Reversal:Curio Vignettes 03

By: Cara McKenna

Acknowledgements



Thanks again to Ruthie and Bobbi, brave samplers of my strange new recipes.





Chapter One



The deadbolt clatters in my shaking fingers, twisting into place with a click.

Click, and my heart slows, if only by a fraction.

Still it thumps, a thousand beats for every footstep as I cross the room, moving so quickly I startle the pigeons into flight from the window ledges. I tell myself, Don’t look beyond the glass, but I sense the city all the same, the labyrinth of Paris spreading out boundless as a sea.

One set of curtains shut, then a second, finally the third. Panic left me faint but gravity’s returning to my limbs, focus settling my jumping gaze. My head throbs with every heartbeat, white light pulsing at the edges of my eyes.

I hurry to the bedroom and shut those curtains as well, drawing darkness across the room. Not dark enough. With their ties freed, the drapes hanging from my bed’s canopy fall into place. I crawl between them and lie on my side, hugging my knees. I’m a child in the womb, in the warm, safe darkness. I imagine the slow, calming thump of an omniscient heart, its rhythm telling my own pulse to stop racing. But there’s no soothing heart. Just the harsh wheezing of my breath, the faintest tick of a clock on the other side of the wall.

Clocks.

I could go to the clocks, to the cabinet in my living room, once my panic has eased. I could take that brass carriage clock apart, the one Caroly gave me in the spring. I picture it, March seeming so very long ago, the time when she still paid to enjoy my body for an evening. Years ago, surely, yet mere months.

I could take the clock apart. Putting it back together would take me days—days I would happily sacrifice if it meant I could stay in one place, making sense of the wheels and springs, hunched over the coffee table with a magnifying lens at my eye, so relieved to let the world pass me by.

It’s safe inside the belly of that clock. Its bounds are so finite, the order of things so precise. I can make sense of things, inside…

Tick, tick, tick, comes the murmur through the wall. The time. What time is it?

Caroly will be here at seven. Is it seven now? I haven’t any idea, but my compulsions have me thrusting the curtain aside and swinging my feet to the floor. Perhaps it is still early. Perhaps I have as many as two or three hours before she arrives—

But no. When I hurry into the living room the whispering clock tells me it’s twenty of seven.

I should have started dinner long before now. I don’t even have time for a shower. All because of that stupid, stupid notion. And that awful parade. Yes, the parade is to blame.

I shake my head at the thought. It’s not the parade, you idiot. No normal man would find a scapegoat in that.

No normal man would go out for an hour’s errand and get lost for four. Not in broad daylight, not in the only city he’s ever called home.

Now dinner will be late and my beloved guest will find me white and trembling from my own failure.

No normal woman would put up with a man like you. Your brain is a knot of frayed wires, too much bother to untangle. Be grateful anyone’s deemed your body worth buying for an evening’s distraction—

The buzzer jolts me like a shock. She’s early, and I’m too late. Too late to pretend I’m at all prepared to see her, too late to dress myself in the trappings of a functional man.

I press the button to let her into the building. For a minute I stand still, counting my flaring breaths. My mouth is dry and tastes of old coffee.

Soon I feel the faint echoes of her footsteps coming down the hall. I twist the deadbolt back open, that click again, but this time it feels dangerous, as if I’ve freed the city from its cage and welcomed it into my flat to prowl and sniff.

Yet when the door does open, all that slips inside is Caroly. Her wide lips smile, her soft curls bounce as she turns to lock up.

Another turn, another smile. “Hey you.”

Her face alone calms me, that pale skin and those cool blue eyes. A real calm, unlike the artificial safety of my cabinet. My shoulders drop and the stitch in my chest loosens. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so relieved to see someone, not since I was a tiny child, lost in the supermarket and rescued by the familiar tattoo of my mother’s heels on the tile floor.

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