“Why don’t you go over there and talk to her?” Abby asked.
“I shouldn’t have to go over there. She shouldn’t be playing her music so loud.” He shook his head. “If I had known the walls were this thin, I never would have moved here.”
His wife smiled. “She’s singing, not playing music. And yes, you would have. We looked at a dozen other buildings, and nowhere else had an apartment near this nice for the rent we’re paying.”
Tate frowned. His wife was right. Their neighbor was singing over there. “There’s nothing wrong with being frugal—”
“Frugal. I just wish the landlady had warned us about Mrs. Crazy.”
“Our neighbor next door. Her name is Mrs. Dorsey, not Mrs. Crazy.”
“How on earth would you know that?”
“She invited me in for coffee.”
“When was this?”
“The other day, before you got home from work.”
The other day? Tate wondered. “We’ve only lived here for two days.”
“Past time to get to know one’s neighbors, I thought.”
Tate made a face.
“Really, Tate. She’s quite nice. Maybe a little…eccentric, but perfectly harmless.”
“That’s what they always say. Right after they pull the body parts from the freezer. ‘She was perfectly harmless…’” The singing through the walls got louder. “I don’t even know what language that is.”
Abby cocked her head and listened for a moment. “Doesn’t sound like Latin. Maybe Gaelic? Or Old Slavonic. Those would be my guesses, at any rate.”
Tate snorted. “Old Slavonic? You’re making this stuff up.”
“I’ll have you know that my roommate junior year was from the Ukraine. Her grandmother was a witch. A white witch, that is. She said Old Slavonic was the best language to cast spells in.”
“So Mrs. Crazy is hexing us.”
“Not a hex. A spell of protection.”
Tate laughed. “What does an old woman living in Midtown need protection from?”
His wife shrugged. “You watch the news. Take your pick.”
Tate fell silent at that. “Well, she still doesn’t have to sing so loud,” he said at last, though most of the bite was gone from his voice.
“I think it’s only loud because she’s a little hard of hearing.” Abby smiled. “And there. I think she’s done.”
“Thank God.” Tate stopped his pacing and turned up the television.
The next day was Saturday, and Tate had the chance to meet Mrs. Dorsey for himself. He was taking the garbage down to the building dumpster, amazed at how much refuse two people could produce in just a few days’ time. He had tied off the trash bag and hauled it down the back stairway.
Mrs. Dorsey was outside, crouched by the dumpster, her back to Tate. He didn’t see any way around her, so he coughed softly.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cra—, err, Mrs. Dorsey.”
The woman whirled around, a wild, confused look in her eyes for a moment before she realized who Tate was. She finished what she was doing and then rose and offered him a bow from the waist.
“Mr. Gibson. How is your lovely wife this morning?”
Still in bed, he thought, but aloud he said, “Very well, thank you. How are you, Mrs. Dorsey?”
“Well enough for eighty-three, Mr. Gibson. I’d be doing better if it weren’t for the Good Neighbors.”
Tate blinked several times. ‘Good Neighbors’? Did that imply that he and Abby were bad neighbors? She was the one who sang at the top of her lungs at odd hours of the night.
His confusion must have showed on his face. Mrs. Dorsey gave him a beatific smile.
“The Fair Folk, Mr. Gibson. The Others. The border between the everyday world and the Otherworld has always been thin here around Rowan Hill, but something has the Neighbors especially worked up recently.”
“I see,” Tate said very slowly, though of course he didn’t. For him to see, he’d have to be as crazy as she was. “I’m sorry to have interrupted you…”
He trailed off to peer over her shoulder to see what she had been doing as he arrived. Positioned around the dumpster were four bowls of what seemed to be milk with hunks of bread floating in them. The bowls were a very fine china. Probably Mrs. Dorsey’s bridal set.
Mrs. Dorsey noticed his look and nodded.
“Offerings sometimes keep the Lesser Ones placated. I’m still trying to figure out what to do if any of the greater Powers decide to show.”
“I see,” Tate repeated. “Is, err, there anything I can do to help?” He spoke more to cover his embarrassment than from any real desire to help.
The old woman studied him for a long moment in a way that made him very uncomfortable. “You’re very kind, young man. I will let you know.”
“Any time. Err, good luck.” Before the situation got any more awkward, he threw his bag of trash into the dumpster and hurried back upstairs to the apartment.
Abby smiled as he told her about the encounter over brunch. “She’s sweet. You did the right thing to offer to help her out.”
“I guess.” He took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. He didn’t know why he drank the stuff black. Maybe because his father drank it that way. “I still don’t think we’re bad neighbors.”
His wife’s laugh rang out like music. “When Mrs. Dorsey talks about the ‘Good Neighbors,’ she’s not talking about anyone here in the building. At least I don’t think so.”
“The Good Neighbors are what you or I would call elves, or fairies. But it’s considered really bad luck to use either of those words. It calls you to their attention. So one speaks of them in a polite circumlocution. And milk and bread are very traditional offerings to house fairies.”
“I’m not talking about Tinkerbell here. Modern physics are full of talk of parallel dimensions. What if we could see an inhabitant of a parallel world in a place where the borders between the universes grows thin? ‘Good Neighbors’ is as apt of a name for such a being as any.”
“Don’t tell me you believe that crap.”
Abby laughed again. “I’ve never seen one. But I don’t think you need to dismiss the idea out of hand either.”
Tate took another sip of his terrible coffee. “Fairies. Next you’ll tell me you believe in Ancient Aliens too. Well, I hope the alley cats like their milk…”
Mrs. Dorsey’s chant sessions got worse the next couple of nights, but Tate put up with it for his wife’s sake. He even limited his snarky comments, though he couldn’t help roll his eyes when she started up.
The next afternoon after work, Tate helped Abby fold and put away the clothes she had washed the evening before. They didn’t have a washer or dryer in the apartment, but a monthly fee let them use the facilities in the basement of Rowan Hill. A reasonable arrangement, Tate had thought.
“Do you want to hear something funny?” his wife asked.
“Just so long as it doesn’t have anything to do with the underwear you’re folding.”
“Ha. Ha. No, so this is the third load of laundry that I’ve done since we’ve moved here.”
“We go through too many clothes? Is that the joke?”
“Stop that. Not joke funny, peculiar funny. Each time I’ve gone down to the basement, the same woman is down there. At the last washing machine.”
“Yes.” Tate dumped a pile of socks onto the bed and began to pair them. “How peculiar. Someone washing clothes in a laundry room.”
“Quiet you. That’s not the peculiar part. What’s weird is that each time she’s been crying. Big sobs that shake her whole body.”
Tate frowned. That was weird. “Maybe she’s a widow and she can’t stop washing her dead husband’s clothes over and over again.”
“How dreadfully morbid.”
“Well, what’s your idea?”
“I don’t know. But next time I do laundry, I’ll ask her.”
Tate wasn’t sure that intruding on someone’s grief was the best idea, but now Abby had him curious as well. “Let me know what she says.”
But the next time Abby went to do laundry, she didn’t tell Tate what the weeping woman said. She didn’t say anything at all. Tate had dozed off on the couch while she had run downstairs to do a quick load for the morning. When Tate woke, his neck ached and the late news was playing on the TV.
“Honey? Why’d you let me sleep so long?”
Tate forced himself up over the protests of his back. He looked in the bedroom. The bed was still made, empty but for the pillows. Abby wasn’t in the kitchen or in the spare bedroom. She wasn’t in a corner of the living room that he hadn’t seen. She didn’t suddenly reappear in the bedroom.
“Maybe there was a line at the washers.”
He had to see. Locking the door behind him, he headed for the back stairs. On the landing, he almost tripped over a large black tomcat drinking milk out of a china bowl. It turned and hissed at him, displaying a white blaze on its chest.
“Now how did you get in here?” He saw the piece of bread floating in what seemed to be milk. “Ah. Hopefully the landlady doesn’t know about Mrs. Dorsey’s ‘pets’.”
The cat, when it realized that Tate was no immediate threat, began to studiously ignore the human. It began to groom its butt instead.
Tate shook his head and stepped around the cat. He took the stairs two at a time and turned into the laundry room. The lights were off and he flipped them on.
He saw two things almost simultaneously. The first was an empty laundry basket he recognized as theirs. It sat on a still washer whose lights indicated a completed load. The other was that a woman hunched over the very last washer in the row.
“Who would be washing clothes in the dark?” Tate thought to himself, but he approached the woman anyway.
She did not look up. Long black hair fell forward, covering her face. She clung to the machine in front of her, as if it were the only thing holding her up. When Tate drew closer, he saw that she trembled, her entire body racked with silent sobs.
He coughed into his fist. “Excuse me, but have you seen a young woman down here tonight?”
The woman said nothing, though it did seem to him that her trembling might have grown stronger.
Tate took a step closer. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m looking for my wife.”
He looked intently at the woman. Her hair was like a veil, making it impossible to see any bit of her face. He was about to touch her shoulder when the absurd thought crossed his mind that perhaps she didn’t have a face at all. He laughed inwardly at the idea, but pulled his hand back anyway.
He was about to turn away when a voice came from the woman. It was so soft he had to lean in to make out what she said.
“Gone. All gone.”
The words repeated as a kind of litany. Tate shook his head. Poor woman. Though it would have been nice of the landlady to have warned them how many crazy people lived in the building.
Ascending the back stairs, he tried to reach Abby on her cell. A polite recording in a female voice told him, “The wireless customer you are trying to reach is currently out of the service area.”
Tate blinked. Abby must have let her battery die again.
When he reached the landing, neither the cat nor the bowl were there. The bowl. Maybe Abby had decided to visit Mrs. Dorsey and had just forgotten to say something. Not that Abby had ever done anything like that before, but maybe the crazy of the apartment building was contagious. Abby had come down with a case of the Rowan Hills.
Tate hesitated before knocking on their neighbor’s door. It was late. Then he realized something else. Mrs. Dorsey wasn’t chanting. What did it mean when a crazy person stopped acting crazy? His anxiety for his wife deepened.
He raised his fist to knock, but the door opened before his knuckles touched it.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Dorsey, but have you—”
“Yes, yes. I’m afraid there’s no time for that now.” The old woman pulled Tate into her apartment with surprising strength and closed the door behind him. “I sent the Cat for you ages ago. Why didn’t you come sooner?”
This sort needs to see for himself.
He didn’t hear the words. Not exactly. The thought…impressed itself on his perception. He turned to see the black tomcat, looking even larger on Mrs. Dorsey’s floral ottoman.
“Did that cat just—”
“Yes. But that’s not important now.” She paused to take a breath. “Excuse me for asking such a personal question, Mr. Gibson, but how much do you love your wife?”
“Have you seen Abby, Mrs. Dorsey?”
“I have not, but I do have a reasonable idea as to where she is. And I believe that she has not gone there under her own volition.”
It took Tate a moment to process what Mrs. Dorsey was saying, so he responded with the first thing that came to mind. “Does this have anything to do with the woman crying in the laundry room?”
The old woman’s eyes darted to the cat. “You didn’t tell me that the Weeping Woman was here.”
The cat’s tail flicked diffidently. I thought you had known. Her scent is unmistakable.
Mrs. Dorsey shook her head and said something under her breath before turning back to Tate. “The situation is even more dire than I had feared, but it is not hopeless. How much do you love your wife?”
What kind of question was that? “I married her, didn’t I?”
The woman shook her head. “People marry for many reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with love. For simple reasons such as money or power or family connections. Or for more complex reasons, such as the fear of being alone. Some men want not a partner and helpmate, but a mirror in which they hope to contemplate their own ego. So I ask you a third time, Tatum David Gibson, how much do you love your wife?”
Tate blinked. How on earth did Mrs. Dorsey know his middle name? He let her question really sink in, and his thoughts immediately went to their wedding day, Abby coming to him down the church aisle, her entire being aglow. “The fire of my heart burns brighter each day that she’s in my life.”
Mrs. Dorsey considered his answer for a long moment and at last gave a single nod. “I hope that that will be enough.” She turned to the cat. “Are you ready, Cat?”
The huge tom stretched himself up off the ottoman. I was ready when he saw me in the hall. Better to ask the Son of Adam if he is ready.
“There is no time. Better for him to know nothing at all than to be half-ignorant.”
Confusion furrowed Tate’s brow. “Wait. What? Where is Abby?”
“Elsewhere,” came Mrs. Dorsey’s completely unhelpful answer. “Follow the cat.”
The old woman made a gesture that was something like painting an invisible picture, something like singing a silent song, and something like opening a door, and a force tugged at Tate. The black cat ran ahead of him into the force, and it stretched itself into a long tunnel.
The thought hit Tate in the pit of his stomach that, if he did not keep up with the cat, he would be lost. He broke into a run, but the faster he ran, the faster it seemed the cat ran. His sides hurt, and he was not entirely sure that the air in the corridor was the air he was used to. He took in huge lungfuls and still felt short of breath.
A sound came at him, more like the sensation of ears popping than anything else Tate could say, and he tumbled out of the corridor onto a gentle hill atop a broad grassy field. The sky was lit with more stars than he had ever seen and two bright moons. He forced himself to his feet and rubbed at his bruised dignity.
“Where are we?”
The black cat groomed his fur a short distance away. Exactly where we were. Only not.
“That’s very helpful.” Except that on some level, Tate understood what the cat meant. The field and the trees beyond were nothing like the city they had left. Yet Tate had the unshakable conviction that he was standing in the same place they had just left.
He remembered his conversation with Abby a few days ago. “We’re in an alternate version of the place we just left. What it would be like if a few choices had been made differently.”
The cat gave an almost imperceptible nod. We haven’t much time. Close your eyes and think of your wife.
Tate did as he was bid. He thought of his wife, really considered her for the first time in he didn’t know how long. He thought of the café where they had first met and the first time she had kissed him. He thought of the way she smelled and the little face she made when he cooked something she didn’t like but she ate it anyway. He thought of the way she got angry watching the news and the way her face lit up when he got home.
He thought of everything that made Abby Abby.
“There.” His feet began to move as the certainty grew in his heart. “She’s this way.”
He began to hurry through the meadow toward the trees, strides so great that the cat, large as he was, had to run to keep up with the human. The field quickly gave way to forest, and a game path through the forest led them to the mouth of a cave.
Are you quite certain?
“Yes. Why? Who lives in the cave?”
The cat gave no answer but instead led the way into the cave. The depths were at least ten degrees cooler than outside, and it quickly grew too dark to see, at least for Tate. A pale green light lit their path. He realized that the light came from the cat’s eyes. Sounds whispered from the darkness, and the human was glad that he couldn’t see very far.
They smelled and heard the feast before they saw it. The cavern they were in opened into an even larger cavern. Golden sconces bathed the room in a pale golden light, and fires glinted off mica and uncut gems in the walls of the chamber. Creatures beyond Tate’s ability to describe sat at or upon long stone tables. Sounds of merriment filled the hall.
All save at the far wall.
There, upon a raised dais, stood a stone chair, carved from the living rock of the cavern. Upon the throne sat a figure robed in black, his face obscured by a hood. But Tate only had eyes for Abby.
She stood next to the throne, rigidly locked in place. Her eyes were open, but they fixed on nothing. At this distance, Tate couldn’t tell if she was even breathing. She wore a long white gown that sparkled so brightly it hurt Tate’s eyes.
Spun diamonds, the cat said in answer to his unspoken question.
At the cat’s words, all conversation and merriment in the cavern ceased. A space opened up before Tate and the cat, and they strode forward, to the foot of the throne.
“You are welcome here, Cat,” the figure on the throne said, his voice like boulders crunching ice. He inclined his head toward Tate. “The mortal is not. Remove him.”
Such a way to treat a guest, King Under the Mountain. What do the earth-kin celebrate this night?
“Our King takes a bride!” one of the misshapen creatures called out. A chorus of rude laughter echoed throughout the hall.
“You can’t!” Tate said before the cat could speak. “She’s already married. To me.”
More laughs. A creature made of melted stone drew a wickedly curved sword. “A divorce can be easily arranged.”
The king silenced his followers with a gesture of his gloved hand. “As you can see,” he said to Tate, mockery coloring his voice, “you have no power here. Begone.”
Tate pointed a finger at the king. “I challenge you! To a contest for Abby’s hand.” That was how these creatures worked, right?
The king templed black-gloved fingers. “Interesting.”
“If I win, I take Abby home with me, and you never trouble us again. Or any of our descendants.”
The king nodded. “And if you lose?”
Tate swallowed. “You may do with me as you wish.”
“Done. And as you have issued the challenge, I have the right to determine the shape of the contest.” He gestured toward Abby. “Break my spell over the woman and you may have her, to take her back to your dull, dreary world.”
“And you’ll never bother us or our descendants again.”
“As you say. But to make sure we won’t be here all night, you have three attempts. No more. No less.”
Tate let out a slow breath. He had to do something, before the rational part of his brain told him all this was impossible. Mrs. Dorsey had asked him how much he loved Abby. That had to be the answer, didn’t it?
He walked up the steps to his wife’s form. He leaned in. Her lips were so cold. She couldn’t be dead. She just couldn’t. He gave her unmoving lips a kiss.
Cruel laughter rang out through the hall. “Attempt one.” The king’s voice dripped with mockery now. “True love’s kiss.”
Tate’s heart sank. He wished he had read more fairy tales as a child, but he had never thought he would be caught up in one.
“Your second attempt, if you please, Mr. Gibson.”
Tate’s mind raced. How had the king captured Abby in the first place? A song, perhaps? Maybe that was the key.
“Wise men say, only fools rush in…”
The hall erupted in amusement. Tate didn’t care. He knew he wasn’t a singer. Abby had always loved it when he sang to her anyway.
He sang as much of the song as he remembered, with all the repeats that he felt he could get away with. He saw Abby’s eyes move, watching him as he sang, pleading for his help. But the song didn’t dissolve the magic that held her in place.
At last he trailed off. The smugness was evident in the king’s voice. “You have failed again, mortal. One more attempt.”
Tate’s knees grew weak. He had to save Abby, but he didn’t know how. He looked at his wife with quiet desperation.
Then a thought occurred to him. Perhaps Mrs. Dorsey had been wrong. Perhaps the issue wasn’t how much he loved Abby. Perhaps it was how much she loved him.
She was the one always saving him, after all. She kept him from making a fool of himself in public, too much of one, at any rate. She drew him out of himself and made him a better man. She had even been right about Mrs. Dorsey not being crazy.
Tate walked up to Abby and pressed his hand against hers. It felt like ice. He leaned in and whispered in his wife’s ear.
“I don’t know how he got you here. I don’t’ care. You made a promise to me the day we got married, and I know you never break your promises. You don’t need me to save you. I need you. I need you to save me.”
A sound filled the air like the shattering of a churchful of windows, and Abby fell forward into Tate’s arms, the spell and the gown dissolving around her. Tate caught her and hugged her to him.
Nothing moved in the cavern for a moment. And then the king rose to his feet. “Get them!” his voice thundered. He went to pull back his hood, and Tate knew he did not want to see what was beneath.
I will slow him, the cat said. Run!
Tate grabbed Abby’s hand, and together they ran out of the feast hall and into the dark cave. A fit of hissing and snarling erupted behind them. They kept running. Things came at them in the dark. They kept running, until Tate tripped over something in the dark and tumbled head over heels, wrestling with something clinging to his body—
—which he suddenly realized was the comforter from their bed.
“Tate?” The soft voice made his heart skip a beat. “What are you doing on the floor?”
Instead of answering, Tate leapt up into the bed and covered his wife’s face with kisses.
“My, my. Aren’t you frisky this morning.” His wife stretched in an almost feline way. “You know, I had the strangest dream last night…”
Later that morning, they sat at the kitchen table. Tate vigorously stirred milk and sugar into his coffee. His wife raised an eyebrow.
“What’s gotten into you?”
“I think I’ve decided that life needs to be lived with a little more adventure.” He sipped at his coffee. Not bad. “Just a little. Say, I’m thinking of inviting Mrs. Dorsey over for coffee this weekend. What do you think?”
“She does seem like such a nice woman.”
Tate nodded and raised his mug. “To good neighbors.” He paused, and then poured a little of his coffee into a saucer and set it by the kitchen window.
Just in case.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt hardly needs an introduction. He has long been a part of the arena as one of its weekly judges. Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).