When he got home that night Miranda was sitting in the hallway, on the floor, with her back to his apartment door.
Only now that it was over did he realize, or allow himself to admit, how much her mysterious disappearance had shaken him. But now everything was about to be explained, and, as with a magic trick, the secret would surely turn out to be something simple and obvious, even dull.
"Well hi," he said.
But she did not hear him, did not stir until he was standing almost above her.
"Hi," he said again.
At that she pushed herself up to her feet, her back still against the door, whipped her hair out of her eyes and grimaced.
"Hi," she said; and in the same breath, "The elevator kept opening but nobody would come out."
Because he did not understand this, he merely nodded and let it pass.
She looked the same. The same oversized hoop earrings, the same too-short slicker, the same thick dark disheveled hair. The sight of her made his heart feel brittle. Next to her youth he felt ugly and weak and mortal; looking at her he thought wordlessly, wildly: I will die alone like an animal.
He made a skirting gesture towards the door, but Miranda didn't move. He held out his key and pointed with it.
"Do you want to, you know, come in or something?"
"Sure, okay," she said, as if the idea were a bit unusual.
Her sense of humor. He matched it, saying dryly, "Or would you be more comfortable out here?"
She looked around. "I don't think so."
She had with her a canvas shoulder bag and a hiker's backpack that appeared to be mostly empty. She brought these inside and put them just inside the door.
"Make yourself, you know, at home."
"Okay. Thanks." But she stayed were she was, putting her hands in and out of her jeans pockets as if searching for something.
Drew made himself busy emptying his own pockets, hanging up his keys, extricating himself from his jackets, peeling off his overshoes, and tidying the pile of bills on the kitchenette counter. While he did all this he hummed seriously, muttered under his breath, and occasionally threw out a question.
"Were you out there long? You could have called, to let me know ..."
"Not long, no, I don't think."
"I mean, I'm glad you're here, that's not what I mean. It's no inconvenience for me, but if I'd known I could have, you know, left you a key or something."
"I lost your number."
"Oh," he said.
Well, it was possible. He kept forgetting she didn't have a PDR. Anyway, hadn't he given his phone number to her in an email? Which she probably couldn't check without a PDR. How did she live? On the other hand, she'd managed somehow to find out his address, which wasn't listed and which he didn't recall giving to her. Strange. He'd ask her about that later; it would seem inhospitable to bring it up now.
"Do you want a drink or something?"
"Sure yeah, a drink would be alright, thanks."
"I've got orange juice, soy milk, Pepsi, uh ..." He opened the fridge to jog his memory and discovered that he had none of these things. "Sorry, make that tomato juice, 7-Up, what appears to be apple juice, make that apple beverage, and of course there's water."
"You've got a cat," she said.
"Yes. Oh. Are you allergic?"
"I don't think so." She pointed with a nod of her chin. "I just noticed her bowl."
"His bowl. His name's Volley. He must be hiding again. He's been acting sort of strange lately."
"Yes," she said. "Sometimes animals do."
"So, what do you want? To drink."
He went through the options again.
"Sure yeah, water's fine."
"Or if you'd prefer I've got beer too."
"Okay. A beer."
"Water and a beer? Or beer instead of water?"
He told himself that she was being courteous and undemanding because she was still a little shy around him, embarrassed for having lost his number, for having shown up unannounced, for having stood him up last night.
"It's not a question of easiest or not easiest," he said, showing her an easy-going smile. "It's a question of what you want."
"Oh, I know," she said. "But it doesn't matter, really."
"Beer and a water it is, then. Same for me, I think. Minus the water." He decided not to ask if she wanted a glass for the beer. "Here you are," he said, handing her the bottle and a glass of water. "Come in and sit down, make yourself comfortable. Take a load off. Just sort of hack your way through the jungle, there's a couch in there somewhere. At least according to the last reports that reached us."
"Sorry, but is this ... tap water?"
"Yes indeed," he said. The only people he knew who refused to drink tap water were silly popinjays like Telerude and silly paranoiacs like Mike. But he was willing, or tried to be willing, to entertain the possibility that some people might have good, perhaps medical, reasons for silly behavior.
"Do you have any bottled water? Not Evian or Kamarind. I can't drink those."
"I don't have any. Bottled water. At all. Sorry."
"Okay," she said, unperturbed. "Here," and handed him the glass back. "Thanks."
Drew cleared some space for them to sit. They sat.
He pulled out his PDR and, feeling rather sly, played For Your Pleasure, 1973.
But no, her eyes did not light up with nostalgia, appreciation, or even recognition, nor did she say "Wow," or "Oh my God," or even "Nice." She did not say anything. Then he realized.
"You don't have earbugs!"
She frowned a little. "I had them removed."
"Couldn't you have just turned them off when you didn't want them on?"
"I didn't ever want them on."
"Plus mine were sort of malfunctioning ..."
"Technology," she said.
"Besides, even when you turn them off you always get the mastercasts if you're out in public, the President's speeches on TV and all that crap. Not to mention all the so-called emergency stuff, ambulances and fire alarms and, you know, 'The door is ajar' and 'The walk light is now on' and 'Please pay for gasoline inside the station' and 'Thank you for shopping with us' and all that shit. 'Thank you for shopping'— as if that's an emergency broadcast!"
"Yeah, I guess a lot of it is pretty starching."
"It's fucking mind control is what it is. They don't ever want you to be alone with your thoughts. Cause you know what that might lead to."
"Still," he said, uncertain of himself, "it must be hard sometimes ...?"
"It's great, actually. The world's so quiet. Well, at first, anyway. Relatively. Gradually the background noise comes back in, silence becomes noise, noise becomes signal ... You know."
She had not yet touched her beer. But just as he was thinking this, she looked down at it in her hand and then took a long swig.
He got up and went to the stereo and flipped a few switches until the speakers came on. The sound, he thought, was not as good, nowhere near as immediate and clear. Then he realized that the speakers were buried under books and other junk.
"Even music," she said, not exactly in reply, "drowns you out. That's where the word even comes from originally. 'Earbug.' Originally that used to mean a song that you got stuck in your head. So when the company that first invented the earbug introduced it, what did they call it? The earbug. It totally fits."
"I thought a song that gets stuck in your head is called an earworm."
"Exactly." She pointed the index finger of the hand clutching the beer bottle. "Everything fits. There's your cat."
Volley strutted into the room, picking his way disdainfully through the boxes and socks and books.
"Yes," said Drew. "That's Volley."
The cat allowed his audience to gaze upon him for a moment, then strutted behind the stereo cabinet, as if going backstage.
"Cats are strange," she said.
He agreed that they were.
They sat, drinking their beers and listening to Roxy Music.
He told himself that this was nice. Told himself that this was just how he'd always imagined it.
But of course it wasn't.
He told himself that she was just a bit distracted, out of sorts, disoriented, nervous, shy. He was still waiting for her to explain her failure to appear last night, but was beginning to doubt that she ever would. If you missed a date with someone, wasn't the opportune moment to apologize the first moment you saw them again? Perhaps she didn't actually realize she'd stood him up. That would be one explanation, certainly: she'd flat forgotten. And she hadn't received either his call or his email because she didn't have a PDR and, by the looks of things, had moved out of wherever she had been staying. Perhaps there had been some argument, and she'd been asked to leave. That would explain her distraction, her strange mopiness. Wouldn't it? She hadn't been like this on Monday. It was just a mood, a funk. She'd snap out of it. She was not like this. Not really. Not all the time.
But a terrible knot of foreboding was forming in his chest.
She was, after all, a woman. And he knew that he had a tendency, at the start of his relationships with women, to idealize them. He fell in love at the drop of a hat. All his loves were at first sight. But first sight was always sight from afar. He saw something in the distance, and his hungry eyes imposed upon that faint figure the form of exquisite perfection. But then, inevitably, he got closer, and the fuzzily imagined ideal gave way to the coarse, imperfect reality. He never liked women as much when he got to know them; he always liked them best at the beginning. Was it possible he had done the same thing with Miranda? Even though she was not a woman but a girl, not even a girl, but his daughter? Had he fooled himself again? After all, they'd only met the once, for an hour, in a busy restaurant!
Despite himself, and with a sensation of betrayal, he remembered what Sheila had said. Sheila, who had known Miranda all her life, who must know her better than anyone, had said that Miranda was not well. That she had always acted strangely. And that lately she was getting worse.
Immediately he was disgusted with himself for thinking this way. Sheila's diagnosis was nonsense on the face of it, not worth consideration. Miranda was obviously bright, sensitive, creative, and unusual—the sort of person, in other words, that society always labeled "strange" or "unwell." Or—thinking of Nathan Shipley—"confused."
To exorcize Sheila's ghost, to prove that she had no power over them, he said, "You'll never guess who called me today."
Miranda looked up.
He paused portentously and said, "Sheila."
She looked at him blankly.
"What the hell did that bitch want?"
She was no longer looking at him blankly.
He was flummoxed. Of course, he thought Sheila was a bitch, and in all his fantasies of reunion Miranda had always recognized this fact too. But for some reason he was not gratified. Her viciousness upset him. In his daydreams they were always laughing, the two of them.
"She uh, she just called, she called the office, I haven't talked to her since ... a long time. She called to ask, well, I guess she's ... she seemed worried. About you."
She pressed back into the couch like she was being surrounded. "What the hell does she need to worry about me for?"
"That's what I wondered. Said. Told her, I mean. That she didn't. Obviously. That she was over-reacting. That's a direct quote."
"Over-reacting?" She laughed bitterly, and her posture relaxed a little. "I told you she tried to poison me, didn't I?"
Drew chuckled, and felt a stirring of relief. It was all a game, a joke ...
But then Miranda became pouty—another new expression on that face. "I didn't think it was exactly funny."
He spluttered. She had made him feel this way that day at the restaurant, too: always on his toes, like he had to run just to keep up—like he was old. He remembered now the way she'd said some odd things. That crack about poison—which, after all, if it was a joke, was in rather bad taste. Something about being "gang-stalked," as if she were a celebrity. Something about being ... no. He must be misremembering. Something about being "electronically harassed"? At the time he'd taken this to refer to telemarketers, spam mail. His response to all these apparently deadpan jokes had been to smile knowingly.
But what if he'd been wrong? What if she'd not been ironic, but sincere? What if that dry sense of humor was in fact no sense of humor?
No. He would not have made that kind of mistake. She was behaving differently today. She was not the same.
His beer was gone. A good start; drunkenness might ease things along. Just like any first date.
He clutched at this explanation: that they were still getting to know each other. That was why things were awkward. That was why she was behaving oddly.
"Another beer?" He waggled his empty bottle and said, "I think I'll have another. How's yours?"
"Okay," she said. But he didn't know whether she was answering his first or second question, whether she was saying "yes, thanks," or "no, thanks, mine's alright."
"Sure, yeah," she said. And she smiled at him.
Such teeth, he thought happily, as he popped the caps off two more. Everything was going to be alright. It was going to be the way he'd imagined it, after all.
But when he handed her the beer she seemed surprised. "Tha-anks," she said, in two high notes of uncertainty. He saw that her first bottle was still nearly full.
He reached for the PDR, put on some Beatles. "Taxman," by George Harrison.
"Could we turn this off actually?" she asked.
"Of course," he said cheerfully—hiding, even from himself, his disappointment.
"Listen," she said, and the way she said it made him cock his ears at the silence, afraid for a moment that the crazy screamer had returned. But she quickly went on: "Is it alright if I maybe stay here tonight? I can sleep on the couch. And I can make breakfast, if you've got the stuff for it. Or if you don't, and there's a market nearby, I'm always up early anyway so it wouldn't be a big stretch. I don't need much sleep actually ..."
"Of course you can stay tonight," he said. "Tonight, or as long as you like. And I think we can do a little better than that couch. Give me a few minutes, I'll clean out the spare room."
"Thanks," she said, her eagerness abruptly gone.
Tired, he told himself. And disoriented.
He had moved Volley's food and cushion to the kitchen and pulled out the sofa bed when an ear-splitting chittering sounded in the living room.
"What the fuck—" ... was she doing?
But it was not her. It was the phone. He'd left the speakers on, and the receiver was still picking up his PDR.
"Sorry," he said, hurrying to answer it. Then, when he saw the expression on her face, he said again, "Sorry."
"What is that?" She was standing on the couch, as if she'd seen a rat. One of the bottles she'd been holding was rolling across the floor, spewing a glugging arc of foam. The other was shattered.
"My phone," he said. "Sorry."
"That's your phone?"
"Hello?" he answered. "Drew Dunkel here."
He was making calming gestures, half apologetic, half forgiving, and pointing at the roll of paper towels in the kitchenette when the caller identified themselves.
Miranda, still affronted, would not follow with her eyes the direction his finger was pointing, but just stared angrily at his hand.
"I'm sorry," he said, "my name's not Lee."
"Rhonda Shipley. Nathan Shipley's mother. Nathan Shipley."
"Oh yes," he said. "Of course. I'm sorry, Mrs. Shipley, you've caught me at a bit of a—"
"Gerard said not to bother to call because what good would it do, and of course I'm sure it won't, but I guess I don't care, the fact is I'd like some sort of explanation."
He stood there, breathing, eyes closed, trying to think.
"I don't know where you got your information, Gerard assures me it was not from him and frankly I'm inclined to believe him in spite of everything, call me crazy. So I guess it must have been the idiot police or some paramedic or the cleaning company, maybe I shouldn't have called them in at all but I was hardly up to doing it myself as you can imagine, though on second thought I rather doubt you can."
Drew went into his bedroom and closed the door. "You're upset," he said.
"Oh my God," she said through a hysterical laugh, "you didn't think we would be?"
"You'll have to forgive me, I ..."
"Mr. Dunkel, we thought a professional such as yourself ... The position of trust that we ... Really we had no idea that you'd ... I don't see whose business it is, any of that side of things, all the gory details, my God ..."
In the living room, the other bottle shattered. He closed his eyes and said, "All the gory details, yes, no, I'm sorry, all what gory details ..."
"And the photo you used! Makes us look like a couple of I don't know what—Frankensteins!"
"Yes, I'm sorry about that," he said firmly, though he had not seen any photo. "But of course I have no say in that side of things, and you must realize that under the tight schedule which a daily newspaper is run there's often never time to get the, get your input. I know my colleague took a number of shots and I don't think it was anyone's intention to make you or your husband look bad or foolish, in fact I can assure you—"
"Oh, forget it, that's not the point, just drop it will you?" She seemed to have the phone a few inches away from her mouth now. Probably clobbered on tranks again. In fact he thought it was a rather muted performance, on the whole. She didn't sound nearly as offended as she seemed to want him to think she was. "You should be ashamed of yourself," she went on, "all of you, everyone who ... prying into people's private ... splattering it all over the front page ... public consumption ... disgusting really ..."
"Hardly the front page," he muttered.
All was quiet in the next room. He let Mrs. Shipley maunder on for a minute, then said he was sorry but he'd have to let her go. She seemed not to hear.
"World is coming to ... cares the hell you do ..."
"Goodbye, Mrs. Shipley."
"Stick your head in an oven ... long as you mind your own business ..."
"I hope you're feeling better soon."
He hung up, feeling like a shit.
Miranda had left the living room. The door to the spare bedroom was closed. She'd taken her bags in with her, but left the glass and beer on the floor. Volley, with apparent distaste but steadfast application, was lapping at the foam. When Drew tried to pick him up, the cat bit him.
"You little fucker!"
He closed his eyes and counted to one. Then he knocked on the door to the spare room.
"Yeah sure," she called back brightly, like someone flushing drugs down the toilet.
"Not cut or anything?"
"Naw, I'm fine."
He tried to think of some casual, non-fatherly, non-geriatric way of asking her, in that case, why the hell she hadn't done anything about the mess.
"You going to bed then?"
There was a pause. "Yeah."
"You need anything?"
"Not really, thanks."
"I didn't get a chance to put any sheets on that bed yet."
He stared at the door. Why didn't she open it? Why were they talking through it? Was this how they conducted their conversations at Sheila's?
"Do you not want me to bring any in to you?"
"Nah, that's okay."
"Sleep without, will you?"
"Oh, I got my sleeping bag here."
Why didn't you say so?
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with a thumb. He wanted a cigar.
"Well, goodnight then?"
"Goodnight," she answered.
"If you need a shower, there's—Christ, come to think of it, all the towels are probably in the wash. I mean, the queue to be washed. I mean, they're probably all dirty. I mean, not dirty but, you know ... been used. By me." Steeped in my filth.
She said something he didn't catch.
"Pardon me?" she called.
"Never mind. Will you be wanting a shower?"
"Can't hear you."
"I don't know," she said, as if happy to leave the decision in his hands.
"Well, we'll, I'll ..." A wave of fatigue passed through his body, as if all the blood in his veins had stopped circulating. "We'll have to do some wash tomorrow, I guess. In the meantime, you know, just ... help yourself to whatever you can find."
"I'm going to have a shower, I think."
"Then go to bed."
In the shower he kept hearing things, just inaudible under the blast of the spray.
Cupboard doors banging? Floorboards creaking? A knock at the door? Music? Voices?
But each time he stuck his head out to listen, the apartment was silent.