Ghost in a Glass House

by Julia Duncan ©1998

This story was published in the lit annual Gargoyle in 1998 and garnered an honorable mention in that year’s The Best of the Rest, an anthology of SF/F/H genre stories published in nongenre outlets.

I met Simon at Under the Bridge, at a commitment party for Soho and Lisa. Commitment as in lesbian marriage, not mental hospital, though their friends thought the latter more appropriate. Soho was crazy, and Lisa was crazy for marrying her. Most of us were not what you would call completely sane, but that never stopped us from throwing stones.

I sat at the bar, doing a leather-cool, half-lidded stare over beer after beer, thinking about killing myself, talking about Denny whenever one of my friends would sit next to me for more than a minute. Two weeks since she’d dropped her bombshell and left town, enough time for my friends to move on. Barely enough time for me to grasp that there’d been an explosion.

“Two years,” I complained to Gem, one of the bartenders. “She was with me for two years. And she told me two hours before their train left.”

Gem had heard it before. He fixed me with his big blue eyes and said, “Well, Rena, what do you want?”

“I want her back.”

“Honey,” he said, “that’s not love. Letting her go is love.”

I hated Gem. I hated the truth, which was that I would have done anything to get Denny back. “You just want me to keep drinking,” I accused him. Despite my tough wardrobe, I was a big tipper when I got drunk, which was a lot lately.

I was drunk when I met Simon. Not quite falling-off-the-barstool stage but on that road. I noticed this man in the crowd, with gray hair and a trim gray beard, green eyes, and old-fashioned clothes, a dark gray suit that looked as if it came from the vintage store on Grace Street. Turns out it did. Simon has a taste for the old–if it lasts, he says, it was made to last. That kind of quality means something to him. Most of what he owns comes from estate sales and vintage stores.

Simon looked so out of place, he fit in. Amused with that thought, and ready to seize any excuse, however slim, I turned around and raised my hand to signal Gem for another beer. “Who’s that guy?” I asked when he finally got to me with a bottle. I tossed him a five. “The old guy.”

“He’s not old; that’s Professor Dorcy. Philosopher. Everybody knows him.”

I didn’t, but Gem knew I dropped out of college in my sophomore year, worked night-shift in a darkroom, didn’t know a lot of people called “Professor.” Sweetheart, Gem was. I waved him back my change. “What’s he doing here?”

“One of Soho’s stable of writers,” Gem said. “He wrote that piece last month about art and death. Fantastic mind.” Didn’t thank me for the tip, as usual.

I nursed this beer hunched against the bar, shoulders stiff to protect my little world. Didn’t work. I had barely finished off the bottle when a new one arrived, escorted by a clear drink over ice in a cocktail glass, and met by a hand offering bills before I could reach into my pocket.

Turning my head, I was careful to remain stable, anchored against the bar with my arms. It was Professor Dorcy, standing next to me in the space where someone had borrowed a stool. “I’m Simon,” he said, not offering to shake hands. “Nice to meet you.”

“Rena,” I said. “Thanks for the beer, but I’m queer.”

“Drink it anyway,” he said. “I’m not asking you out on a date.”

“Good,” I said, or something equally brilliant.

He didn’t leave. “Is Rena from Irene?” he asked me.

“Sure is,” I answered, drinking.

“Irene means peace; do you know that? It does not suit you,” he said, casually. “I would think something like Ireta–angry one. You are very young to look so angry.”

I looked down at my bottle of beer, realizing I would look ridiculous trying to toss it on him. He had one hand wrapped around his own drink, protecting it. I shrugged my tense shoulders and told him, “I’m twenty-one.”

“How long have you been thinking about killing yourself?”

I turned my head toward him again, still careful to move slowly. “How the hell do you know that?” I asked, thinking one of my stupid friends must have . . . but who had I told? I racked my brain. Must have been drunk. Don’t remember saying it to anyone.

“Hobby of mine,” he answered, just as smooth as before. “So I am correct. How long?”

I considered that. Simon had an older man sexiness, a trim body, every hair in place, clothes bespeaking exquisite taste even if they were straight out of the fifties, a clean cologne smell. His accent was Boston, I thought. Money, I thought. Reminded me strongly of my parents’ country club set. He should have been on the board of the university, not teaching there.

“Since I discovered death existed,” I answered him, pulling the collar of my shirt aside and turning slightly so that he could see the small black skull and the word Hellbound tattooed on my chest.

He didn’t even flinch. “How are you thinking of doing it?”

I stared at him. His eyes were a strange sea-green, with a hint of gold in the bright fluorescent light from over the bar. I thought it was an amazingly stupid conversation to be having with a stranger, so I gestured with one hand, thumb up, toward the bridge.

He nodded slightly. “A classic,” he said and drained his drink. “From this bridge, you’ll probably die or pass out when you hit the water. If not, drowning is said to be an easy way to go. Not much of a mess either, at least until your body washes ashore.”

“Jesus Christ, what are you drinking?” I asked, shaking my head. That was a mistake, but his comments were so bizarre. What kind of twisted philosophy professor was this guy? I wondered.

“Hoover Dam,” he said.

“No, I probably couldn’t get up there to jump off.”

He smiled, raising his glass. “Water on the rocks.”

“Oh.”

“Mind if I ask you why now?”

I was still looking right at him. Even through the beer haze, I knew what he meant. “Just found out,” I told him, “I’m not a very nice person.”

“Weak,” he said. “If that were a good reason, the river would be clogged with corpses.”

I turned back to my beer, carefully raised it, and took a swallow.

“Must be love,” he said. “What did you think of the ceremony?”

Ten minutes into the bonding ceremony earlier that evening, I had decided killing myself was the only thing left to do.

“I think Soho is certifiable, and she’s going to make Lisa even more miserable now. What do you think?”

He chuckled low. “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he said.

“People who drive in glass cars shouldn’t have bones,” I replied.

He laughed, this time a dry and humorless sound.

I said, “Lisa will never be careful enough to avoid getting hurt.”

“Love must be a glass car.”

“Is love a good reason?” I asked.

“Rarely.”

“Are you some kind of expert?”

“I’ve considered the topic.” When I did not respond, he asked, “May I buy you a cup of coffee, Rena?”

*

We made an odd couple at the bright diner up the street, but not one worth a second glance from a staff used to all kinds. Seat the distinguished gentleman and his crewcut, tattooed, leather butch escort in a booth toward the back, OK?

Simon didn’t tell me shit about suicide or what would be a good reason. He bought me coffee and a bran muffin and he listened so hard I had to talk, as if his listening was a vacuum cleaner pulling the dust out of my mind.

I must have told him everything. How I came out and my entire family disowned me, down to great-aunt Ethel, who wasn’t sure what lesbianism meant but was fairly sure it had something to do with communism. How I haven’t spoken to any of them in four years. How my lover before Denny left me for a guy and was married and pregnant within two months. How my best friend, River, died of AIDS. How I dropped out of school because of soaring debt and my full-time job hadn’t slowed the soar one bit, and wouldn’t as long as I kept tipping bartenders like a maniac. How the love of my life professed undying love continually while she had her fingers in another pie so deep that they had already rented an apartment together in a different city, and how the stupidest thing of all, the thing I just could not stand much longer, was the overwhelming need to have Denny back, not to see her happy, but to have her. In my bed, in my arms, mine alone. My possession.

How it made me loathe myself.

When I was done, Simon didn’t speak. He looked at me for a long, long time without opening his mouth, until finally I said, “So aren’t you going to try to talk me out of it?”

“No,” he said.

“Why not?”

He sighed and picked up his coffee cup. “Most of the people I talk to change their minds while they are telling me about themselves. They decide that they want to live, glass houses and all. They find sympathy for themselves.”

“Not me,” I said.

“Yes, I sense that about you. I think that you are mentally ill.”

He said it in all seriousness, as if it needed saying–was it not obvious from the topic we had been discussing since he walked up to me at the bar that I was mentally ill?

I played along, toying with one of my skull earrings. “Really? Why is that?” I asked.

“Because you don’t value your life.”

I answered him, “What value? How do I know that, if I don’t jump off the bridge tonight, I won’t get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or that I won’t get drunk some night, get in my car, and kill someone? Here it is after all, ho-hum, the your-whole-life-ahead-of-you bit.”

“Hm? No. Quite the contrary, I’ll walk you to the bridge if you’re serious.”

He was, to judge by his cold eyes, quite serious. It took me a minute. I sipped coffee. I ran through my possibles, my limits, my sore spots. I even thought about those few seconds of flight, and then . . . pain over. Done. Oblivion.

“You’re on,” I said.

*

Rain drizzled down steadily, but we walked slowly to the bridge. For once I was free from caring how wet my carefully preserved leather jacket was getting. Simon didn’t seem to even notice the rain.

We didn’t speak until we got halfway across on the walkway, on the east span. I looked down at the water for a minute. It looked dark and cold and disturbed in the rain. The cars going over the bridge made a sound like ghosts in a tunnel. I shrugged out of my jacket and handed it to Simon. He took it. Then I thought it might be nice to wear it down, and if I didn’t die when I hit the water, my old companion would help me sink to the depths. But I couldn’t bring myself to reach for it back.

“Denny,” I said to him. “Denise Applewaithe. In Norfolk. Call her?”

He didn’t nod, but I figured he would do it. I turned and climbed the railing, crawled across the beams, threw my legs over the other side, and twisted to catch the edge with my feet. It was easy to hang on there, and I did for a moment, watching Simon’s eyes darkly assessing me. I let go, bending my knees and shoving myself away.

I fell backward, with the rain, out of the sky, and though I couldn’t see it, I sensed the river waiting to embrace me and carry me away. With a great sense of relief, I watched Simon and the bridge recede against the flat, dark gray sky. I surrendered to the coming embrace.

I spun and twisted, my head reeled, I couldn’t breathe, I was blind. There was no pain, only confusion and heat.

I heard squealing brakes, shouting, footsteps on metal decking, ghosts in a tunnel. I felt drops of water hitting my head.

Simon held me.

For an instant, against my cheek, I felt skin and muscle slide, hard and slick, pulsing with heat, and my mind was filled with the color of blood and the smell of oily yellow smoke.

Then I heard Simon speaking, the sounds of his words humming meaninglessly from his chest into the bones of my face crushed against his white cotton shirt. I smelled wet wool and wet leather and the undertone of rot from the river far below. My mind went blank in shock.

Simon took me home.

*

He gave me towels in a sumptuous half bathroom right off the foyer of his house, disappeared, and brought back a soft robe. He left me alone to change–my reflection in the mirror looked strange with this regal dark blue robe and all the rings and skulls and things in my ears–then he returned to escort me into a living room full of antique furniture and Persian rugs. He sat me down in front of a gas fireplace; I accepted brandy only because he placed it into my hands.

“Are you sorry you’re not dead?” he asked very quietly, as though asking if my drink was acceptable.

I nodded.

He paced slowly around the room with his own small snifter of brandy. “May I ask you a few questions?”

I nodded again.

“Were your parents wealthy?”

I was confused. I nodded anyway.

“Can you tell Mozart from Bach?”

I nodded again.

“Do you know what carpe diem means?”

“Of course. Seize the day.” At last my mind began to move again. “What are you?” I asked. “How did you . . . do what you did?”

He had stopped pacing and stood with his back to me for a moment. In front of him was a stand displaying a doll in a glass case; he may have been looking at it. I could see that it was in ornate ethnic Chinese costume. The case had carved black trim and a tassel of bright red serving as a doorpull.

Finally, Simon turned around. I found the strength to look at him; he had not grown horns or begun to breathe fire. He looked relaxed, though slightly eager, and he gestured vaguely with his snifter. “Don’t you think why is a more important question?” he asked.

“What do you want from me?”

He smiled at me, for the first time a genuine smile, full of pleasure. His sea-green eyes glimmered in the false-fire light, green and black like the bottom of the river. “I want your life,” he said.

I blinked. “What?”

He answered slowly and steadily. “Your life. What you threw into that river tonight. Say your life was that vase over there.” He pointed to a beautiful vase enameled with red roses. “You throw it over the edge. I catch it. You owned it–you had the right and the power to destroy it. But now I have it in my hands, intact. Who owns the power to destroy it now?”

“Are you saying that you want to kill me?”

“Not right away.”

Chills ran through me, deep into my gut, up the back of my scalp. Warmth followed. No fear, just that odd liquid excitement that happens half an instant before orgasm.

“You could be dead right now, free from pain,” Simon said. “I’m offering you what you want, just in a different mode.”

I looked around, reflex, checking for weapons. Death I did not fear, but more pain wasn’t on my agenda. There was plenty of material at hand, from lamps to just-for-show fireplace tools. “What do you mean?” I asked.

He did not answer right away. Instead, he refreshed his drink, collected a cigarette from a box near the bar, and chose a chair. He lit the cigarette with a gold lighter from his pocket and savored the first puff. Then, looking into the fireplace, he elaborated.

“I offer what you want: freedom from pain. In exchange I wish to own the rest of your life. Your body and your mind, all that you are now, living, but as if you were that vase.”

“Without pain.”

“Without pain,” he said, as serious as he had been when he offered to walk me to the bridge. “An example. Think of your Denise.”

I had to think of her as soon as he mentioned her name. And it was as if I was thinking of someone I didn’t even know. I stared at Simon.

“Trade to me what you are willing to throw away–trade it for the loss of your pain. If I’m lying, you can always go leap off that bridge.”

I finished the brandy sip by sip, also watching the fire. Twenty minutes went by according to the clock on the wall before I said, “And if not?”

“The bargain will hold,” he answered without hesitation, softly, like a caress. “I will own your life.”

“Not my soul?”

“Souls bore me,” he answered, his eyes afire. “I desire other things.”

“What are you?” I whispered.

“If I can give you what you want,” he answered, “does it matter what I am?”

I let go for the second time that night. This time, I got what I wanted.

*

I never even went back to my apartment for my stuff. My landlord kept it for a while, then he gave it all away.

Word went around. Friends came to see me. Campus gossip said Professor Dorcy had acquired a sex slave, that he had hypnotized me somehow and was holding me prisoner. My friends checked my arms for needle marks and my back for whip scars, and when there weren’t any, they tried for an hour to pry something out of me or to get me to leave. Muir couldn’t keep his eyes off Simon’s things.

“This doll is exquisite,” he said. “Look at her eyes.” He made Sandy look at the doll’s ink-black eyes.

Sandy said, “She looks like she’s afraid of something.”

“Where did he get all this stuff on a teacher’s pay?” Muir muttered. “What a collection.”

Sandy stared at my hair, growing out, and my ears, full of empty holes, and she couldn’t help herself. “He can’t be that fucking good,” she told me. “Rena, you’ve sold your soul.”

I told them I had lost my bones. They went away muttering, “Certifiable.”

What could I have told them? That a ghost in a glass house feels no pain?

I saw Denny one night, downtown. We had eaten dinner at one of those gorgeous new restaurants opening up in the old warehouse district, and we were walking into a nearby hotel when Denny got out of a cab right in front of us. She looked just like always, slim legs in tight jeans, black car coat, red hair bright and teased, strong hands. I stopped and looked at her, interested. She glanced my way for a brief second, as people do on the street; I hadn’t thought she would recognize me. My hair was curled; my dress was low cut; my heels were so high, I leaned on Simon’s arm as we walked. The diamonds dangling from my ears were worth more than I made in a year when I lived with Denny.

Then her head whipped around, and she stared. Her face went dead pale and her mouth came open in a little “What?” motion. But she said nothing, and I felt nothing as we went on our way inside.

Simon did not lie. A property of his mind, I am like a vase, like a gas fireplace, pretty and warm but untouched by the flame. Another possession, his to enjoy, his to destroy. He did not lie. Sometimes I beg him to hurt me, but I never feel any pain. When he kills me, I will thank him; I died some time ago and am no longer throwing stones.