the wall switched on, splashing up images and sounds. It wasn't like the portal in the alley; there was a reassuring flatness to the picture, like a television set or movie screen.

The screen-wall showed a party of some sort. The people were tall and graceful, their skin dusky and their hair in shades ranging from burnished mahogany to spicy cinnamon. Their faces were pointed -- like Eloy's fierce muzzle, but softer, more fox than wolf -- and they shared his eyes: dark, liquid orbs with no whites. Their clothes billowed in muted colors with strange folds that flared at hip and leg. Glittering ornaments of metal and stone circled finger and wrists, and dripped from ears and necks.

I couldn't understand their speech, but I didn't need to.

A crowd swirled around a woman with autumn skin and amber hair. She wept golden tears that glistened like pearls as she danced. No one noticed.

That woman could have been me, a year ago at one of the galas Father used to throw. I never told him or anyone how much I hated them, dancing and laughing as though I couldn't be happier, while inside I wanted to cry. I wish I could have told myself then what I had learned since, that the parties were meaningless, and being lonely in a crowd only meant I should have gone elsewhere.

The crying woman lifted her head, her face still wet, but her eyes clear. She pushed through the flailing limbs and gyrating torsos, and without a backward glance, she exited the frame.

The wall went blank.

"You did well."

The low words startled me; I hadn't heard Eloy come in. My heart beat so fast I thought it would bruise my rib cage.

"My apologies, I've frightened you. Would you rather I left?"

"I'm hardly in a position to dictate your comings and goings," I snapped.

"Why do you say that?"

"Hostages don't typically get to order around their captors."

"Is that what you are? My hostage?"

My pulse resumed a closer-to-normal rhythm.

"What else?"

He ducked his head. How could someone so imposing be so bashful?

"Is this a theater, some kind of multiplex?" I asked.

"More an arcade than a cinema."

"That was a video game?"

Eloy regarded the blank wall. "The first time I sat in this room, the woman would not stop crying. She wept until I grew frustrated and departed."

"She stopped fast enough when I was watching."

"Yes. And the fifth time I came here, she stopped for me as well."

I snorted. "What a dumb game."

A roar filled the room. I clapped my hands over my ears and cowered in the chair. The roar subsided and became the throaty rumble from the alley. Eloy was laughing.

"Forgive me," he said, "but that was the most marvelous thing I've ever heard."

"That's okay," I said, although my ears rang, and I think I was shouting. "Unless you're laughing at me, I suppose. I'm not so much upset as deafened."

"I forget how delicate your ears are, sweet Annabel. I will take pains not to distress them again."

Should I be bothered by the casual endearment? "You wouldn't want to let me in on the joke?"

Eloy grinned, displaying a mouthful of very sharp, very dangerous-looking teeth. "Alas, I've been told I don't have a sense of humor."

I couldn't decide whether he was teasing me or not. Probably because of the scene (game?) I'd just watched (played?), Eloy's appearance was no longer quite as unnerving.

"At least can you tell me what the rules are?"

He rumbled to himself. "I can attempt to explain how these rooms work, but there are no rules." Eloy nodded at the door. "If you will accompany me?"

"Where?"

"This scenario is completed. We must go elsewhere for the next."

I tagged after him into the plaid corridor. "Did I win?"

"Hmm? This is not the sort of game with points and opponents. But you did well."

He stopped at a door. "Would you like to try this one?"

"They're pretty much all the same to me."

Taking that as consent, Eloy ushered me in. Within was a director's chair, the green canvas inscribed with Annabel in white cursive.

I froze.

"What's the matter?"

"How did my name get there?"

He hemmed, a vibration I felt through my heels. "Would you rather go elsewhere? I am reasonably certain the next chair will not be personalized."

I grimaced. "No, we're here." I plunked down in my chair.

Eloy hovered behind me. It occurred to me that all the chairs were of average dimensions, human sized. Shouldn't chairs meant for a giant like Eloy be bigger?

"How come you don't get a chair?"

"I don't mind standing."

I scowled. "Quit that."

He blinked. "What?"

"Changing the subject or saying something that's like an answer but really isn't. It reminds me of Sunday School."

Eloy's mouth quirked. "Sometimes I do not have an answer you would understand."

"Then say 'I don't know' or 'I can't say.'"

"I will try. I'm sorry I angered you."

At Eloy's mournful expression, I relented, perplexed at how we had come to this strange reversal -- him anxious and me blustering.

"See, the nuns always gave me the runaround when I had questions. Drove me nuts. All the same, I bet I was pretty aggravating to them too."

"Certainly not. I'm sure you were a model child."

"No, really --" I saw the twinkle in his eye. He was making fun of me! "Hey, I thought you said you didn't have a sense of humor."

"I said, I have been told that I lacked one."

"Seems to me that says more about the shortcomings of whoever told you that than yours."

"Thank you." In his mercurial way, Eloy had become solemn.

"So how do we start?"

As though waiting for an opening, a scene appeared, this one overlooking a thoroughfare filled with the men and women I'd started to think of as Eloy's People. A bedraggled man stood at an intersection, his skin patchy grey and shriveled. As people passed, he greeted them with his hand outstretched in the universal language of panhandlers. A few people sneered, fewer tossed a glittering bead for him to scrabble after, but mostly they ignored him, stepping around him as though he was debris in their way.

It made me angry. Sure, I'd been like that once, too wrapped up in myself to look at or talk to the beggar in the road, but I wasn't anymore. It had taken poverty to make me see him, but at least I did.

A man broke from the shuffling crowd. His sapphire hair was braided into a rope, woven through with a chain of jewels. He made his way to the beggar.

At first, the street person wouldn't look at him, too afraid or ashamed. But as the other man continued to speak, his face lifted, and his hand dropped to his side.

"What are they saying?" I asked.

"The beggar is agreeing that the winds have been particularly harsh of late, and now he is inquiring whether the rich man's kin are well."

"They know each other?"

"Not until this moment. Now the rich man is talking about the new fashions and how he does not like them."

"They're making small talk?"

"Now the rich man is expressing that he must depart, and the beggar is wishing him well."

I watched the sapphire-haired man wave and walk away. When he exited the scene, the picture switched off.

I contemplated the blank wall. "Is it some sort of personality test, like a Myers-Briggs, but assessing my reactions by -- I don't know -- galvanic skin response or something? It provides a situation and shows an outcome depending upon how I react?"

Eloy rumbled. "It does indeed respond to your reactions. But in this Myers-Briggs test, is there a correct answer or solution you must attain?"

I contorted my neck until I could see Eloy. "Not really. It's supposed to tell you about yourself, how logical you are versus how intuitive, that sort of thing. It's subjective."

"Ah. These games are also subjective and intended to instruct. But there is always a correct answer."

"How can there be a right or wrong if it's subjective?"

"Hrrm." Saving me from a painful neck crick, he stepped around the chair and hunkered down. "Does subjectivity preclude a single answer? If a thing is my opinion, and opinions by their nature are subjective, can my opinion not be wrong?"

"Um."

"What if I were of the opinion that you would thrive best in an environment devoid of air and light? Am I not wrong?"

"I suppose you are when you put it like that."

He made a sound between a burble and a rumble.

"Eloy, who are you? Where are you from?"

"This is where I would normally say something in the manner of your Sunday School nuns."

"Are you an alien?"

"Strictly speaking, no. But it may be simplest for you to think of me as such."

"Are you showing me scenes from a different planet as part of a -- a mission?"

Eloy repeated his burble-rumble. "You have seen too many fiction productions. I have no mission. My people are not waiting to descend upon your world, and I am not gathering data."

"Are we even on Earth?"

"Yes and no." Exasperated, Eloy waved his hand. "I have no answer that will make sense to you. You are safe. You will find no others of your kind or mine within these walls. Is that not enough?"

"Not even a little bit."

"It is the best I can do."

I pulled my knees to my chest. "Eloy?"

"Yes, Annabel."

"Why am I here?"

"I presume you don't mean metaphysically."

"No, I don't mean metaphysically."

He burble-rumbled, a sound I was beginning to equate with a sigh. "I am lonely."

"Lonely? Can't you go back there?" I gestured at the wall. "Wherever there is?"

"No."

"Then why me? If you wanted someone to talk to, wouldn't you rather have someone witty or smart or, I don't know, important? Why did you kidnap my father, and how come you want me to stay here?"

"It is . . . complicated."

I wondered if my human voice could burble-rumble.

"Will you marry me, Annabel?"

He sounded so wretched and miserable. I felt sorry for him. No matter how he looked or where he was from, he was lonely and hurting. But I couldn't marry him.

I hid my face behind my knees. "No."

When I looked up, he was gone.

I sat for a long moment. A heavy something built the longer I stayed, like a weight of unease and sadness in the air. At last, I bolted out of my "Annabel" chair and paced the plaid hall, but I couldn't shake the feeling.

I took the elevators up and down, roamed corridors in different colors and patterns, and picked doors to open and chairs to sit in at random. I watched tribes of Eloy's people in isolated wastelands and nuclear families in teeming cities. I saw men, women, and children go about their lives, some happy, some sad, most neither and both. Eloy's people were a lot like mine. They had their problems and their worries, their weaknesses and their virtues.

But no matter where I went, a restlessness chased me, easing when I entered a new room, but returning doubled when the scenario ended. It was as though my distress, and possibly guilt, had fused with the shroud of Eloy's loneliness and was following me.

After a room where I watched a mother abandon her newborn infant, I felt drained. Not sleepy or tired -- I wasn't hungry or thirsty either for that matter -- I felt hollowed out, stretched thin. I didn't want to do any more rooms; I didn't want to do anything but hide, and maybe cry.

The silence pressed on me, as though it was waiting for something.

"Stop it!" I shouted. "Stop it stop it stop it!"

The sensation grew stronger.

I ran into the corridor and mashed the elevator button until the car arrived. I rode it to the lobby where the reception desk still sat in its beam of sunlight -- although my father's folder was gone. Beyond it was a pastel hallway, indistinct from the other hallways, but surely, surely it had to be where I'd come in.

I hurried along it, taking corners at reckless speeds -- knowing there was no danger of careening into hapless strangers -- until I rounded one that opened on a set of double doors. They were gray and heavy-looking, the kind used in schools and hospitals. And prisons.

A glowing, orange "EXIT" sign hung overhead.

I pushed at the handlebar, but it didn't budge, didn't even rattle.

"What's the point in having an exit that won't open?" I yelled.

The exit sign went dark.

"That's not what I meant!"

I tried again, shoving harder, using both hands. I swore at the door, and finally, I took a step back and kicked it, driving my heel against the stubborn bar. For my efforts, I was jolted foot to chin.

I staggered and ended sprawled on the floor. Hot wetness dripped on my hands, tears of frustration.

"Annabel?" Eloy spoke at my back. "Annabel, are you hurt?"

"It's not fair," I whispered. I turned to see him go to one knee. He leaned to me, hand half extended. But he hesitated, like he was unsure of his reception.

"This door should not be here," he said. "It has never been before."

"That doesn't make any sense," I murmured.

"I know."

"I don't want to go back to the game rooms. They make me feel bad."

Eloy uttered something harsh and guttural in an alien language. "You should not have had to bear the caprices of those rooms. I'm very sorry. I assure you that you won't be troubled by it again."

"What was it?"

He burble-rumbled. "It is meant for me, a manifestation of emotions from the scenarios and the player, amplified to heighten the, err, game play and to encourage participation."

"That was supposed to be an enhancement?" I asked, incredulous. "Like a special effect?"

"I'm afraid so."

I took his hand and let him boost me to my feet. In turn, I hauled him up. Or rather, I yanked on his arm, and he solemnly pretended that I was helping. Face-to-face, so close, Eloy made my breath catch. He was so big. I was getting used to him towering over me, but touching, near enough to feel the warmth of his breath on my face, I was aware of the spread of muscles in his arms and chest, the tawny heat of him. It was like holding hands with a lion or bear -- dangerous, powerful, and alarming. And also fascinating.

I jerked my hand free and backed away.

Eloy didn't say anything, but his eyes were so sad. He turned -- shoulders hunched and head lowered -- and began to shuffle down the hall.

We walked in awkward silence for several yards. "Eloy?"

"Yes, Annabel?"

"Is there any food around here?"

"Are you hungry?"

"You didn't answer my question."

Burble-rumble. "No, there is no food here."

"Will I starve?"

"No."

"I don't need to eat?"

"No."

"Or sleep, or drink?"

"No."

The hair on my arms prickled. "Am I dead?"

"No, you are very much alive."

"That's a relief."

He nodded. "I'm glad I could ease a little of your disquiet."

We were quiet again until we came to the foyer.

"Eloy, do you like that stupid game effect?" I tried to imagine weeks, months, years, all alone with only artificial emotions for company. The thought was unbearably depressing.

"It depends on the room. It is good to share in another's joy, sometimes."

"A fan of comedies, huh?" I sidled close and twined my arm through his. "Me too. So, can you recommend a room to play next?"

He stiffened when I touched him, but then he covered my hand with his own -- not to restrain me, but to let me know I was welcome. "I believe I can."

It was actually fun, playing the room games with Eloy. He translated for me, and occasionally made wry comments about the people onscreen. The scenes he chose were often comical, and I found myself chortling with the heroines and protagonists.

When I tired of the rooms, we rode the elevator up and down, and I invented another game, where I made him close his eyes and guess what color or pattern the walls would be when the doors opened. I smirked when he got one wrong. He missed several in a row after that, I bet on purpose. He never laughed, though. I said the most outrageous things I could think of, but he would only smile, and occasionally give his rumbling chuckle.

At one floor, Eloy fell silent, refusing to guess before the doors parted.

The corridor was white.

"Let us return to the lavender floor," he said. "I know of a room where a lady refuses to open her house in the season of heat, for fear her neighbors will realize she cannot afford --"

I brushed past, leaving him to trail after me.

None of the doors were numbered. Still, I knew the way. Room 417 had changed into a blank wall with a chair, but it was the right one. The chair was a recliner like we'd had in Father's den in our old house. When I was little, I'd loved to sneak in and sit in that recliner. It had made me feel big and grown-up.

"Do not stay here," Eloy said. "Come away with me."

I clambered onto the recliner. The wall showed me the tiny apartment I'd shared with my family. The yellow rosebush was still in the window. It had grown, and someone, probably Luella, had transplanted it into a larger pot.

Father was in the kitchen, talking to someone on the phone. The lines in his face were deeper, and his hair had turned from streaky-gray to all white.

"She's still not responding, doctor? . . . No, we don't have any supplementary insurance."

There was a long pause, and I watched Father grow agitated. "I will not send my daughter to that institution. If our insurance will not pay for her hospital stay, she will come home."

"Are they talking about me?" I pivoted the chair so I could face Eloy. "Is this place a hallucination? Are you a delusion?"

Eloy whuffled at my distress. "No, no. They speak of your sister, Luella. Her mind was always fragile, a weakness she inherited from your father. Your absence was the final blow to sunder an already fractured psyche."

"But Daddy's better."

"Yes. I did my best to ensure that."

I stood and the wall switched off. "That needs an explanation."

Burble-rumble. "Before I sent him home, I fixed the rifts in his self-esteem, giving him the perspective he needed to heal. In time, he recovered."

"You can do that? Wait, how much time? How long has it been?" Without sleep or meals to mark the days and only the constant lighting that never dimmed or brightened, I'd stopped thinking in hours and minutes. Surely, only a couple days, maybe a week had passed in these strange halls, but the white of Father's hair suggested much longer.

"The instrument you saw me with," Eloy said in a rush, "you called it a recorder. It is a tool I use to assist me with the game. It is what allowed me to allay your father's illness. Would you like me to teach you how to use it?"

"How long have I been here?"

"Do not be upset," he pleaded. "Time is different here --"

"How long?" I screamed.

He flinched. "Three years."

My knees buckled, and I floated to the floor. "Three. Years?" The floating was courtesy Eloy, who had caught me when my legs folded.

"Annabel, are you hurt?"

"I've been gone for three years?"

He propped me against the wall and kneeled beside me. "Do not hate me. Please do not hate me. Your father knows you are well. It was a small thing, to give him that reassurance. But I could not ease your sister. She didn't understand or believe him when he talked of me and this place. She worried that your father continued to suffer from delusion. He wonders that too sometimes, but then he looks upon the dress I gave you and is comforted."

"What about Luella? Can you make her better?"

"Do not ask this of me."

"Can you?"

There was such desolation in his eyes. "If I left to tend her, time would steal you away. You would be stranded here, and for each handful of moments I spent there, a decade would pass for you."

"That doesn't make sense. If time goes slower here, then --"

"It is very complicated, and I don't have your words to explain it. It comes to this: though my years are endless, yours are not. I would be gone longer than your life."

My head hurt. "You said you could teach me how to use the recorder. Can you show me how to heal Luella?"

"It is a simple matter --"

"Then let me go to her; let me heal her. I'll come back. The time doesn't matter to you."

"That I have infinite time does not make the passage of it easier," he said bleakly.

"Please, Eloy. Let me go."

"I do not think I can bear being alone again." He cupped my cheek with his hand. "But I cannot bear to be the cause of your unhappiness either." His hand slid to take mine, lying limp in my lap. He wrapped my fingers around the smooth barrel of the recorder, summoned magically from the air.

He lifted me in his arms, and the walls melted. When he put me down, we were in a forest grove. Before us was the tree trunk painted with graffiti. The painting was indeed a window, or rather a portal, and it opened onto the alley between the donut shop and the all-night laundromat.

Eloy nuzzled his chin on my cheek. "Take what you have learned in the rooms of my house. You are a creature of empathy and compassion, my Annabel. You should be with those you love, not a captive to my seclusion. Go to your sister and play for her. Be patient, for minds heal slowly, but she will mend."

"Eloy --" I tried to turn, but his hands on my shoulders wouldn't let me.

"Peace, sweet Annabel. My will is not so strong. Go now. Be with those you love. And if you should think of me, try to remember me fondly."

He gave me a gentle shove. I stepped forward, and I was in the alley. At my back, there was only the graffitied brick wall. I clutched the recorder in both hands and ran home.

My key was in my pocket where I had put it, days or years ago. It slid as easily into the apartment's lock as it ever had.

"Daddy! Daddy, I'm home!"

Father hurried in, open ledger in hand. "Annabel?" Papers fluttered to the floor. We came together in a crash of arms and laughter and tears.

"What happened? How did you get here? And what is that?"

"I don't have time to explain. I need to see Luella."

"She's in the hospital," Father said. "They have her in the psychiatric ward."

"I know. Eloy told me."

Father's forehead creased. "The doctor in that sanitarium you found me in, his name was Eloy." His eyes hardened. "But he wasn't a doctor, was he? He stole you away."

"He also helped you. Do you remember that?"

Father nodded, slowly. "Sometimes, when I'm about to fall asleep, or before I wake up, I remember music, a melody without words."

"It's from this recorder. I have to play it for Luella. Please, Daddy, can you take me to her?"

He was brimming with questions, but he reigned in his curiosity and called a taxi. At the hospital, we bypassed the elevators -- leaving me inexplicably relieved -- and tramped up the stairs. The psychiatric floor was dark, and it smelled of despair. The nurse at the reception desk raised her eyebrow at the hour, but then escorted us through a secured door.

This place was familiar and unfamiliar. The stark whiteness and the doors I knew, but the sounds of people, their movement and smells, that was alien. My disorientation intensified when I saw the room they had given Luella: 417.

My sister wasn't asleep. Her eyes were wide and darting as she lay in four-point restraints. She didn't react to us. The nurse left with a curt directive to press the buzzer when we wanted to go.

I crept to my sister. "Luella, honey, it's Annabel. I'm back."

Her eyes chased after shadows or visions I couldn't see.

"How long has she been like this?"

Father shook his head. "It's hard to say. She never truly recovered from having to move downtown, and there's a time in there that's all jumbled in my head. But she got to be in a pretty bad way, hearing things, convinced people were watching her through the cracks in the walls." He rubbed his eyes. "I tried to take care of her. She seemed almost lucid sometimes. I don't know how she got the knife. She attacked Ian, cut him before we could wrestle it away from her. She kept shrieking he was going to kidnap you."

"Who's Ian?"

"Sorry, Pumpkin. I forgot how long it's been. Ian is our landlady's son, the woman with purple hair, you remember? He'd taken to helping Luella when I was sick -- errands, the occasional fix-it job, that sort of thing. I'm pretty sure he wanted to ask her out."

"Is he okay?"

"He needed stitches, but he's fine now. He stopped coming around after that, of course."

I rubbed the recorder's satin finish. "When Luella's better, you'll see she gets out and meets people, won't you? Maybe even see if Ian will consider giving her another chance?"

"You say that like you won't be here."

I lifted the recorder to my mouth so I wouldn't have to answer. But then I didn't know what to do. How did I start? What if I did it wrong? I inhaled and thought of Eloy in the elevator, delighted by my glee. He'd called me a creature of empathy and compassion.

A steady note filled the room, my breath transformed into sound. A melody began, grave and thoughtful. It reminded me of Luella as a little girl, always serious and so afraid of getting into trouble. But as her sister, I had also been privy to her mischievous side. The tune turned lilting and joyous. When we were little, the world had not been a place of demons and sorrow, but one of wonder, to explore unshackled by phantom terrors. They were such absurd things, her fears, monsters out of proportion to any reality. Wouldn't it be better if they could be put aside like ill-fitting garments she had outgrown?

When the music was done -- I knew when, somehow -- I set the recorder aside. Luella slept. It was a tranquil slumber, without dreams, without grief. Eloy had said minds heal slowly, but swiftness didn't matter. That she would get better was the important thing. And she would, for I'd given her the clarity and serenity she needed to find her way.

Slumped in a chair, Father slept too, a smile curving his lips.

I should buzz for the nurse and go. Eloy was waiting for me. How much time had passed for him, alone in that place of endless rooms? My heart ached, thinking of him drifting among the scenes of his people, reminded of the comfort of family and the camaraderie of friends, and never able to be part of it. But I was so tired. After all, I hadn't slept in three years.

I dreamed. I had the certainty sleepers get when they're trapped in the landscapes of slumber. In my dream, I ran along a white corridor, calling for Eloy and crying. He was in room 417, but I couldn't find it. I threw open doors, and inside each room, a blanket of dust covered solitary chairs -- bar stools, futons, hammocks, benches.

When I came to the last door in the long hall, it was clearly numbered, 417. Inside, Eloy curled around the recliner from Father's den. His beautiful eyes were closed, and he was still as death.

"Annabel?" Father jostled my shoulder. "Annabel, wake up." The concern in his voice swept away the haze of sleep.

"What is it?" I mumbled.

"You were crying in your sleep."

I jolted awake. "What time is it? How long did I sleep?"

Father checked his watch. "It's a little after five a.m. What's the matter?"

I jammed my finger on the call buzzer and held it down.

"I fell asleep!" I wailed. "And he's waiting for me all alone! It's years and years for him. Oh, God, why did I let myself sleep?"

Father pulled me from the buzzer. "Pumpkin, this Eloy makes you happy?"

I stared, wild-eyed. "Yes."

"Then run to him. As fast as you can." He took out his wallet and dumped bills into my hand. "For the taxi."

I hugged him. "I love you, Daddy."

"I love you too, Pumpkin."

At last, the nurse came, grumpy and cross. She unlocked the gate, and I bolted down the stairs and out into the emergency admittance bay. There was a cab in the circle drive, depositing an old man in a wheelchair and his fretful wife. I all but shoved them aside.

I rattled off the address and waved my handful of cash at the driver. "You can have it all if you hurry."

He stomped the gas pedal, and we careened away. Thankfully, because of the hour, traffic was light. The driver, my wonderful, reckless cabbie, ran stoplights and took corners at full speed. When he turned the wrong way down a one-way street, I sank my fingernails into the upholstery, but I never considered telling him to slow down. I chanted under my breath for him to hurry, please, please hurry.

He braked so hard I was hurled against the back of his seat. Bruised and stunned, I recognized the donut shop out the window, and beside it, the brightly lit, all-night laundromat. I shoved money at the cabbie and scrambled out. Stumbling like a drunk, I ran to the graffiti-portal.

I lunged for it.

Pain stabbed through my arm and shoulder, and the world went twisty and sick. I lay on my back in the alley, head throbbing, pain filling my temples and rolling down my skull. Had I broken something? I groaned and levered myself to my knees. With my good arm, I reached for the portal. Except it wasn't a portal; it was hard bricks and paint.

"Eloy!" I pounded my fist on the wall. "Eloy, I can't get in!"

Far away, someone shouted at me to shut up.

Pain coursed through my arm, and I cradled it. "Think, Annabel. Calm down and think!" The antique ring on my finger gleamed in the grey predawn, and I knew what I needed.

I rushed to the apartment, each footstep like a hammer to my skull. Out of breath and with a stitch like a searing needle, I burst in. I ricocheted off the wall -- had I concussed myself? -- on the way to the bedroom and wrenched open the closet. I flung aside blouses, skirts, and pants until my fingers closed over the sleek coolness of silk, the rose-colored evening gown Eloy had given me.

Getting out of my clothes and into the dress was an exercise in frustration and agony. I couldn't make my hurt arm go through the sleeve, and I tore several buttons trying to do up the back. I gave up on the buttons and gathered the awful train -- yards and yards of silk -- under my arm. The straps slipped off my good shoulder, but I kept the dress on, mostly by willpower.

No doubt I looked like a refugee from a lunatic debutante's ball as I reeled back to the alley, cursing my head, my arm, and the godawful dress. I was sure I would be sick before I reached the graffiti-strewn wall. Somehow, I managed to keep head, dress, and stomach under control.

I clenched my eyes shut, reached my hand out -- my train tumbled free -- and marched forward. When I didn't bash into anything, I opened my eyes.

The sun was a pink glow on the horizon, obscured by spreading branches and tree trunks. I cried out in relief and swore as it set off a flare of explosions in my head.

Sunlight piercing through the canopy blinded me. I cursed it too. When I could see again, I was in the hospital's foyer. I leaped for the elevator and pushed the button.

It didn't light.

Then I got mad.

I kicked the closed doors and stabbed the button again. I howled at the unfairness, not caring anymore when the pounding in my skull doubled.

I stomped to the escalators in the foyer. They were shiny, pristine, and unmoving. I plodded up them, fuming. By the time I reached the fourth floor, my legs felt like lead, my vision had narrowed to a blurry tunnel, and the hem of my dress was tattered from catching on the escalator jags.

"Eloy!" I shouted. "Eloy, I'm here!"

He didn't reply, of course. In my dream, he had been at the end of the corridor, behind the very last door.

I hurried to it, hating the tangle of silk that slowed me. My fingers slipped on the knob. I screamed at the door, wrenching and tugging at it until I wrestled it open.

The tableau was the same as in my dream. Eloy lay curled around the recliner, motionless.

"Oh, no." After all that rushing and fury, I went reluctantly to his side. I kneeled, afraid to touch him, afraid he would be cold.

"Here I am," I whispered. "I'm back." I blinked, and tears coursed down my face. "You told me I should be with those I loved, so I came back. I love you."

My throat closed, but I'd said what I needed to say, so it didn't matter. I slumped forward, giving myself over to the heaving, ripping sobs of grief.

"You are hurt," he rumbled.

I gulped and sat up, scrubbing the wetness from my face with my sleeve.

His eyes were open, their beautiful blackness gazing at me. "What have you done to yourself? Is that the dress I gave you?"

I laughed. It didn't come out right and turned into a hiccup. At least my head felt better, although that probably meant I was going into shock.

"Th-the wall w-wouldn't let me in," I hiccupped. "I r-ran into it."

"I see. You do have a knack for making things difficult."

"Th-that's gratitude f-for you."

"Where is the recorder?"

I groped at the folds and layers of silk. "I left it with Luella," I wailed. "I w-woke up so scared, I forgot it."

He pushed himself up and tugged me into the cradle of his arms. "That is unfortunate, but there is no great harm. Don't cry."

Cuddled against him, the knot in my chest eased, and all the pain from my assorted injuries diminished. "I'm sorry."

"I meant that it is unfortunate because if you had taken it with you, it would have opened the portal, and you would not have had to resort to, err --" He plucked at my dress.

I gawped. "Isn't that what you meant the dress for? Like the ring?"

"Not as such. The ring, yes, but it had only the one use, as you discovered. The dress was merely silk and thread, a pretty thing I thought you would like."

"Then how did I get in?"

He burble-rumbled. "This place is a sort of dimension, a prison and a school made for me by my people."

"You're a criminal?"

"I'm a prince, actually. But also something of an aberration. I suppose you might call me a sociopath."

"Did you murder someone?"

"No!" He sounded affronted. "I never acted upon my disdain. But while my affliction was deemed curable with time, I was judged too dangerous to leave free. They were afraid I would bore of an existence of peaceful contemplation. Seeing the sense of it, I agreed to exile and rehabilitation until such time as I could overcome my disease."

"That's what the rooms are for?"

"Yes. And by a quirk of their design, a fissure can open from here to elsewhere, which is how I came to be where you first found me. They form during storms of emotional turmoil -- mostly madness that I have observed. Unfortunately, the complexity of different time flows and the varying atmospheres is hard on me. My excursions had to be limited."

"I'm pretty sure I understand your words, but they're not coming together into any sort of sense."

"The load of your family's dementia opened the way for me, sweetness. All of your family are touched by it, even you."

"You're saying that's how I got through the portal?" I took in the torn, half-on/half-off dress, remembered how I had staggered and ranted in the alley. "You're saying I had to be unhinged to get in."

Eloy roared. He was laughing, the way he'd laughed only once before. I lifted my hands to cover my ears, but it turned out I didn't need to. His laughter didn't overpower me.

"I think I missed the joke again."

"Marry me, my darling, lunatic Annabel."

"Of course I will."

"Do you love me?"

I scowled. "I said I did. We're going to be one of those couples that bicker a lot, aren't we?"

He hefted me into his arms as though I weighed nothing and stood. "It is time for me to return to my people. I am no longer an exile, and this is no longer my prison. You have set me free."

I was suddenly shy. "What will your people think of me? I'm different from them."

"My love, you are indeed different. I hope you will not mind too much." He faced us to the wall, and it became a sheer, reflective surface, the biggest full-length mirror I'd ever seen.

Eloy held a woman in his arms, but not a human woman. She had dusky-indigo skin and hair as blue as the evening sky. Her face was pointed like a fox's, and her eyes were pools of black. She wore an ugly, pink dress that didn't suit her, but even so, she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.

As I gaped, Eloy set her on her feet. I tottered forward, and only when my hands touched the wall, fingertip to fingertip, did I believe it.

"How --"

"It is complicated. May we just call it magic and let it go at that?"

I burble-rumbled.

"You don't mind?"

I laughed. It was a roar. "Mind? I love me!" I threw my arms around him.

"You are also taller," he rumbled, "which will prove convenient."

"It will?"

"Yes, it will." He tipped my head back and kissed me. And I had to agree that yes, it was indeed more convenient.

Secure in the arms of my beloved, I was eager to discover the marvels of a new world, embrace my new people, and most of all, to revel in the madness of love.

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