Blue was restless from the moment they took off. When the plane wasn’t bouncing it lurched, a bucking hard-core mosh against the unsteady rumble of the fifty-seater’s black fly buzz. Through the worst of it he white-knuckled the armrests. The shape of the plane unnerved him: the vessel tunneled like a mine shaft, like the endless tapering caverns he traveled in his dreams. He ran a pale hand through his tar-black hair and leaned his head against the window, though he’d given up on any chance of sleep, Ambien and a plastic cup of red wine sadly missing from the agenda on the brief morning flight.
All the while Gabe, unfazed, chattered away beside him. Going on about various cloud formations he’d spotted beyond the wing, whether the restaurant would still be standing when they returned to New York, his hope that a nomadic family of Sasquatches might have wandered as far east as Nova Scotia. It was strangely comforting, and Blue nodded when he thought he should. Still, he couldn’t help but peer across the aisle toward Elisa, her head buried in her husband Jason’s shoulder. Elisa had always hated flying, almost as much as Blue. He wished he were sitting next to her instead, misery and company and all that. Now it was Jason who was at her side, as fate and marital vows would have it.
He figured he’d catch some shut-eye in the rental car, but once his giddy traveling companions loaded their luggage and piled laughing into their late-model gray Cadillac, Blue knew there would be no sleep until they reached Cape Breton. He shifted in the backseat as the car pulled away from the curb. The glass and steel of the terminal juddered past, and the airport, along with the rest of Halifax, soon receded from sight. The brilliant bold sweep of the swollen Maritimes sky made his vision blur and his legs tremble, as if he had been at sea his whole life and was only now coming ashore.
Elisa settled on her sit bones in the passenger seat. She whipped out her vintage Konica—her constant companion of late—and shot a picture of her husband behind the wheel. Jason bopped his head and tapped his square, well-manicured nails against the steering column, emoting like the heir to Nat King Cole as he sang along to a big band tune on the radio. Gabe’s unfamiliarity with the song didn’t prevent him from humming his own form of accompaniment. Folded like a crab claw with his spearmint-green Pumas on the back of Elisa’s seat, he looked happy just to be along for the ride, busy doodling in his sketch pad with a black Sharpie, his writing hand scarred by a childhood burn. Gabe was a scrubby weed of a kid, not yet old enough to tend bar, someone Elisa and Blue would have gravitated toward back in their nightlife days; indeed, with his sleepy smile and tangled mop of dirty blond hair, Gabe was pretty. But young. In the bright light of day, the twenty-year-old looked strangely even younger than when he’d walked into Blue’s restaurant last winter to inquire about the Help Wanted sign in the window.
The four-hour drive stretched well into the afternoon, their destination a vacation house in the vicinity of the defunct Starling Cove Friendship Colony, the former commune where Blue was born. What recollection he had of the artists’ community was questionable at best, scratchy images of trees and mountains and possibly the façade of a crumbling brick building, spectral memories that might have been cribbed from photographs. Along the way they stopped at a Tim Hortons for coffee and lunch, then a Needs Convenience for gas and snacks; at a musty used-clothing chain store called Frenchy’s they spent nearly an hour. Blue, Elisa, and Gabe darted up and down the aisles to dig through the haphazardly compiled bins, Elisa with the enthusiastic determination of the fashion conscious, Blue and Gabe with the wariness of those who had spent grim youths forced into secondhand clothes. Jason hung back to make small talk with the matronly shopkeeper.
Blue came across a T-shirt of an eagle superimposed over an American flag superimposed over an image of the burning Twin Towers, the words Never Forget emblazoned across the front. “Hey, Jason,” he called out, and held the shirt up for inspection. “What do you think?”
“It’s uncanny.” Jason crossed the store and leaned in to scrutinize the garish image. “Seriously, this is exactly what it was like! Except for the giant eagle. Although I was a little distracted that morning.” He laughed, snagged the shirt from Blue, and tossed it back into the pile. It was good to hear him joke about it, considering.
“What did I miss?” Elisa emerged from the dressing room wearing nothing but a safari hat and an enormous and ill-fitting hockey jersey that ended halfway down her tanned and olive-skinned thighs, her camera slung from her neck as usual. “Something funny?”
“Extremely,” Jason said. “And now you’ll never know.” He flashed her a smile as he took her hand, and she placed the hat atop his head. Reflexively, Blue leaned past a rack of long coats to check if Gabe was close by; sweet, adoring Gabe, the only one in the world who looked out for him the way Elisa once did, which is to say completely. Why Blue attracted that kind of fervent attention was a different matter entirely.
“Hey, look.” Elisa gestured in the direction of the shop clerk. “She has your old ’do.” The woman’s short and spiky hair had a decidedly blue tinge from a cheapo concealing rinse that bore an uncomfortably close resemblance to Blue’s style from his lip-pierce and Manic Panic days. “You’ve returned to your people,” Elisa said, draping an arm over his shoulders. “At last.”
Though the name had stuck, Blue hadn’t dyed his hair in ages, not since his club kid days ended and he started work in real kitchens. Only photographs remained, and the nickname. “Why don’t you go blue again?” Gabe had asked one night in Brooklyn after they’d closed down the restaurant.
“It’s not me anymore,” he replied, a shoebox of his memorabilia from high school and beyond scattered across the counter. But what he’d meant was, I’m too old for that. Thirty years old with hair the color of a circus clown was not only unflattering but desperate. He wasn’t the same carefree boy of fifteen or even twenty-five, scraping together money for his daily meal of a single brick-sized burrito and a forty-ounce of St. Ides. “It is a bit childish, don’t you think?”
“ ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child,’ ” Gabe said in his oddly endearing way, and placed an old photo booth strip of Blue and Elisa back into the box. “ ‘But when I became a man . . .’ ”
And Blue thought he had. But here he found himself, overworked yet near penniless under the weight of crushing debt. He would have readily traded some of his cooking skills for an ounce of business acumen, but, alas, the intricacies of keeping the restaurant solvent had eluded him. Not exactly as planned.
Outside Frenchy’s to grab a smoke, his cellphone buzzed. Blocked call, unlisted: his mother. “Hello, my lovely boy,” she said, her voice weaker than ever. “How’s it going up there?”
“So far so good. How you? How’s your new, what do you call it, home health aide?”
“No use complaining.” She wheezed, breath heavy against the receiver. “So tell me. Where are you right now?”
“We’re still on the road.”
“You mean at the airport?”
“No, on our way up to Cape Breton.” Silence. “Mom?”
“You . . . You told me you were just going to see the lawyer in Halifax and sign the papers.”
“I figured we’d swing by the house first. You know, just to see it.”
“No, no, no. Your grandmother . . . No. You barely knew her, Mickey.”
“Whose fault is that?” Blue said, and immediately regretted it. Be nice, he reminded himself. You know how sick she is. How much she loves you. The sense memory of Bengay and Tiger Balm assaulted him.
This whole trip, though, it was colored by his mother and her decision to haul him as a child out of Canada twenty-five years prior. He often felt that she’d robbed him, taken away his claim to his grandmother, the community, and this land as a whole. And now that his grandmother had died, his only connection to her was the house she’d left him in her will, in the hope, perhaps, that he would return to Starling Cove. Little had Grandma Flora known he was so hard up for money that he would have no choice but to sell the house as soon as possible. He needed the rest of them along to make it feel less mercenary than it really was.
“She’s gone,” he said softly, and shook away the smell. “Don’t worry about me. Besides, it’s not like I’m alone, I’m up here with Elisa and Jason.” He cast an eye through the store window, though all he could see was his own distorted image reflected back at him from the smudged glass; too difficult to explain Gabe, who the glorified busboy was to Blue, and who he was not. “We’ll be fine. I swear.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m not sure exactly,” he lied. “About an hour from Starling Cove, I guess? Elisa has the directions.”
“Babe, listen to me for once in your life. Your grandmother, she was a very religious woman.” His mother’s voice had turned pensive and haunted. “She had a lot of strange beliefs, and some even stranger ones about my friends.”
“That you were all a bunch of drug-fiending hippies, right?” He forced himself to squint up into the sun, as if in censure. “That was a joke, by the way.”
“Aside from the lawyer, don’t tell anyone else what you’re doing up there. Trust me on this, please. I know you’re curious. But get it done and let that be the end of it.”
“Okay, okay.” There was no winning on this subject. “Mum’s the word. Promise.”
“Smart.” A long silence, punctuated by the hiss of her bedside oxygen tank. “Just be smart.”
Gabe came out of the store. He held the door open for Elisa and Jason, who exited arm in arm, Jason sporting the safari hat and Elisa with two plastic bags stuffed full of clothing.
“Hey, listen,” Blue said. “I should go.”
“Love you,” his mother said, almost as a plea. “Stay safe.”
“Love you too. I’ll be back in no time, really. The days will fly.”
“Who was that?” Elisa said as they got back inside the car.
“My mom. I told her we’re heading north.”
“Awww, Yvonne. How’d she take it?”
“Not thrilled.” Going up to Cape Breton was the latest of many disappointments he’d handed his mother in his quest to individuate himself, a process that began over a decade ago, when he moved out of their cramped Hell’s Kitchen apartment after high school. She came down with debilitating osteoporosis soon afterward, the first in a series of infirmities that overtook her in his absence. It seemed as if every time he did leave her side, it triggered some new calamity, a fall in the bathroom or a flare-up of shingles, and these days she was bedridden. Now that he had firmly extricated himself from her, there was an unspoken understanding that it was best he simply kept away.
“I left out the fact that we’re staying in Starling Cove proper,” Blue said. “She told me not to mention to anyone what we’re doing up here, so . . .”
“Well, seeing the house is the right thing to do,” Jason said from the driver’s seat. “How do you sell a house without taking a look at it?” Jason was ten years older than Blue and Elisa, and thus the reigning voice of reason and maturity; it was reassuring to have his explicit approval.
“It’s not about the house.” Elisa took a leftover iced coffee from the cup holder and used the straw to fish inside for ice. “Yvonne hated her mother. She doesn’t want anything to do with her. Even dead.”
“Is that true?” Gabe asked. “What happened?”
“I really don’t know,” Blue said. “She won’t talk about it. Never would, except to say that my grandmother was crazy. My mom and I left for the States when I was five. All I know is we moved so many times that after a while my grandmother couldn’t find us anymore. Which I’m pretty sure was the plan all along.” Grandma Flora’s lawyer had found him, though, hadn’t he? Three months since Blue had received word of her death and the house she’d bequeathed him. It had taken some time to pull the trip together.
Blue shrugged and dug inside his bag for his cigarettes. “Anyone mind if I smoke?”
“Actually, yes,” Elisa said. “I’m feeling kind of carsick. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. We’ll be there soon enough.” He sat back, slid down so his knees were against the back of Jason’s seat, and beat a slow tattoo on his jeans. Sure, there was the business with the house, but he chose to focus on the pleasures that awaited them. They were in store for a full week of leisure time he hadn’t dreamed of since opening Cyan two years ago: cooking for fun only and board games, whisky and beer, fires to build in the wood-burning stove highlighted in the rental-property listing. It was Elisa who convinced him that he was going to burn out if he didn’t take a breather, and Jason who forced his hand by booking the plane tickets. All in all, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive humidity of New York in August. It was the only time of year he’d consider closing down the restaurant.
Across the Canso Causeway and the swing bridge over the canal and they were on the island of Cape Breton. Blue thought about how long it had been since he’d last crossed the bridge, covering the same territory but in reverse, like an unraveled roll of film wound back inside its spool. As highway gave way to green mountain vistas of trees rooted upon jagged rock, a slowly simmering sense of familiarity began to sink in. Not so much as memory, more like he’d carried the landscape inside him, on a cellular level. He started to tingle.
Soon they were deep in the Highlands. Four lanes thinned to two, the road bracketed by balsam firs as well as the occasional hardwood tree, stick straight against the afternoon sky. According to the directions, they needed to circle half of Starling Cove, an inlet of St. Veronica’s Bay, before they found an access road that crept up the side of Kelly’s Mountain, the quarter-mile-high summit that towered over the cove and the surrounding areas.
The branches parted to make way for an unmarked, leaf-canopied drive, the mountain’s peak high above. The Cadillac’s square nose pitched up as it left the asphalt, then dropped with a startling thud before the car righted and wound its way around the mountain’s base. A hundred yards later, the surrounding trees gradually telescoped until feathery pine bristles began to massage the car’s exterior. They rolled into an open field, lush emerald grass bubbled up in mounds. A short side road ambled past overgrown hedges, through which weather-beaten cabins in an assortment of sizes and shapes could be glimpsed; Elisa lowered her window to take a passing shot.
A gaily painted two-story house appeared from the trees, yellow and trimmed with elaborate hatched latticework and wedding-cake eaves, Victorian in inspiration if not origin. Barely visible above the treetops was the slanted roof of another house, a little farther up the hill. This second house had a birch white face, its upper windows a slatted pair of dark and narrowed eyes, watchful. Blue recognized the teeth of its wide summer porch from the rental listing. He sat up and looked out the back window, a cotton padding of fog cast over what he presumed to be the water, the mist draping the bay below with the sun already lowering behind the mountain’s distant peak. The overcast sky flared with an abrupt and oppressive brightness like light off a mirror, and Blue, blinded, squeezed his eyes shut, shielding them with his hand.
Jason slowed the car and lowered his window as he came to a stop. A woman in her fifties, compact and robust in blue jeans and a purple hempen shirt, emerged from the doorway of a small shack separated from the yellow house by a vegetable garden. She was First Nation by appearances, her face sun-kissed and framed by gray hair tied back in a knot with stray shoots spilling wild behind her ears.
“Welcome to the cove,” she said, smiling. “Head on up the hill. I’ll meet you in a minute.”
By the time they pulled into the small dirt lot behind the white house and hauled their luggage from the trunk, she had made her way up to them.
“Hi there. I’m Maureen.” She shook Blue’s hand, her face flushed as she greeted them. “Now, which one of you is Michael?”
“That’s me. But everyone calls me Blue.”
“Oh! Like Blue Edwards?”
“Sure. I guess?”
“Never mind,” she said, and waved him off. The others introduced themselves and they all followed her up the rear deck and into the house. “This is what is known around here as the MacLeod House. Built and burnt in 1826, built back up in 1852, and restored and burnt and restored again a couple more times, with a full addition in 1973. I redid it as a guest house a few years ago.”
The kitchen was pure charm, small but open. The farmhouse sink, counters, and refrigerator all glowed a subtle shade of mint, which matched the forested wallpaper, its patterned green boughs an extension of the trees on the far side of the windows. The glass was beveled in a chalet style and skirted with pleated red tartan curtains; the effect bordered on country kitsch, but somehow it all worked.
Maureen showed them the quirks of the various appliances and where the garbage and recycling bins were, how the downstairs shower had to be run for a minute or two before the hot water kicked in. A black wood-burning stove squatted stoically at the edge of the living room, past it a farmhouse table, two couches, and an impressive library surrounded by windows that framed the front porch overlooking Kelly’s Mountain and the fog beyond. Up a short flight of solid oak stairs hand painted with fleurs-de-lis were three bedrooms: one bright and pink with a view of the cove, another done up in darker plaid tartans, the third narrow and yellow with a steepled ceiling. The frame of the last room, according to Maureen, was original to the dwelling, and was where they all dropped their bags beside an antique pine crib allegedly crafted by William MacLeod, the man who had built the house. The crib was the only fully intact remnant from the first fire.
“Please, make yourselves at home,” she said. “I’m just down the hill if you have any questions. And if you see an older gentleman wandering the lawn with a book and a pair of shears, don’t be alarmed—that’s my husband, Donald. Wave and he’ll wave back, but he’ll probably keep minding what he’s doing.”
Maureen told them about the hiking trails behind the house, the canoes at the dock down the hill, which way to go from the main road to get to the supermarkets, large and small. She was polite and thorough, though she often turned to look down the hill, as if she had somewhere else to be.
“By the way,” she added as she opened the front door to leave, “if you all aren’t too tired, we’re having a little shindig down the hill tonight if you feel like stopping by. Just some food and drink with a few friends, nothing special.”
The others got to unpacking, while Blue went out onto the side porch and sat at a picnic table to smoke a cigarette. He listened to the faint sounds of the others inside, the wind soughing through the trees, the chirrup of insects and birds. Along with the cigarette smoke, he breathed in great big lungfuls of air; it was clean and sweetly flavorful, as if it had only just been raining.
Before they started down the hill, it was already clear that their hostess’s idea of a little shindig was in fact a full-blown rager, the sound of live music an eerie thrum off the water long past the dusking of foggy Starling Cove. “Holy shit,” Elisa said over the skirl of a fiddle as she zagged across the gravel drive, camera in hand and tottering behind the others on stilettos she’d stubbornly insisted on wearing. “They don’t mess around here, do they?”
“I could tell Maureen partied,” Gabe said. “Something about her screams high spirits.”
A dozen revelers had spilled out onto the lawn, where an auxiliary troupe of musicians tuned their instruments as they waited their turn. A few dozen more were packed inside Maureen’s crowded living room, along with a band consisting of a fiddler and an accordionist flanked by two guitarists, as well as a drummer rocking out on a djembe. The candlelit room was loud with laughter and drink. Young children ran loose, and as they flitted about in a game of tag, Blue had a ragged flash of memory: a moonfaced little girl chasing after him as a fiddle played, the celebratory yet somehow menacing stomp of feet and clapping of hands all around . . . He closed his eyes and strained to hold tight to the thread, but the recollection was gone.
Maureen parted the crowd with a drink held high in her hand. “Glad you all could make it! What’s your poison?”
“What do you have?” Gabe asked.
“Not a whole lot. Only some beer, and some wine. And some lethal sangria my cousin made. I’d be wary of that. Oh, and some fine old whisky a friend brought. A jug of it. There’s some fustier options as well, like schnapps. And possibly sherry somewhere . . .”
Within an hour Blue was merrily drunk, having met what he imagined to be every resident of Starling Cove. Maureen herself was a potter who sold ceramics out of a nearby shop she shared with an abstract sculptor, while her friends included a woodworker specializing in driftwood art that featured in local galleries, as well as a glassblower who lived and peddled his pieces out of a converted century-old barn on the far side of the cove. Starling Cove seemed an ideal spot for artisans to sell their wares, situated as it was on a stray branch of the heavily touristed Cabot Trail. Blue wondered how many of them were castoffs from the former artists’ colony, and how many might have known his grandmother, or his mother, or even him. No one mentioned the old commune outright, only that the cove was known for its diversity, a place people gravitated toward from both near and far.
A diminutive and heavily bearded man named Fred Cronin, an ironsmith and publisher of a local newsletter, waited alongside Blue for the bathroom. Though standoffish at first, he soon warmed under the heat lamp of Blue’s attention, and spoke of how he had moved to Cape Breton from Detroit as a draft dodger in the early seventies, never to set foot in America again. By all appearances, this self-imposed exile was fine by him.
“This your first ceilidh?” Fred said in a career smoker’s rasp, stroking his silver-flecked beard as he leaned against the stone mantelpiece in the living room.
“My first what?” Blue was distracted by the objects scattered across the mantel: a framed watercolor of a white lotus-leafed hexagonal mandala, a pewter tray containing a half-burned bundle of sage, an exquisitely rendered praying mantis crafted from green Bakelite that stared back at him through compound eyes, dark brown bordering on black.
“Ceilidh,” Fred repeated. “It’s like a Gaelic hootenanny. Could be a barn dance, or even just a house party like this. Basically, a get-together to get drunk and dance around to some old-country-type Scottish music. Lots of old country culture here, even today. They don’t call this place Nova Scotia for nothing.”
“I was actually born here, so you’d think I’d know that.”
“Oh yeah?” The man produced an antique-looking camera from somewhere beneath his beard and took a lightning-fast shot of him, the flash blinding. This guy should meet Elisa, Blue thought. “Whereabouts are you from?”
“I’m not sure exactly,” Blue hedged, honoring his mother’s plea for discretion. “Sydney, I think? Anyway, I’ve been gone ever since, just about. It’s nice to be back.”
And it was. Who knew where this would take him? Maybe fortune was intervening, and he was destined to come across some long-lost relative. Hell, maybe this man Fred was actually his father, and Blue had unwittingly stumbled into an unlikely family reunion, right here in the Cape Breton Highlands.
This final thought a bit too close to home, Blue excused himself to refill his sangria, caution to the wind.
On the other side of the room, the informal circle of dancers spun with increasing zeal. Some paired off to execute elaborate steps, while others held hands and simply twirled one another, a few more with their arms linked around the perimeter in a kind of drunken hora. Elisa, her camera and heels long since cast aside, moved effortlessly from group to group. She clapped her hands, swung her hips, partner danced in remarkable approximation, using steps it would have taken anyone else days to learn. Her mimicry appeared effortless, the way someone with absolute pitch could reproduce tone. But Blue knew how hard it had really come, how much dance had consumed her before her body finally said no more. Two decades’ worth of self-sacrifice and perfectionism, countless failed auditions and the pain of recurring injuries . . . Inside and out, the sheer accumulation of setbacks had taken their toll.
He joined her and led her in a provisional country waltz—not too terribly, though Elisa was intent on correcting his form at every turn. They were a long way from their days as fixtures in the New York club scene. Day shifts working at Pat Field’s and Liquid Sky and later in the clubs themselves, nights wrecked as all get-out, dressed like mental patients on the dance floors of USA and Palladium and Tunnel, their MDMA fog not worn off until sometime after their lunch break. A lost decade of tarnished glamour held together with duct tape, spirit gum, and daydreams. It was where he had met Elisa, and what he liked to remember of that most hazy time was pure rapture.
The ceilidh danced on, Blue and Elisa along with it. They tried and failed to coax Gabe out of the kitchen to dance, then Jason, who waved them off and sat on a patchwork leather couch next to a gaunt and elderly man in a burgundy cardigan and black square-framed glasses. Jason was drawn to strangers—in taxis he was fond of the front seat, where he could talk politics with the driver; in diners, the waitress-trafficked counter; he even chatted up token booth clerks. None of them minded either. And he’d successfully pursued Elisa, hadn’t he? Picked her up in a bar, no less, no mean feat considering she’d probably been hit on a thousand times in a thousand bars by better-looking men, with better game. None of them had Jason’s dogged determination, however, and certainly not his christlike patience. Blue often suspected there was something about him too good to be true.
As for Elisa, if you had told Blue that she would ever get married in the first place . . . And to a man who was stable and secure? A newly minted therapist, well versed in the everyday neuroses of the born-and-bred New Yorker such as herself? Not in the forecast. Yet there Blue found himself not one year ago at the Central Park Boathouse (his date an elfin redhead named Zoë he’d happened to take home the night before), as noted Jewish intellectual and Columbia Law professor Lawrence J. Weintraub walked his daughter down the aisle—handing her over to a man who not only was a gentile but was actually churchgoing! A black (or more specifically, black and Korean) man! Probably not in Professor Weintraub’s future projection. But even her father couldn’t question Jason’s particulars, himself awed in the face of that firm handshake, that quiet confidence, those teeth . . . Jason was everything Blue was not. He was, in a word, husbandly.
“This is Donald,” Jason said, already familiar, his arm around the older man’s shoulders. “He’s Maureen’s husband.”
“Nice to meet you,” Blue said. Donald’s handshake was too hard, Blue’s fingers mashed against one another so roughly he flinched, though he tried to mask it. “Thanks for having us.”
“It’s past my bedtime.” Donald turned to stare across the room, head weaving as if searching someone out. “But I haven’t gotten permission yet, so . . .” His cadence was melodic, with a storyteller’s inflection. Blue looked to Jason, who winked at him.
“I don’t think you could fall asleep if you tried,” Jason said. “The music’s pretty loud.”
“I can sleep through anything,” Donald said. “During the war they would call me Charlie, because I was the only one who didn’t get up for reveille. ‘Oh, Charlie, Charlie, get out of bed,’ ” he sang, straining to be heard above the din. “ ‘Oh! Charlie, Charlie, get out of bed!’ At least that’s what I’m told.”
The glassblower wandered over and launched into an extended monologue about a visit he and his wife had made to Ground Zero. But Donald only stared at Blue, until he leaned over and whispered, “I know you, don’t I?” in Blue’s ear.
“Oh. Uh, I don’t think so. Unless it’s from the past few minutes, that is.”
“Well, time is a most peculiar mistress,” Donald said. His eyes receded behind his thick plastic lenses, until his whole expression was a blur. “Especially amongst the fairies. There’s no such thing as time with the Other Kind. Though I suppose you know that already, being fey yourself.”
“Excuse me?” Blue let out a startled laugh. Did this dude just call me gay?
“Well, you’ll be going down, then, won’t you?” Donald said, leering and newly agitated. “Down and down and dowwwwwn . . .”
Their small circle fell silent. Jason, placid, patted the man on the knee, though he also tilted his head in a gesture for Blue to take off.
“Better keep an eye on that guy,” Jason said to Donald. “He’s nothing but trouble.”
“Hilarious,” Blue said, but he bristled. He gave a little salute, and negotiated his way across the crowded room. Time for some more booze.
After refreshing his drink he headed out onto the side porch to smoke. Maureen soon popped her head out, took a quick look back, then tiptoed conspiratorially to his side. “You have an extra one of those?”
“Of course.” Blue handed her a cigarette and lit it for her. “This is quite a ceilidh,” he said, faux authoritative.
“That’s what we do.” She exhaled a sigh of pleasure. “Hey, your friend is some dancer.”
“Isn’t she? She used to be serious about it, but she kept hurting herself. Recently she’s taken up photography. Less chance of injury, I suppose.”
“Good for her. You two looked so happy together dancing. You’re both glowing.”
“We’re just friends. Old friends. Elisa and Jason are married.”
“Oh, I know. I already cornered your boyfriend and got the lay of the land.”
“Boyfriend?” He winced. “I’m not . . . Gabe and me aren’t together.”
“No? I thought— Well, the way he was looking at you, I just assumed.”
“It’s okay.” Blue snorted, smoke escaping his nostrils. “I’m not offended. Believe me.”
Maureen and Donald must have figured they were two couples on holiday. And how far was it from the truth? There had been that one night, after all, a misguided attempt at providing Gabe a modicum of real tenderness. But that kind of justification had gotten Blue in trouble countless times; you’d think he would have learned.
“Gabe’s a puppy dog, you know?” he said by way of explanation, not to mention rationalization. “He’s had a hard life, not that he talks about it. I’m protective of him. Maybe too much.”
“You care about him.”
Blue nodded. “So, what did he tell you exactly?”
“He said that you’re very kind, and that you like to pretend otherwise. And that you make the best food he’s ever tasted.”
“That’s nice of him to say.”
“I believe it. You’re different. I can tell. Like I said, you got the glow.” She sipped her drink. “Elisa’s glowing too, of course. But her glow is common enough. Any idea where yours might come from?”
“Uh, couldn’t properly say, really.” He blushed and looked away. “Maybe it’s the sangria.”
She laughed. “You never know.”
They smoked in silence. Blue suppressed a yawn, faced the woods, and listened to the sounds of the party blare from the open windows: the creak and slam of the screen door, a cacophony of voices, music, clapping and stomping. He turned to find Maureen gazing intently inside, at Donald, who’d gotten up from the couch and was busy collecting bottles and glasses from the coffee table. “My husband,” she said, her tone neutral.
“He’s an interesting guy,” Blue said. “Very spirited.”
“He has Alzheimer’s.” She stubbed her cigarette out on the inside of a mussel shell set out on the porch railing. “He was diagnosed last year. But I could tell for a while already. I knew.”
“Oh, God. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, that’s one of the perils of marrying someone twenty years older, I guess. Not that I was ever the marrying kind. But after a few decades of take-a-lover, leave-a-lover . . .”
“Is that what you were like?” Blue noticed she didn’t wear a wedding ring, nor, he had noted, did Donald.
“That’s what a lot of us were like, up here. Our little lost land, back when we still pretended to have ideals.”
“There used to be a commune up here, right?”
“Something like that. Where did you hear about that old place?”
“Someone mentioned it before,” he said imprecisely. “Were you and Donald living here back then?”
“Sure we were. Donald was actually one of the founders of the Colony. Not that he moved here for that purpose, exactly. He was an entomologist turned rubber-booter, came up from McGill to study ants, of all things.”
“Ants? Is there something special about the ants up here?”
“There’s something special about everything here,” she said with a wicked grin. “This has always been a singular place. Not just for the indigenous people, Mi’kmaqs like me, but for everyone who comes through. And that vibe fit the ‘live off the land’ era just perfect, you know? We had quite the good time. Many years’ worth. But if you would’ve told me then it would come to this . . .” Soundless laughter, a quick jerk of the head. “I’ve had better years, that’s for sure. I just hope they’re not all behind me.”
He offered her another cigarette, leaned in to light it against the swelling breeze. They separated slightly but stayed close, shoulder to shoulder. “Donald can’t read a clock anymore. He knows what the hands are, but not what they mean . . . I have to leave him little notes all around the house. ‘This is the oven. It gets hot. Don’t use it without Maureen.’ ” She exhaled through her teeth, smoke scattering in the dim shine from the porch light. “In the spring he found me in my studio and said, ‘I have to talk to Maureen about the oven.’ I said, ‘Okay, what do you need?’ and he said, ‘No, not you, I have to find Maureen.’ I said, ‘Darling, I am Maureen.’ He kind of grumbled and walked back to the house. I figured out what was going on a few days later, when we were going to bed and he said, ‘Good night, Barbara.’ That’s the name of his first wife. She died forty years ago.”
“What did you say?”
“ ‘Good night, Donald. Sweet dreams.’ ” She stubbed out her barely smoked cigarette, then pocketed it. “Thanks for the smokes,” she said, and squeezed his arm.
“Anytime. You know where to find me.”
She walked back inside, the snap of the screen door absorbed into the wall of noise. He watched her through the window as she gave her husband’s arm the very same squeeze, and Donald shuffled off to the kitchen, his hands and the crooks of his arms heavy with beer bottles and stacked glasses. Maureen joined some of her friends in the front room, where they swallowed her into their orbiting circle.
Blue retrieved his drink from the porch railing. The sangria had gone lukewarm; it tasted a bit like blood. He kept at it anyway, the alcohol going to his head, the surface of his skin. He rested his elbows against the railing and listened to the cry of the fiddle. This was followed by applause, then a hush from the house, as if the party was a radio play that had been abruptly muted. The wind whistled through the trees, knotted boughs discernible in the moonlight before a cloud lumbered over the cove. He closed his eyes.
A powerful sense of being watched shocked him to attention. Had he caught a strand of movement in the woods? Probably his imagination, but gooseflesh prickled his arms nevertheless. He kicked back a slug of wine, wiped his mouth, and lit another cigarette.
A light flickered in the trees. A lightning bug? Something alive and in motion, whatever it was, though now it was still, glowing like an ember. Blue stepped off the porch and walked a crooked line to the edge of the lawn a dozen yards from the house, and as he did the light appeared to approach in kind. The densely packed pines rustled, their limbs swaying overhead like water swept by an oar. He squinted into the night, as if he could glean meaning from the forest simply by staring hard enough into its dark and mysterious heart.
The light was gone, but he could hear—no, feel—a presence within the woods, accompanied by a wet earthy scent, powerful and fecund. He covered his nose, the cigarette paper a bright stain between his fingers, and the spark of light appeared again like a beacon. The source of the smell was extremely close, within arm’s length, perhaps; its proximity left him simultaneously repulsed and intoxicated. He could feel something reaching out to take his hand, stroke it like a lover would. Blue’s eyes narrowed, and his trembling fingers spidered forward, as if upon silken strings.
He could see himself. Right there, standing a little way into the woods, the dark surface of the forest freshly and impossibly reflective. There was his own startled face, backlit by the house and the candlelit glow from the windows. The light in the woods, it was the burning tip of the cigarette in his white hand, fingers extended in communion. Was he staring into a mirror?
He stepped forward, and now he could see right through this other self. On the other side of his reflection was the ghost image of a balsam fir, its needled branches held back by a hand. The hand that held back the branches, though, that was not his own—indeed, it was like no hand he had ever seen, the fingers bone-thin, and long, and deathly gray.
In a nauseating flash, it came to him: he wasn’t seeing his reflection, nor was it some estranged identical twin. Rather, he was seeing himself through someone else’s eyes. He was at once inside his body and outside of it, watching from beyond the sheltering trees. He saw himself as he was.
His sight refracted, the branches in his periphery a kaleidoscope of shadow and moonlight. A split-apart image of the forest floor and he listed, then steadied, his vision a mirror fragmented into shards. He pressed his eyes shut but the fractalled images didn’t yield, only multiplied into differing angles. He thought of the compound eyes of the praying mantis sculpture he’d glimpsed inside the house as he saw himself from deep in the woods, as well as closer by; a splinter of his chin captured from ground level down the hill; a sliver of the back of his neck viewed from the treetops. He saw himself through a multitude of eyes, all watching from the woods.
His curiosity swelled, then turned to fear, then excitement, rapid pulsations that bled together until one emotion was indistinguishable from the next. His very being cried out in surrender, and he hungered to be disassembled into nothingness, his heart pounding so hard he thought his chest would burst. And all the while the whine and burring of insects, the call of predatory night birds, and the screech of the fiddle in one long and discordant stroke, the final note of a song that refused to end.
A hand grasped his shoulder, and quickly withdrew. “Hey,” Gabe said. How did he get so close? “Are you okay?”
“What?” He shook his head. “Oh yeah. I was just . . . Nothing.” Blue glanced back over his shoulder at the trees. Nothingness, he thought. Surrender. Communion. “Admiring the scenery.”
“Nice.” Gabe nodded sagely. “Maureen smoked you up, didn’t she?”
“She said she was going to bring by some sticky stuff, so I just figured. Hey, how long have you been out here? We haven’t seen you for hours.”
“Hours?” Blue looked down. Between his fingers he held a charred cigarette butt, the stub burned down to the filter. He flicked it into the trees, and instantly regretted the trespass. “Has it been that long?”
“It’s four in the morning. Elisa’s complaining about her feet. She sent me to find you.”
“Okay. Let’s go.” He mussed Gabe’s hair somewhere between rough and tender, a bid for normalcy if nothing else, and Gabe ducked away from him. See? Everything is fine.
They walked across the lawn. Elisa, heels in hand, put an arm around Blue and the other around Gabe. The three schlemiel-schlimazeled to Jason, who stood with his arms crossed, shaking his head in mock disapproval. Elisa slapped him hard on the ass, and Jason howled as he threw his own arm around Blue. The four returned in a slanting box step to the house on the hill.
Once Jason and Gabe shambled upstairs to bed, Blue and Elisa retreated outside for one last gasp of night air, and for Blue one more glass of wine. “Man, am I beat,” he said as they planted themselves on the porch swing. He glanced down the hill, toward the trees at the border of the lawn. “I thought I saw . . . Jesus, I don’t know what. It was like I could see outside my body. Like I was watching myself through the woods, but from a hundred different eyes. Something.” He rubbed his face and waited, but no response was forthcoming. “Fuck. Maybe I was having a flashback.”
He thought he heard her laugh under her breath, but once he leaned in he could make out the sound of anguish as she choked back tears. “Hey,” he said. “Hey, are you okay?” She didn’t answer, only rested her chin against the heels of her wrists. “What’s the matter?”
After a while she said, “Do you ever think you’ve made the wrong choices in life?”
“All the time. Why?”
“I don’t know.” Elisa’s face was cast in darkness, only a slight suggestion of her features visible in the moonlight. “Never mind. I’m fine, really. Just ignore me, okay?”
“If you say so.”
He listened to the wind rustle the leaves, to the solitary warble of an unknown bird darting across the tree canopy. Awesome Elisa. More than a decade gone since they met as teenagers in front of the Limelight, where they split a tab of E and danced the night away on a catwalk, looking down at the world below. He saw inside Elisa that night, right to her soul. Not by the yellow glow from the moon but beneath a scorching spotlight, its gels rotating red, green, red. The throb of music from the speakers, clean sweat, the chemical smell of dry ice: he had never wanted that blurry carnival of wasted youth to end. Then he awoke from its poppy-petaled spell, only to find himself cold and alone on the dirty bathroom floor of his midtwenties, wondering how he’d managed to land up there. When he wasn’t looking, the lost boys and girls had all grown up.
Beyond the cove, a thin zipper of dawn opened on the horizon over Kelly’s Mountain. “Look,” he said. “Here comes the sun.”
“Please don’t sing,” she said, and he busted out laughing. Elisa could always do that, penetrate to his core and alleviate the sense of alienation he’d harbored as long as he could remember. What could he say? She still got him. It didn’t help that she was as beautiful as ever; that would never change, not to him. He would always love her, if only in regret. Except for that one night in May, right after he’d gotten the call about his grandmother and her house, when he and Elisa found their lips thrust together in need of both consuming and being consumed. Hands fumbling in the dark to remove each other’s clothing, the heat of her warm flesh on his, skin on skin. That night regret was a stranger.
Blue slid his hand along the rough wood of the porch swing and interlaced his fingers with hers. Across the cove the distant light strengthened until it sparkled above the water like a disco ball, like glitter thrown from a rafter high above a cavernous and smoke-filled dance floor.
“Glittering,” she said softly, as if she’d plucked the word from his mind.
“What’s that?” he asked, but she didn’t respond, only squeezed his hand before loosening her grip. It was a word he’d long kept close to his heart, one that described a place that didn’t exist. A land of belonging he had once searched for across the skin of lovers, at the bottom of liquor bottles, in clouds of pot smoke and granulated powders and pills. His magical home, always just out of reach. She was the only thing left of that world, and already she was fading.
“Elisa,” he said, her very name in his voice its own charge of urgency. “If there’s something going on, you know you can tell me, right?”
“Sure,” she said. “Of course.”
“If things with Jason aren’t—”
Her breath caught in her throat. “Don’t,” she said, and moved her hand from his. “I can’t. Forget it. I’m sorry.”
She stood and went inside the house, Blue left on the jangling porch swing, alone.
The Glittering World
A LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD FINALIST
AS A BOY, HE VANISHED INTO THE WOODS.
SOMETHING ELSE CAME BACK.
In the tradition of Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), Scott Smith (The Ruins), and Jason Mott (The Returned), award-winning playwright Robert Levy spins a dark tale of alienation and belonging, the familiar and the surreal, family secrets and the search for truth in his debut supernatural thriller.
When up-and-coming chef Michael “Blue” Whitley returns with three friends to the remote Canadian community of his birth, it appears to be the perfect getaway from New York. He soon discovers, however, that everything he thought he knew about himself is a carefully orchestrated lie. Though he had no recollection of the event, as a young boy, Blue and another child went missing for weeks in the idyllic, mysterious woods of Starling Cove. Soon thereafter, his mother suddenly fled with him to America, their homeland left behind.
But then Blue begins to remember. And once the shocking truth starts bleeding back into his life, his closest friends—Elisa, his former partner in crime; her stalwart husband, Jason; and Gabe, Blue’s young and admiring coworker—must unravel the secrets of Starling Cove and the artists’ colony it once harbored. All four will face their troubled pasts, their most private demons, and a mysterious race of beings that inhabits the land, spoken of by the locals only as the Other Kind...
Introducing the new supernatural thriller 'The Glittering World'
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