Excerpt

“June gloom” was in full effect, draping the sky in silver mink, but it was early enough in the month that a few lacy blooms lingered on the jacaranda trees.  After six months of the Leishman Center’s relentless beige, the violet glow of the petals sang through my every nerve.  I kept trying to frame them, to set up a shot in my mind, but I’d been too long without a camera, and the trees slipped by too quickly.

I felt like a tourist in my own city.  The cab driver took the 4th Street exit off the 10, and I made a nose print on the window trying to see everything at once.  Fourth Street ran parallel to the ocean; at every intersection the western horizon flashed by like chrome.

A little ways south we entered a residential district where the streets were lined with pastel stucco apartments.  The cab pulled in beside the tiny park where Caryl had arranged to meet me.  The inviting patch of green sloped down toward Main Street and the sea.

I got carefully out of the cab, relying on my hands and my right knee to get me to a standing position, then grabbed my cane off the seat and used it to steady me as I went around the back of the cab.  I hadn’t tried using my prosthetic legs on anything but hospital tile, and I didn’t trust my balance.

The driver pulled my suitcase out of the trunk as I wrangled the folded wheelchair onto the street with excruciating awkwardness and opened it back up.  He helped me put the suitcase in the chair, I laid my crutches and cane across the arms behind it, and then I tipped the guy hugely before rolling all of my earthly possessions in front of me into the park.

The sea-kissed breeze, the rustle of leaves over my head, the dappled dance of shadows on the grass: it was all enough to make me giddy.  Holding onto the wheelchair made me feel more secure, even though I was supporting it and not the other way around.

Caryl Vallo sat with her back to me on a bench in the center of the park.  She was nondescript to the point of invisibility; she’d have made a fantastic background actor.  She was dressed in neutral shades again, this time a lightweight summery pantsuit in dove gray and cream.  She looked over her shoulder as I approached, then hesitated for just a moment before rising and coming around the bench to meet me halfway.

“Miss Roper,” she said, holding out a hand.  Gloved, again, to match her blouse.  As she stepped into the shade, her hair appeared coffee-black.

“Millie is fine.”  I gripped her hand firmly, then lifted it to our eye level.  “Why do you wear these?”

“I am eccentric.”

“Fair enough.”  I let go of her hand, watching her face.  As always, she gave away nothing.

“Please sit,” she said, gesturing back toward the benches.

I decided to be cooperative, even though I’d already been sitting for an hour and could have sworn I’d told Caryl I preferred standing.  I wheeled my stuff over and sat on a different bench from her; something about her discouraged even the most basic of intimacies.

To repay her for my discomfort, I started the conversation by saying, “Dr. Davis warned me about you.”

Dr. Davis had also encouraged me to continue Dialectical Behavior Therapy on an outpatient basis, but I could tell by the doe-eyes she’d given me on my way out that she wasn’t holding her breath.

Caryl offered me a thin smile.  “Amanda doesn’t know what she is warning you about, and therein lies the source of her distress.  She is not a woman who enjoys being left out of the loop.”

“You know her that well?”

“I suspect she knows me better than I know her.  I am a former patient.”

That brought me up short.  “She — didn’t mention that.”  I looked Caryl over, reconsidering the gloves.  Obsessive-compulsive?

“Of course she didn’t mention it,” Caryl said.  “Whatever else Amanda may be, she is a consummate professional.”

“And what else may she be?”

“Uninspired.”

It’s funny how your own thoughts sound meaner when they come out of someone else’s mouth.   “She’s helped me a lot,” I said.

“Sometimes after a trauma, mediocrity is exactly what we need.  But I think you are past that now.”

I rubbed at my forehead.  “Look.  I’m going to need some kind of reassurance that this is on the level.  You obviously weren’t authorized to recruit at the Center.”

“No, I was not.”

“It’s all right, I get it.  I was a film student.  I’ve faked my way into plenty of parties and offices where I didn’t belong.  What I’d like to know is how you disappeared out of my room the second I turned my back — while I was standing in the doorway.”

Caryl met my eyes evenly.  Hers were — hazel?  No, gray.  Or were they reflecting the sky?

“Magic,” she said.

I actually entertained the idea for a minute before concluding that this was her flaccid attempt at sarcasm.  But that’s a weird side effect of BPD; your perception of truth shifts so often in the normal course of daily life that crazy-talk doesn’t automatically trigger your bullshit reflex.

“Seriously,” I said.  “How did you do it?”

“The details of the technique are proprietary.”

“Look,” I said.  “I know my employment options are basically this or McDonald’s.  But I’m going to need more to go on than some vague references to free housing and industry connections.  What is the Arcadia Project?  According to Google, it’s either an anthology of postmodern pastoral poetry, a platform for the publication of illustrated environmental histories, or a phenomenology of attentional economics.”

“A what?”

“I have no idea; I don’t speak grad-student.  But when I mentioned your name to Dr. Davis she advised Extreme Caution.”

One of Caryl’s brows lifted about a quarter-inch.  “I had no idea I’d left such an impression,” she said.

“Why the secrecy?  Aren’t we here to talk details?  What exactly is it you’d be hiring me to do?”

Caryl leaned back, resting her elbows on the back of her bench.  Not dirt-phobic then, or at least not concerned about her jacket.

“To begin with, there would be a trial period; you would stay as our guest and assist in some minor errands for the Project.”

“What sort of errands?”

“It will vary from day to day.  Deliveries, filing, finding things.  If it works out, I can offer you a key set production assistant position that Dreamworks has earmarked for one of ours in September.”

“Key set PA.”  My negotiation skills were rusty, but I tried to apply some grease.  “You know I was in the running for Best New Director at the Seattle Film Festival, right?  The Stone Guest?  That was mine.”

Caryl gave me a mild look, so long I felt my ears go hot.  Even before she spoke, a dagger of shame centered itself above my gut, and her next words drove it home.

“The Arcadia Project is here to reopen a door that you closed,” she said.  “But we only open it.  You will have to be the one to shoulder your way through it past the crowd of people in your way.”

“I know how Hollywood works,” I said, shifting my weight.  “But let’s not ignore the fact that you said ‘creative positions’ before I packed up everything I own and came out here.  I worry what else you’re going to shame me into accepting further down the road.”

“If you are looking for guarantees,” Caryl said in a bored tone, “you are in the wrong business and quite possibly in the wrong city.”  She turned her head to study a smudge on the heel of her glove.  “I saw The Stone Guest,” she added, seemingly as an afterthought.

A flush of a different kind stole over my face.  “What did you think?”

“I trespassed on private property to recruit you.”

My tongue felt thick, and I looked away, studying the abstract statue at the edge of the park.  When I looked back at Caryl, I couldn’t remember what we’d been saying.  The human brain holds a grudge about being bounced around in the skull, even after thirteen months.

“So what’s next?” I bluffed, lobbing the ball into her court.