The stars were incredible. In the darkest night with no other light around you have to feel small in front of that many stars. My vision blurred, and even through the tears I was still awed by that much starlight.
I had to pick a good costume, and I knew it was important to look good this year. Last year I had gone as a clown, and Terry had helped me put the makeup on, yeah, that thick white caked greasy stuff, and she also helped me take it off when she threw a drink in my face. We had been friends for a couple of years and we ought to have known better than to try to be lovers, but she didn’t and it crashed at her annual Halloween party.
So this year people wondered if I would show up, and if I did show up, would I bring a date, and if I didn’t bring a date, if it would be awkward. Terry had found someone else, and I knew the guy. He was one of those people everyone likes, and I suspect they were getting friendly before that last drink was served. That’s just bitterness, I admit it, because Terry wouldn’t have cheated on me, and I doubt she could have kept it a secret if she had. But I had fallen back into the old habit of not going out, and keeping to myself and writing. A few of my short stories sold, and I got picked up for a few months to write for a zine, for money, so I was actually doing fairly well. But I knew showing up alone at Terry’s party would be kinda weird, but I went anyway. I truly love costume parties. This would be the fifth in a row for me, and honestly, Terry always threw a great party.
I was going to skip out, and my friend Rob was the one who pushed me back in. He and his girlfriend were going as his and hers robots, and man, did he do a great job on the robot suits, but at the last moment he broke his foot so he offered his work of art to me. I think he knew I was looking for an excuse to go, and Rob’s Robot was more than enough. It was made out of plastic sheeting fitted with arm holes and the arms were made out of corrugated tubing. Rob had rigged a DVD player up to a thin screen monitor and a cam so on the front of the robot it looked like there was a hole right through! The helmet was made out of a metal strainer, just to make it look goofy, but it covered my entire head. There were a lot of those tiny LED lights, and somehow Rob had rigged it so anyone who talked to him would also get the lights moving in rhythm with their speech. Most of the people at the party knew about the suit, but some of them didn’t know about Rob’s foot. Terry greeted me at the door thinking I was Rob, and I didn’t tell her any differently, and glided past the question about where Debra, Rob’s girlfriend, might be.
I spent most of the night flipping open the hood to explain I wasn’t Rob, and telling the story about his foot, but I also noticed that Terry and Norman, her latest conquest, dammit I have got to quit that, were doing quite well together. They looked like a good couple. And really, how else would someone named Norman come to a costume party except as a Knight? Terry was dressed like a princess and I knew it meant something for them to plan their costumes together, like Ron and Debra…
“You’re the ex boyfriend, the one on YouTube from last year’s party.”
I had seen her at the bar, and Terry always hired a great bartender, but I didn’t know her. She looked young, maybe twenty, and she was wearing a very simple but very original dress. It was something like a peasant would wear, or a serf but she was stunning in it. She had long black hair and incredible blue eyes. She was a little young for me to be hitting on, but she was very cute.
“Yes, that one got quite a few hits.” I laughed but I wondered how she had recognized me.
“You came in disguised, and you’ve avoided our hostess.” The woman said as she sat down on one of the wooden benches in the yard. “The little blonde in the cat suit told on you.”
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Joan of Arc,” she said, “And your name?”
“Eli, the Tin Man.” I replied. “Joan, you look great in that dress.”
“Oh, you just noticed?” Joan smiled. “You’ve been watching your ex-girlfriend since you’ve gotten here, and you are just now making contact with another woman, even though you’ve got the best outfit by far. But you aren’t in love with her.”
“Really?” Okay, what does a man say to something like that? “How can you tell?”
“You aren’t drinking enough.”Joan said. “You’re watching her because you’re curious about what is going to happen next, not because you’re jealous.” She shifted over a bit and I was forced to either watch her or Terry. Joan won. “You still care, Eli, and that’s weird considering about this time last year you were soaking up a margarita with your face.”
It was odd how this woman watched people, and how well she did it. She told me that Samantha, the cat suit woman, had been watching the gate all night until I got there, and when she realized who I was, or who I wasn’t she stopped watching.
“So does Samantha have the hots for you or this guy Rob?” she asked.
“Hard to say.” I admitted. “I never liked her much. She talks too much.”
“Did you notice how the guy with the telephone on his leg keep trying to talk to her?” Joan asked. “And why is he wearing that weird suit?”
“It’s polyester and he’s a phone knee.”
Joan laughed hard at that, and I liked her. I noticed Terry was watching so I eased a hand around Joan’s waist. “If I push you away right now you can never come back to one of her parties again, you know.” Joan said.
“If you’ll laugh like that at the phone knee joke you aren’t interested in pushing me away.” I said, and I held my breath a little.
“You’re right, Eli.” Joan leaned over to me and kissed me on the cheek. “So let’s scandalize the party and leave together. “
She helped me take the robot parts off and put them in the trunk of the car, and we headed out to my house. I live out in the sticks, but that didn’t seem to bother her at all. She didn’t have a purse, or any accessories like most women do. And we talked for hours in the front yard where all the stars are. I went in and got a blanket and we lay on our backs and held hands. She knew all the constellations, and knew the names of many of the stars, and I could see the shadow of her hand as it flitted back and forth between light years of space between stars and star and stars. The sun was coming up so we went inside and she let me undress her.
We spent the next day talking, and she wanted to see my writings, and it occurred to me that she hadn’t said anything about having to get home, or where she was from, or how she knew Terry. She deflected a couple of questions, and I could tell after the third or fourth try she was getting irritated. What to do? A woman twelve years younger than I, willing to spend the rest of Halloween weekend with me, and no questions asked? Yeah, as curious as I was, I didn’t want to
push her away. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, and after dinner on Sunday she went to take a shower.
“Who do you think is really hot, Eli?” Joan asked me from the shower. “Any woman, at any time.”
“Marilyn” I said. “She still does it for me. Why?”
Joan didn’t answer. I waited for her to say something, anything at all, but there was only the sound of the shower running. I waited for a little while then went to check on her, did me liking Marilyn make her mad? But Joan was gone. The floor was dry, the windows where still shut and all the towels still hung on the rack. But Joan wasn’t there. I called her name but she was totally gone. There wasn’t a sign of her anywhere. I went outside and no one was there either. I was left alone under a sea of stars, and I had no idea if Joan had ever existed at all.
The next couple of weeks were really odd. Terry called me and asked me who my new girlfriend was, and I told her Joan and I had spent the weekend together and then she had left. I didn’t try to explain Joan seemed to have escaped down the shower drain while I wasn’t watching, but several people had videos up. Joan had existed. I had not dreamed her. I felt as if Joan and I had connected, really connected, but now she was gone, and all I had left was someone’s video of her almost walking into the camera lens. Ron’s DVD player recorded a brief flash of Joan as she began to speak to me, but the recording stopped when I took the helmet off. I printed out a picture of her, and hung it over my computer. By New Year’s Eve I decided I wouldn’t see her again, but I kept the photo anyway. Terry and I had lunch together, a week before Valentine’s Day, and I knew why. No, I hadn’t seen that girl again, and congratulations.
Honestly, I couldn’t forget her. Each night I would step out into the yard and look up at the stars and wonder where Joan was. No one at the party had known her, or where she came from. Everyone seemed to think we were a great couple, and I thought it too. But Summer came and went, deadlines had to be met, the bills had to be paid, Terry got engaged to Norman, they split up, reengaged, and by the time the end of October was creeping up on me, Terry sent an invitation to the party.
Ron and Debra rebooted the robots and they looked great. Norman was a knight again, and Terry went this time as an angel complete with wings that flapped by themselves. I went as Elvis. I never liked him much; I thought he was overweight, over rated, and over dosed, but I saw an Elvis suit online cheap and had to do it. It came with an Elvis wig with glue down sideburns, I mean, how could I resist? The party was in full swing when I arrived. I wondered how long it would be before Terry started showing. She wasn’t drinking and that wasn’t like her at all. Norman went to a lot of trouble to be nice to me, and I was really very touched by it. He seemed to go out of his way to make Terry happy and it made me feel good to think she had given him some sign our friendship meant something to her.
“Hello Eli,” a woman said, “it’s good to see you again.”
I turned around and there was someone who looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe.
Joan was five foot even, maybe a little taller, and she weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. This woman was a good five or six inches taller, and twenty pounds heavier. And she looked remarkably like Marilyn Monroe.
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“Isn’t this who you requested nearly a year ago?” She asked.
Did you ever wonder what you would do if you ever really saw a ghost or something like that? I mean, everyone wants to experience something freaky and weird but she it comes right down to it, the average person isn’t ready for anything like that at all.
“Do you know Joan? What happened to her?” I demanded and sure, Joan could have told her about this, but it was the voice.
“I am Joan, Eli, and I’ve missed you, “she said. “It’s hard to explain, but I’ll give you an out if you want. You can either come with me, now, and we can spend some time together, or you can stay here at the party and wonder for the rest for your life what happened to the woman whose photo you still have hanging above you computer monitor. I can’t tell you much, and I won’t promise you anything, but if you thought last year was good, I’ve got thirteen days to kill, and I won’t mind spending them with you.”
We got some stares leaving but I didn’t care. Elvis and Marilyn together? Why not? It was odd being with her. She was dressed in some sequined out evening gown but she still had the same voice as the woman in the peasant dress. This time she had a suitcase, and had hidden it in the bushes around a tree in Terry’s yard.
“Kinda sure of yourself, aren’t you?” I asked.
“I wasn’t going to stay if we didn’t leave together soon, Eli.” She said. “I’m here to see you, and I don’t have a lot of time to waste.”
She took the evening dress off in the truck as I pulled away from Terry’s house, and she grinned at me.
“Watch the road. Don’t kill us this early in the evening, go east, towards Patterson, then South until you get to State Route 94, and take a left.” She told me.
“Where are we going?”
“To the beach, Fernandina,” she said “I have a house rented for two weeks. Want to stay with me for two weeks, Eli?”
It’s a lonely road, State Route 94, and it’s a place the locals call The Big Empty. There’s twenty miles of road without a house, or a paved side road, or anything at all for that matter. In the twenty minutes it took to get to The Big Empty, I knew this woman was the same woman I was with last year. We picked up on conversation we’d had a year before, and started it again.
“Slow down, turn off the road here, there’s a side road, “ she told me, “yeah, there, I have a blanket.”
It was the same sky. All the stars were in the same place they had been last year, and I watched the shadow of her hand as she traced the constellations for me. It was the same woman. Everything about her was the same except for the fact she looked exactly like Marilyn Monroe.
The sun was coming up so we drove to the house on the beach, and in a pair of jeans and her hair tied back she looked a lot less glamorous but still beautiful.
“This blonde stuff will wash out if you want, Eli” Joan told me, and I still called her Joan. “Or do you prefer blondes?”
“I like redheads, actually.” I told her.
“I was one at one time.” Joan said. “I can be again, if there is a store open.”
“So this is the deal, “I asked.”You’re going to spend the next two weeks with me here, and I’m not going to ask any questions, and you’re going to fall all over yourself making me happy?”
“Yeah, Eli, that’s it.” Joan smiled at me.”Anything you want, everything you want, anytime you want it, and you don’t get to ask me any questions.”
“Tell me your real name.” I asked.
“I couldn’t if I wanted to, and I do want to.”
“Tell me where you’re from.” I asked.
“I couldn’t if I wanted to, and I do want to.”
“What if I held you down and tickled you?” I grabbed her and she offered no resistance.
“What if you held me down and didn’t tickle me?”
The house was in a perfect place and Joan sabotaged the lights surrounding it so there wouldn’t be anything to interfere with the starlight. She seemed to know her way around electricity very well, and there wasn’t anything she couldn’t cook. She knew exactly which store had what she needed, knew where to get a certain wine, and she seemed preoccupied with time.
“You haven’t slept with anyone since we met,” she whispered in the dark, “tell me why.”
“I haven’t had much time.” I told her.
“Time, Eli?” I felt her sit up in the bed. “It’s an amazing thing. You have no idea what it’s like, and I wish you did.”
A week went by, and on the seventh day we walked on the beach until we came to a pier. Joan knew when the original pier had been built, and when it had been washed away by a storm, and when it was rebuilt. I started to ask her how she knew so much about the place and I could tell she didn’t want me to. I was learning. She could, or would, share with me what she could, but there was something holding her back. She had gotten six inches taller in a year, aged fifteen years, and knew the names of all the stars in the sky. Joan wasn’t her real name but she wasn’t able to tell me what it was. Time was running out and I could tell it was hurting her when I tried to get information from her. With a week to go I totally surrendered to the idea this was what it was, and lived for each moment.
She didn’t pack for her last day, but I knew it was here. Joan was incredibly sad, and I was too. I knew not to ask, and I knew she wouldn’t tell me, but I wasn’t going to let her out of my sight, not even for a second. I wondered if there was some sort of cut off time, if she stayed past that point if she would be allowed to stay, or if there was something that might happen, good or bad. I wondered if there would be a flash of light or a puff of smoke. We lay on a blanket on the beach and talked about the stars in the dark and I could feel her beside me.
“Eli, kiss me.”
I kissed her long, slow, and hard, and she kissed me back.
“Take me inside.”
I held her hand until we got to the door, and as I slid the door open I let her hand go, just for an instant, and when I reached for her again, there was no one there.
“You’re two for two the last two parties picking up strange women.” Terry said.
“You’re pregnant.” I told her.
“Yes, and if you had stuck around you would have heard the announcement.” She laughed. “What’s wrong, Eli?” Terry stopped laughing. “My god man, you look depressed.”
It was worse this year. I searched the internet and found every photo I could of Monroe, and each and every one looked like the woman I had spent two weeks with at the beach. The eyes were the same, the curves where the same, and what made it worse was there was a video of Elvis and Marilyn holding hands as they left Terry’s party. I spent each night waiting for a knock on the door, a phone call, anything at all to let me know Joan, or whoever she was, was still alive, or still around, or something, anything. But after a month there was nothing and after two months there was nothing. After Terry’s baby was born in June I decided it was time to stop having a once a year girlfriend. Whatever was going on had to stop because it was making me insane. I didn’t want to say it out loud, I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but before I could stop the words from coming out of my mouth I looked up at the photo I had of Joan and said, “I love you.”
October 31st found me in Savannah. I wasn’t going to the party, and I wasn’t going to be home. In two years I had spent two weeks and one night with a woman I knew nothing about and it was driving me mad. A friend of mine had an art show, and I was going to spend the weekend going through the gallery, and maybe spend some time writing on the beach. Cari’s paintings were always colorful and there was one hanging by itself, away from the others that looked like a close up of Jupiter, on LSD. I liked the use of dark red against the milky colors associated with the planet.
“You have to admire her use of the red,” a woman said, “It’s a sign of fearlessness.”
She was a thin red headed woman, and I knew her from somewhere. She was in her late twenties or so, and wore a small green emerald around her neck, and that hung down close to her…
“My god.” I whispered.
“Hello Eli, it’s good to see you again.”
“You…you’re Misses Harrison, my kindergarten teacher.”
“The first woman you had a crush on, when you were five, I’ve read most of what you’ve written.” Joan laughed.
“How in the hell did you find me?” I asked.
“I have two weeks, Eli, same as last year and I’ll offer you…” Joan started to say but a man started shouting. There was a fight right outside the window and we turned to watch as one man shoved another. The second man pulled a gun and suddenly they were fighting for the gun and it went off. I heard the sound a split second after I felt the pain in my gut.
There was a field of stars, an ocean of stars, a sky so wide it seemed as if it curved back around itself and the stars were as thick as berries in the Summer. I lay on a bed and the entire ceiling was made of stars. The room was the size of a cathedral and the bed sat in the middle of the room. It was like floating in space. A woman entered the room and I watched as she walked over to where I was. She looked young, maybe twenty, and she was pretty. She had long red hair, and was a little lanky.
“My name is Evelyn Smith, and I was born in Nahunta Georgia, in 1917.” Joan began. “I was one of the first female track athletes in Georgia, and I was a writer. In High School they were talking about the ’36 Olympics but my father wouldn’t hear of it. Instead of college he wanted me to marry the boy next door and have kids like a sensible woman. One night I ran away from home, or I just left, me being nineteen and all. I got lost in the woods, and I didn’t care if they ever found me or not. I really didn’t.”
“The Spiders came.” Joan said. “They are from a Galaxy in the Arachnid quadrant, so that’s what I call them. They aren’t really spiders at all, and they don’t really have a form, not physically. They made me a deal. I would work for them and in return they would set me back down anywhere I wanted to be.”
“So you’ve been here for…”
“Over ninety years.” She said. “The Spiders are real big on being fair and living up to the word of their contracts. They said if I wrote about my life in Nahunta they would use it to study people. I was given a year to write five hundred thousand words about my life, and they would let me go again.”
“And they’ve kept you this long?” I didn’t like the Spiders already.
“I cheated.” Joan laughed. “I stopped writing one day, and they told me I had to stay until I finished. I wasn’t aging, I had the best view of the universe around, and I liked watching other people. My room, my living quarters, not this place, has five monitors I can watch anyplace on earth I want. I watched my parents grow old and die. I watched most of my friend have kids, and their kids have kids. I watched World War Two and I can tell you, Eli, I really didn’t want to go
“And they let you get away with this?”
“The Spiders keep their promises.” Joan said. “They were going to let me stay until my contact was up. If I never wrote another word I could stay forever. No one had ever found this loophole before. It takes a special type of person to want to do this. They decided I was more useful as an observer. They let me go back to earth two weeks a year, and the rest of the time I watch.” Joan came and sat beside me. “I’ve been watching you for over two years now, Eli, and so have they.”
“So that’s why you couldn’t tell me anything about yourself?”
“Yeah, it’s part of the programming for the body they let me use. This is the real me,”she said standing up and spinning around, “and they more or less can build any sort of body I want from any time in history. They’ve been watching us since Earth formed.”
I looked at where there was once a bullet hole in my gut and there wasn’t even a scar now. Joan sat down again and waited for me to speak. It was overwhelming.
“I made a new contract with the Spiders.” Joan finally said.
“Yeah?” I didn’t like the way she sounded.
“They gave me a device that lets me bail off of earth if anything weird happened, and there was a failsafe if I couldn’t use the device. The bullet that hit you hit me, and I grabbed you on the way out. I told them if they saved you I would complete my work, and they could release me if they wanted to do so.”
“And they agreed.”
“You gave this up to save me?” I was stunned.
Joan nodded but she turned her head away from me.
“She cares for you deeply.” Joan turned around, and I knew it was someone else, something else in that body. “I am what she refers to as ‘Spiders’. We are a community, and we would like to keep you here, for a while, and have you write for us what you see on Earth. You will be given such things as you need to survive, and you will not age. The term we offer you is one hundred of your years, and then you will be allowed to return.”
“Where is Joan?”
“She is already back on Earth. You may visit her in one year for two weeks of your time. We have given her all she needs to make a new life, so not worry about her at all. She knew you would agree to this, and she did not want to influence you. She knew you would see this as an opportunity that no one could refuse. We have a few rules for your rerun trips back to earth and you will have to be careful…”
The stars were incredible. In the darkest night with no other light around you have to feel small in front of that many stars. My vision blurred, and even through the tears I was still awed by that much starlight. I walked through the front door of my house and I knew where to find her. She was on my bed, crying, where I had seen her just a few moments ago,
“Hey baby, you okay?” I asked.
“Oh god, Eli, you didn’t, you couldn’t have, dear god you didn’t tell them no, no, no, you didn’t did you?”
“Yeah, I told them no.”
“You could have lived for a hundred years, do you know what you just threw away?” She was sobbing but she was also hanging onto me. “Why? Why?”
“Because I love you.” I said.
“I love you too” said Joan, and we went outside with a blanket, to look at the stars.
“I did not see that coming.” One of the Spiders said to another, but they were connected to the common community, and all knew their thoughts.
“None of us thought he would return to her, he was perfect for an Observer,” said the other.
“Let us reconsider the operation,” said the first, “perhaps we could have two observers instead of one.”
“Would they not distract one another?”
“With these two? That is a possibility, but we would have much to gain.”
“Let us be patient. Perhaps we should visit them in a pair of their years, yes, we ought to offer them a contract, and I know of a perfect time to do it.”
“We should go as the Blues Brothers.”
Mike writes regularly at his site: The Hickory Head Hermit
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