Hugging her cashmere shawl around her bared arms, Meredith bounced on the curb. Her heels clacked against the concrete and she rubbed her legs together, making her feathered skirt rustle.
“Where are you?”
She checked her watch, the opalescent face showing him fifteen minutes late.
Laughter rose behind her and the glow from the restaurant’s opened door wafted over her like the warmth from an oven. A couple strode out, arm in arm, flirting obliviously. They rounded the potted topiaries out in front and made their way along the sidewalk basking in the dimmed storefront advertisements. They crossed paths with a foursome, the two chatty women striding before a pair of subdued men and through the entrance’s frosted door.
Buttery aromas blended with cologne, making Meredith’s stomach grumble and she hunched deeper into her shawl. A gust whipped along the darkened road, stirred by the passage of a lone sedan. The breeze died, taking with it the crinkle of newspaper in the gutter and leaving the buzz of the electrical lines and neon signs to keep her company. A weight seemed to drape upon the evening and she peered up at the growing clouds.
“The next thing you know it’ll be raining.”
With a frustrated sigh, she glared at her painted toes peeking through her sling-back sandals and fought against another glance down the road. No oncoming traffic sounded and she shut her eyes, willing the quick slap of his footsteps to arrive.
The phone in the booth beside the fire hydrant rang instead. Its peal brought her head up and Meredith found herself entranced by the receiver within the graffiti-coated steel framed box. She watched the dirtied panes shake with every ring and then still once the phone went quiet.
Maybe I should call him.
The idea unglued her feet from the concrete and she drifted toward the mottled booth. Her fingers had found the latch on the retractable door when the phone rang again.
Lured forward by the tone, she opened the door and lifted her hand to the receiver. The ring seemed to escalate with her approach, each tinny chime burrowing into her ears, and ricocheting between her temples. When the last blast threatened to burst her skull, Meredith snatched the receiver off its cradle simply to cease its blare.
“He’s late, isn’t he?”
Meredith balked at the gentle tenor gliding through the holey earpiece.
She drew the phone into place. “Who is this?”
“Someone who wants to help you.”
“Right.” She started the receiver toward its cradle.
“I know why he’s late.”
Meredith bit her lip, tasting the remnants of gloss. Sliding the door closed, she brought the mouthpiece to her lips once more. “Why?”
“Can’t you guess?”
“Work, sure.” The low rumble of his laugh made her cheeks flush. “We can call it that.”
Shedding her unease, Meredith gathered her nerve. “Who is this?”
“Names are inconsequential at the moment. For now, just consider me a friend.”
“My friends have names.”
“Your friends aren’t who you think they are.”
Cupping the phone with her other hand, Meredith pursed her lips tight. “They also make sense.”
“I can make sense.”
She scoffed. “Prove it.”
“You thought it would rain tonight, didn’t you?”
“Maybe,” said Meredith, the barbs blunting on her tongue.
“What’s it doing now?”
Glancing through the window, she met fat drops spattering on the glass. She scowled and sought firmer ground.
“It’s humid. It makes sense for it to rain.”
“Closer at what?”
“The rain of course.”
She cocked her head and peered at the dampening surroundings. “Why?”
“Just try. What do you have to lose?”
Rolling her eyes, she checked the empty sidewalk. No one had appeared, other restaurant patrons or otherwise.
“It’s not like you’re going to be late.”
Conceding to the tenor’s fact, she did as he urged. The tip of her button nose brushed the glass when she leaned forward and put the nearest raindrop in her sights.
“Focus on that single drop.”
She tunneled her vision on the speck but as she stared at the liquid splatter she began to note the glow from the neighboring restaurant, the stoplights down the block, the yellow tinge of the street lamps and closed stores. As she stared the ribbons of neon and florescent began bending, warping with the droplet’s curve. A part of her realized the tiny puddle had yet to slide along the glass, and instead, seem to lay upon the vertical surface as it might have on a countertop. Within the pool, the lights continued their bend until a familiar square-jawed face appeared, but his deep brown gaze and chestnut waves had been replaced by eyes of ruby red and hair as green as a spring grass.
Meredith staggered back when he grimaced as he might have at reports denoting missed deadlines or other project delaying errors. Whatever he stared at moved, his red eyes tracking it around the drop’s perimeter until the back of his head faced her.
“So he’s not late,” said the tenor through the phone.
Meredith gripped the receiver. “That’s impossible.”
The drop finally succumbed to gravity and streaked down the glass. Reaching out a finger, she lay the tip on where it had been.
“What was that?”
Turning from the glass, the droplet, and the eerie facsimile, she wet the receiver with her irritation. “You promised to make some sense.”
“I merely suggested you to look deeper at the world around you. What you saw, you saw with your own eyes.”
“No.” She shook her head, her auburn curls swaying. “You’re hypnotizing me or something.”
“What can I do? I’m talking with you over the phone.”
“I…I don’t know.”
Pivoting slowly, Meredith eyed the spot where the drop had lingered. Others fell and seemed suspended for a heartbeat longer than they should before streaming toward the ground.
Maybe there’s something in the air, or the water.
“Maybe there is,” said the tenor.
“Stop it. You’re not helping.”
“But I can.”
“By making me hallucinate?”
“Is that what you think it was?” He hummed in a pitch annoyingly close to amusement. “Maybe you should try again.”
Meredith held the receiver out at arm’s length, and then faced the glass smeared with rain. Pinching the skin on her forearm, she felt oddly discomforted by the sting of her own fingernails and the confirmation she wasn’t dreaming.
And I’m not crazy either.
With the phone lowered, she laid her palm flat against the interior of the booth and let her gaze fall into the raindrops once more.
The light coalesced more quickly this time. His familiar profile formed like the face on a coin, rigid and firm despite the movement of his mouth. His voice seemed to fill the booth as if he stood beside her.
“…or I’ll lose her like the last one.”
“That’s not acceptable,” said an icy soprano speaking from wherever it was he stared.
“I realize. I won’t let that happen. She’s too ripe.”
“Ripe can spoil in a heartbeat. Take care of this tonight.”
A shiver raced up Meredith’s spine when he raised a hand, the ruby on his father’s ring gleaming from his middle finger. The flesh around the crimson stone paled, matching the snowy pallor of his face, but the tips of his fingers were bloody like the eyes he swiveled. They locked on to her and Meredith felt a drag on her chest, as if he sucked the oxygen right out of her lungs.
The phone booth’s door flung open, the invading wind and rain blotting the vision. Meredith gasped at the damp air. Around her the glass and steel rippled and her knees went rubbery. Hands clutched her arms, keeping her from collapsing while the phone fell from her limp grasp and her shawl slipped from one shoulder.
“You’re all right,” said the tenor.
Meredith lifted her chin. Darkness seemed to live in the speaker’s oval face where an aquiline nose extended between two sapphire eyes. The background light created a topaz halo and then settled into a mane of gold.
A blink later and his features resolved into a duller version of ebony skin, charcoal eyes, and gelled hair tipped with bleached ends.
“That’s not possible.”
His lips spread, revealing a pearl grin with a gleam bright enough to polish chrome. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
“I guess not,” said Meredith.
His smile vanished and left her chilled. A serious cast darkened his face like a passing shadow.
“We’re going to have to get moving if you want to make more sense of this.”
Meredith tore herself from his gaze, glanced at the dangling receiver and then the booth’s glass where droplets had vanished now the rain had eased.
“Nothing’s making sense right now.”
“It can.” Releasing his hold on her arms, the ebony tenor offered his hands, palms up.
She stared at the pink flesh crisscrossed by white scars, then dove back into his eyes. The jeweled spark twinkled somewhere in their depths and she found herself straightening her shawl and coming to her feet. She placed her fingers onto his fiery digits.
“Hold tight,” he said, embracing her hands, “this is going to be one hell of a ride.”