The stoves iron grate reminded Brandy of a jack-o-lantern, its orange blaze snapping and crackling behind a soot-stained grin. She sprawled in front of it on a makeshift bed, stretched like a cream-colored pea pod split with over-ripeness (the ill-fitting flannel gown much too tight across her chest). In the window, facing South, she caught sight of her reflectionplus that of the room itself; one entire wall was taken up by an unframed painting. Its details were obscure (the light being dim), but a nude, a solitary female was discernible, its treatment similar to the "Bilitis" series at Esperantos gallery. Except this one was possessed by a melancholy air, due perhaps to the unmistakable absence of any significant other. Elsewhere in the room there were throw rugs, cushions, an old wicker rocking chair, and several built-in shelves lined with photos, sundry ceramics, and some paperback books. A hall led into the kitchen (where Jodi could be heard preparing tea). Hogging the limited space between bedroom-cum-living room and bathroom was a free-standing hardwood wardrobe, in front of which sat a trunk like some disinterred treasure chest. Its huge metal clasps were thick with rust, its oaken lid enshrouded by a checkerboard coverlet. Seven oddly-shaped candles were arranged atop its lidsharing space with a hand mirror, an incense burner, and a porcelain figurine. This latter resembled an abstract chess piece, horse and rider united to suggest the Knight (or a misshapen centaur), its shadow disproportionately large on the kitty-corner wall along which wooden planks, supported by cinder blocks, housed a wide variety of creatively potted plants. More plants were suspended from the ceiling by macramé slings, the view panning right to left (again in reflection) lending the room an arboreal feelpast which Brandy peered, attempting to focus on the yard outside.
Lantern and tea tray in hand, Jodi pitter-pattered in. Brandy turned and propped herself on a pillow, thereby exposing her back to the fire (its warmth caressing her flesh through the well-worn flannel). As Jodi arranged the tea service, Brandy idly brushed her lush auburn hair.
"Let me taste first." Brandy took a short, inaudible slurp "No, its delicious as is" then gulped down half the contents in a single draught.
"Its homemade. Theres a woman here who collects herbs and spices from the desert. This is a blend from six different plants. She gave me a years supply in exchange for one of my tea sets."
"Did you make these?"
"Uh huh. Im sort of the Tea-time Expert-In-Residence of Esperanto. A lot of folks own sets Ive thrown since opening up shop."
"Oh, thats right; you had tea with him. Yes, thats mine. I made his planters, too. We swap for fruit and vegetables. Youve seen his garden; isnt it incredible?"
"Here; come sit by me. Ill brush your hair."
Brandy re-positioned herself as Jodi sat cross-legged facing the fire. Needing a bit more height, Brandy wedged a pillow between buttocks and calves, then rested her hands for support on Jodi's slender shoulders.
"Hard or soft?"
"Pull as hard as you like; Im impervious to pain."
Using slow, deliberate strokes, Brandy obliged. Jodi gazed at the grate, very nearly hypnotized:
by the potbellys
"Brandy, if only you knew the dreams I used to have when I worked at that club Id get goose bumps every time I saw you dance; youre so special! Some of the other girls were okay, but you gliding around those tables as if nothing else existed, just music, incense, light, and the grace of your splendid body! Id watch your face. There was a certain point when your expression changed. As soon as that happened you were gone. It didnt matter if the customers were rude or noisy; no one ever could touch you after you reached that state. To see you dance was a privilegeI really mean thata gift from the Gods."
She turned and looked directly into Brandys emerald irises then added: "Wait here."
Jodi got up, crossed to the bookshelf, took down a small ivory box, then quickly returned.
Brandy lifted the hand-carved lid. Inside was a silver bracelet, spiral in design, each end cast in the form of an elegant serpents head.
"Its exactly like a piece I used to have."
"It is yours, silly. I stole it. I know that sounds awful, but thats what I did. I waited for everyone to leave one nightmy last night at the cluband just before Arnie locked up I sneaked into the dressing room. There it was, on your vanity Sorry. I couldnt resist."
"I had to have it! Something of yours. If possible, something you wore that touched bare skin. You never would have come without my taking it."
"But I didnt know you had it. I didn't even realize it was gone."
"Doesnt matter. You're here; that's all that counts. I only wanted a keepsake. Now I can clear my conscience by giving it back."
Jodi picked up the bracelet, and tenderly, almost reverently, wrapped it around Brandys upper armarousing, where it squeezed, a singular stimulation.
"There; thats where it belongs Have you any notion how gorgeous I think you are?"
Brandy smiled, then cradled her admirers upturned chin.
"You should have told me; I would have given you the bracelet."
Moved by an odd, uncontrollable urge, Brandy leaned and tendered a kiss on Jodi's mouth tasting there a desire both sweet and disquieting taken aback by the passion her impulse unleashed, as Jodi pressed her breasts against Brandy's and bent her over backwards in an ardent embrace.
Suddenly awarewithout hearing or seeing anyoneBrandy knew that someone (Simon, no doubt) saw was watching through the window was peeping from the dark beyond the glass. She looked
"Hey, whats the matter?"
but no one was there.
Brandy then succumbed to the lips engulfing her left nipple, allowing pure sensation to overrule qualm giving in to a whim that took her unawares narcotic in its absolute eclipse of her former reservations until, that is, she balked; a movement had caught her eye!
"Brandy, what is it?"
"Out there. I thought I saw something."
She pointed at the window.
"Some 'thing' or some 'one'?"
"I dont know."
"Maybe we should be a bit discreet?"
Jodi got up and crossed to the window. Brandy tried to join her but wooziness settled in. Parting a curtain of plants, Jodi framed her hands and pressed them against the glass.
A shape was there, among many, that 'might' have been a mans in silhouette. though it stayed so perfectly still that Jodi at length dismissed it.
She dropped the bamboo blinds and returned to Brandy's side.
Brandy, reacting to a "THUD" and consequent "CRACK," buttoned up her nightgown. She rose and hurried to the window, afraid yet determined to lift its bamboo blind.
Her outcry (albeit muffled) appeared to startle him. Blood gushed from his forehead as his scattered wits assembled. Brandy rushed to the door that led outside
Simon, stunned and staggering, became marginally aware of someone taking hold of him, guiding him by the hand into an unfamiliar room (lamp-lit and musty), where a chair (that rocked when he sat in it) promptly made him nauseous.
Brandy fetched a washcloth; Jodi hovered in the background (like a raptor robbed of prey).
"Hold the light a little higher, Jodi."
Someone was dabbing his forehead, causing Simon to wince.
"Is it bad?"
"I cant tell; there's too much blood."
Jodi brought the lantern closer. Simons brow bore two crisscrossing gashes that exed the spot where head and windowpane had met.
"I dont think its too seriousthough it may need a few stitches. Bandaging will have to do for now. Do you have any disinfectant?"
"Ill get some."
Simon blinked then dizzily blinked again his vision focusing shifting coming to rest on Brandys worried face. Her lips moved in response to his wordless supplication.
"I won't leave; I promise."
Simon re-closed tightly his deep azure eyes, as if to set a seal Brandys oath, then (lids still shut) he spoke for the very first time.
"I love... you."
Caught off guardfirst by the sound (like wind through tumbleweed), then by the sentiment (unmistakably sincere), Brandy flushed
as Simon reached out to caress her cheek... her whole anatomy trembling at the touch of his fingers waves of pure compassion (and affection) thereby released transfigured into fear upon her noticing Simon's position; neither hand had budged from its grip upon the chair!
First-aid kit retrieved, Jodi entered from the bathroom. Simon, suddenly exhausted, wanted nothing more than to sleep, almost nodding off as the amateur surgeons tended him.
"Yuk, it's really nasty."
Jodi grimaced as Brandy treated the wounds, coating each with a finger-full of antiseptic salve, covering up the damages with a pair of Johnson's Band-aids.
"Would you like to lie down?"
Simon nodded. He felt queasywhich only got worse when he was helped up and led to the makeshift bed by his bracketing attendants. In unison they knelt, depositing their burden.
"Brandy, you stay here."
Jodi padded to the kitchen, quickly coming back with a dustpan and broom.
"Ill do that."
Brandy tried to rise—scuttled by an unexpected squeeze from Simon's feeble hand.
"This wont take me a minute. Stay with your friend."
Jodi crossed to the window and swept up the broken glass
as Simon nestled his head against Brandys pliant midriff, feeling safe, secure enough to venture into ordinary sleep—dreamless sleep, he hoped—with Brandy by his side stroking his scalp soothing the ache in his temples (Why, he wondered, did his head hurt?) smoothing the pitchfork creases in his disconcerted brow cradling him in the lap of a calmly murmured lullaby (or so he imagined) singing him to sleep at ease as a trusting child.
Motioning to Jodi (who had patched the pane with some cardboard), Brandy cupped her hands and whispered sotto voce, "You okay?"
Jodi scampered back.
"So it seems."
"Good. He should rest. Come on."
"What; leave him?"
"We wont be far."
Jodi modified her tone.
then lowered her voice to a seductive-sounding coo
Brandy stood, cast a fleeting look at Simon, then let herself be drawn into the lamp-illumined kitchen.
"Jodi, this is the second time hes banged his head real hard. I cant be sure, but I think he's acting odd. You know, odder than usual?"
"You think he saw us?"
"And 'tapped' his head on the window to make us stop?"
"Well, its cold outside. Maybe his hands were in his pockets."
"That's pretty lame."
"Well you say you get feelings about certain people. Whats your intuition?"
"The last time I 'divined' it pissed you off."
"Only because you told me he was dangerous. I admit, he's sometimes peculiar, but "
She stopped herself.
"You tell me."
"Okay; my feeling? When you brought him in here bleeding, Simon hadn't a clue about where on earth he waslet alone about us or what we'd been up to."
"You know, he did something similar on our drive out here. A coyote crossed the road. We stopped to watch. Then, snap, like that, he kissed mehardon the lips. So hard it hurt. Then, not two minutes later, he acted like it never happened."
"Does he take drugs?"
"Not that I know of; hes weird enough without them."
"What about that dream-sharing stuff?"
"Theres more. During breakfast, just this morning, we were having a conversation "
"He was talking?"
"I was talking; he wrote notes... claiming that sleep and wakefulness were sometimes one in the same. You know, like states that overlap? He even made me a model to demonstrate what he meant. It was a strip of paper that he twisted once then fastened end to end. I was supposed to draw a line down the middle. It turned out front and back had the selfsame side."
"A M�bius strip."
"Thats what its called; the thing he made you."
"Oh Hey, you dont suppose he goes around seeing things all the time?"
"You mean seeing things that most folks rarely glimpse?"
"His world sounds quite fascinating, actually."
"Fascinating? Awful is more like it. Its unhealthy having visions that make you act so strange."
"Kissing you is 'strange'?"
"No, but butting windowpanes is."
"Meaning you believe he needs some help?"
"I know he does. He's already asked."
"For whose? Not yours, I hope."
"And why not?"
"Because you, my dear, are the one whos driving him crazy."
"That's not fair!"
"Oh? Didnt he write his dreams have changed since you two met?"
"Well, thats debatable; I "
"And doesn't he want your body but wont have sex?"
"First, it's a little premature. Second, its "
"And didnt he see us getting it on, all warm and comfy-cozy, with him outside alone in the cold cruel night?"
"Okay; okay! So you and I indulged in a little flirtation. But don't think that compares to what I want to share with him."
"You hardly know him!"
"I may just know him better that I do you."
"You mean you care about him more."
"I mean "
"Which is it?"
"Jodi, listen. I'm 'fond' of you, but "
"Say it; 'hes a man. You'll fuck anything in pant-legs, is what I hear tell. So long as he's a loser. 'Brandy falls for bums.' If they're shiftless, jobless, homeless, and pathetic SLAM-BANG they're hers. Well you can sell your self-respect to the lowest bidder; that's your privilege. But don't you dare compare his 'puppy love' to what I feel. A woman's love is always more sincere."
Brandy did a double take.
"Sorry. That was hostile. I'm just lonely. Don't you understand? You two will leave tomorrow; Ill be stuck here by myself. Unless You wouldn't go tonight, I hope?! You cant. You really mustn't!"
The urgency in Jodis voice gave Brandy pause...
combined with an odd compulsion...
"Say you'll stay?"
as if her will were being undermined...
"Maybe spend a day or two? A week, even?"
"Lets see how things go."
"With you and me, or with you and him?"
Repulsed by Jodis jealousy, Brandy, inexplicably, acquiesced.
"One night. We'll stay one night."
Satisfied (for the moment), Jodi revised her tactics.
"Oh, Im being horribly selfish. And a damn poor hostess, too. You must be starving. Ill rustle us up some supper."
"May I help?"
"No, no. You stay put. Theres nothing very fancy I can offer. Veggies, is allthough I do have lots of herbs and spices to spruce them up. What about his-nibs; should I make enough for three?"
"Ill go in and see how Simon's faring."
Brandy (as if breaking invisible bonds of a sorcerer's spell) tiptoed into the living room where Simon still lay asleep. She knelt beside him, leaning so close that his breathing—slow and regular—tickled her chin.
I almost wish that someone had heard what I think you said.
She checked his bandage.
And I wish for sure you're not hurt on account of me.
She bent and kissed him.
Sleep, my silent wanderer. Sleep and wake up healed.*