This story originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in April 2005.
It received an Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, 19th Edition.
“You’re a murderer and a rapist, and there may be no hope for you,” Winnie says to Ryan on a rainy afternoon at the end of the story. “But if there is, I will find it. I will remake you.”
Ryan doesn’t reply. He didn’t know he was a murderer and a rapist until very recently, so there is nothing to say. Nothing except the obvious words: It was only because I loved you, but Winnie would probably respond to that by breaking his arm, so he does not say it.
Instead, he stares at the rain dripping through a broken place in the roof. They are in an old warehouse down by the river, a place he bought yesterday. He paid for it with a check from his leather-covered checkbook, probably the last one they will let him write.
After buying the building, Ryan took the bucket of ashes out of the trunk of his green Lexus. With a shaking hand, he scattered them everywhere, over the floors, the walls, the windowsills. The ash rose up in great billowing clouds, choking him, mingling with his tears to make a gritty paste that he licked off his lips.
And now, after everything, he and Winnie are both stretched out on a stained mattress that they found by the back door, drinking from a bottle of vodka with a torn label. She looks just as she did when he first met her, immense ass and too-tight tank-top and all. Gone are the gray silk suit, the perfect teeth, the vacant stare. Now she just is what she is, nothing more or less. She has won.
This is where the story ends, but it is not where it begins.
The story begins on Ryan Ceres’ 40th birthday.
Ryan Ceres’ birthday is the 40th anniversary of what has been, and promises to continue to be, a perfect life.
He is a real-estate developer. He drives a green Lexus and he listens to adult contemporary rock. His fingernails are manicured and his hair is the color of fresh honey. His eyes are as blue as the sun shining through ice.
He is celebrating the anniversary of his birth with his fiancee, a slender redhead in a gray silk suit. They are having dinner at a restaurant on the top floor of the tallest building in town. His fiancee is staring down at a salad that is composed of two delicate leaves of arugula, a lump of herb-crusted goat cheese and a garnet-colored curl of shaved beet. She is heartbreakingly beautiful in a thoroughly banal way.
Ryan, however, has long since ceased to notice what she looks like. He is staring past her, out the tall black windows at the city below. Like jewels set in rich fabric, his buildings glow up at him. They beam up at him adoringly. They love him and he loves them. They are his real dinner partners. They are the ones with whom he his sharing his birthday dinner.
He raises his wineglass to the window, blowing them silent imaginary kisses.
At twenty, with a substantial endowment from a bachelor uncle who foresaw greatness in his young nephew’s cobalt blue eyes, Ryan started with old houses. Victorians, bungalows, foursquares, modernes; he fed on plaster dust and linseed oil. When he turned thirty, he went looking for a larger challenge and found it in the red-and-gold heart of Chinatown; the Gorham hotel, built in 1911. Eighty rooms of drunks and addicts. A wreck, a noble heap, a disaster with possibilities. He brought in his men, brutally efficient Russian laborers, and set them to work tearing the place apart.
In one room they found hundreds of empty methadone bottles wedged under a floorboard, and hundreds of old hypodermics quivering in the ceiling above, flung like the pencils of schoolchildren, a garden of upside-down glass flowers. In another room, a room that smelled of mothballs and old-man liniment, dozens of dust-crumbling girlie magazines had been stuffed behind the wall. Stuffed there to block a draft? To avoid embarrasment? It didn’t matter. His Russians burned them with all the rest of the mouldering yellow insulation. They stripped away rotting lath and horsehair plaster and put in smooth fresh drywall and expensive bamboo flooring, and when they were finished, the Gorham Hotel featured eighty ultramodern studios with brushed metal refrigerators and cultured marble cooking islands. Only the best.
It made him his first million, a million that has expanded and contracted many times since, expanding with capital inflows, contracting to meet expenses, expanding and contracting, like a great beating heart, pushing new blood through old buildings.
The old bank that he turned into lawyer’s offices. The old department store that he turned into a mini-mall. The old brewery that he turned into a brewpub. And, most recently, the old flour mill, reclaimed from the dull-eyed clowder of hispanic squatters living her labyrinthine basements, that he turned into twenty-thousand square feet of quaint little shops selling arugula, herb-crusted goat cheese, and organic beets. The proprietors of these little shops will make good money. Ryan will make nothing. His net profit on the deal is a satisfyingly round figure. Zero.
Each building he takes on is a little bigger, each rehab a little more lovingly detailed, each project a little less profitable. There is a delicious purity in this that he relishes. It is not the money he desires. The money is nothing, only a tool to purchase goat-cheese and arugula for the empty-eyed cypher sitting across the table from him. The real satisfaction comes from the knowledge that he has made his buildings clean and pure, burned the filth of ages from their bones, scoured them of the unseen impurities time breeds. He has uncovered chimneys full of dead birds; the skeleton of a cat wedged between two wall studs; decaying piles of rat-shit in ancient ventilation ducts. He has exposed obscene secrets and expunged them.
Quite suddenly, Ryan feels extremely pleased with himself. An erotic charge of satisfaction surges through his body. He looks lustfully at his fiancee, somewhat surprised to find that she is still there.
Her hair shines, her face is perfect, her nails gleam, her skin is smooth as glass. The relationship between her and the curl of beet she is contemplating is entirely without entropy, a universe which has long since ceased to expand. She is as self-contained as an egg.
The electricity charging his nerves dissipates abruptly, and his sudden elation is replaced by an equally sudden feeling of irritation. He puts down his fork heavily. The sound of silver on porcelain makes her look up.
“Why would they put a curl of beet on the salad?” she sneers melodiously. “No one likes beets.”
“Some people obviously do,” he says, flashing her one of his sandpaper grins designed to smooth out rough patches.
He’s perfected these grins, he uses them often. It helps to grin, he’s noticed, even when you feel like tearing someone’s throat out.
Life has apparently taught her the same lesson. A polite, fleeting smile dances across her lips, replaced quickly by a pretty little frown as she returns to her contemplation of the despised curl of beet.
It is Ryan’s 40th birthday.
He gives his fiancee a good-night peck and doesn’t wait for the elevator doors to slide shut before he turns and walks away. His fiancee must be in bed by 11 p.m. precisely, for she must be at the gym early the next morning to exorcise any fatty demons the arugula and goat cheese may have introduced into her pure corpus. She is utterly composed of routine and habit; if she is not in bed by 11 p.m. precisely, she might start breaking things. The moment his lips leave the cold flesh of her cheek, he ceases to think about her. She ceases to exist.
He goes back into the restaurant, to its clean elegant bar filled with fresh-looking young people. The counter is made of zinc and there are cobalt-blue vases with yellow gerbera daisies in them. He sits, drinking steadily, the zinc cooling his elbows.
He thinks about his Russians, his agents of efficiency and order, who are currently working on a project for another developer. He misses them. They just wrapped the flour mill project a week ago, and already he misses them. He misses their sharp staccato conversations, their sublingual grunts, their smell of oniony sweat. They are remaking an old generic family chain restaurant (orange and brown) into a new generic family chain restaurant (brown and orange.) He contemplates going out to the job site the next day and visiting them. But the idea depresses him. The building they are working on has no life, no spark. He longs for the thrill of performing surgery on a kicking patient, not slogging through the dissection of a corpse.
Depressed, he leaves the restaurant, its zinc bar and gerbera daisies, and rides the elevator down to the street. The valet brings him green Lexus and turns on the adult contemporary rock. Loud.
It doesn’t help.
Later, lying on a dirty mattress and drinking vodka from a bottle, Ryan will dream of this night. He will dream of the wind rushing through his hair like warm fingers, of the ceaseless rhythm of crickets blowing past, of the smell of leather seats covered with dew. For this is the night that he finds her.
You will remake me, he whispers into her lap.
But that is later.
This night, he drives through the town, tapping his a finger against his steering wheel, chewing on the inside of his cheek. He drives past many of his buildings, hoping that one will call out to him, invite him back, but none of them do. So he drives into an ugly part of town, a dangerous part of town, a part of town that wasn’t safe or savory even during its best years.
He drives until pink and gold dawn fingers the hills, until he begins to think that he should go somewhere, to an actual destination. To his fiancee’s home. She has bleached-oak floors in her entryway. She will serve him herbal tea with a shortbread cookie.
He takes a left. He will drive back and find the freeway.
Then his breath catches.
She rises and spreads before him, white stone walls stark in the peach colored dawn. Along her sides, thousands of tiny windows wink at him in the rising light. Some are broken; these stare at him, black and insane.
She is surrounded by tall weeds. Over the front door, the words “Windsor Machine Works” are spelled out in thin steel letters, stark and streamlined, lush with the tragedy of a brilliant, aborted future.
Below those letters, there are larger ones, painted on a warped sign nailed across her front door. The sign is old and battered, pocked with birdshot and curlicued with graffiti. But he can still read what it says.
It says, “For Sale.”
He parks slantways, jumps out of his car. He walks the cyclone fence surrounding until he finds a beaten down place; he tears the leg of his slacks climbing over it, carves an ugly gouge in his calf. No matter.
She is made of white limestone as supple and smooth as a virgin’s thighs. Her black twisting ironwork is crisp and devilish. The crumpled yellow newspapers crouching at her feet are supplicants satisfied by the simple blessing of her shadow; the glittering shards of broken glass bottles are like jewels, carelessly discarded.
He climbs onto a low crumbling wall beneath one of the windows. He presses his nose to the grimy glass like a child hoping to see elephants.
Inside, the building is a vast emptiness of square iron pillars and cement, thousands upon thousands of square feet of space. On the concrete floor, stagnant puddles glimmer, rainbowed with oil, reticulated with webs of settled dust. There are bolts in the cement where huge machines once anchored, straining against their own torque.
He stands, his cheek pressed up against the glass, closing his eyes. He imagines walls hiding unimaginable decay, steel beams crumbling to dust, tinder-dry insulation chambered with mouse nests, wires wrapped in fraying cloth. He can feel the sunlight as it pounds into her.
He’s in love. Again.
He buys the Windsor Machine Works building that day.
A birthday present for himself. It surprises the gals down at the County Assessor’s office to see Ryan Ceres camped on their doorstep when they open the doors. He is unshaven and there are shiny purple hollows under his eyes.
The gals in the County Assessor’s office tell Ryan that if the building is for sale, they can’t figure out who’s selling it; no one has paid taxes on it since 1963. It seems, in fact, to have no owner at all.
This greatly puzzles the gals, for they cannot conceive of such an odd thing. It is an offense to their unimaginative natures to think that anything can escape taxation for that long. They chatter about it amongst themselves as they prepare the paperwork.
Stop talking, he imagines screaming at them. Her secrets are not yours, they are mine, mine, mine …
He blinks, realizes that the gals are staring at him. They are staring at him so hard he wonders suddenly if he’s said something aloud that he didn’t mean to. He wipes a hand across his brow, flashes them his sandpaper smile. They wouldn’t understand.
Pulling out his leather-covered checkbook, (which they understand completely) Ryan writes a check for the entire amount of back taxes, and just like that, the building is his.
As he’s driving back across town, he is joyful. He is in a state of transcendent bliss. The day is perfect blue, and he has the top down and his sunglasses on. The warm wind is snaking through his hair. Adult contemporary rock blasts out of his speakers. This moment is the absolute peak of his life.
A sudden thought strikes him. He flips open his tiny titanium phone and presses it to his ear. He calls Jose (his locksmith, always on the move) and arranges to meet him at the building.
Arrangements made, Ryan flips his phone closed and taps the steering wheel in time to a Celine Dion song.
When Ryan arrives back at the Windsor Machine Works, Jose is already there, bending over the open trunk of his always-breaking-down Justy. Jose is sorting through picks and tension tools and extractors. Choosing his implements carefully.
Ryan is flooded with inexplicable anger. The thought of another man sniffing around her doorstep enrages him. What if he’d decided to tamper with her before Ryan had got there? What if he’d decided to put his unkind picks into her unwilling locks?
“How long have you been here?” Ryan asks casually.
“Just got here,” Jose tosses off. “‘Bout to leave, though. Bad neighborhood. They shoot you for nothing around here.”
Ryan imagines punching him in the nose.
Jose doesn’t speak as he makes the key. When he is finished, he fits the bright new thing into the old door, and turns. The door swings open, releasing a smell of ancient oil and something else, strange and indefinable, like steel shavings rusting in honey.
“What the hell are you thinking, man?” Jose says. He stands with his hands on his hips, squinting into the gloom. He shakes his head as if trying to shake off raindrops of impending doom. “This place will finish you.”
Ryan snatches the key away from him with a growl.
“Get out,” Ryan says. “Get the fuck out.”
He does not watch or wave goodbye as the Justy clatters away.
He walks past the front desk, pushes open a creaking door, and he is on the manufacturing floor. The gals at the county assessor’s office say that their oldest records indicate that this building was used to manufacture machine parts during the First World War.
That whole area was really hopping during the war, one of the gals had said. Ryan imagines women in hobble-skirts, men in baggy canvas twill trousers, paunchy old managers in vests with watch-chains looped from button to pocket. All gone now.
The manufacturing floor smells like stale urine and pigeon shit. As Ryan walks through the wide door and into the building, the space swells around him, the filtered light through the dust-caked windows cool and blue, the cement floor vast and undulating like a calm body of water.
His footsteps echo. On the floor there is a pile of repair manuals from the 30’s for a machine of indecipherable purpose. The manuals look as if they’ve been stored in a bucket of old oil. Blackberry vines thread through broken windowpanes. The iron pillars are cobwebbed with ribbons of rust.
He thinks about the dump trucks and caterpillar tractors that will soon line up outside. He thinks about how the weeds will be cut away and the rusted pillars pulled down, and the oil-slicked concrete cleaned with foaming buckets of tri-sodium phosphate. He thinks about multi-use dwellings, white space, windows. He thinks about how everything dirty will be made clean, antiseptic, new, smooth. He closes his eyes and spreads his arms and imagines himself expanding, expanding.
At the back of the room is a set of stairs. He moves over to them carefully, avoiding the puddles and piles of grimy debris. In the rafters overhead, he hears baby pigeons squeaking weakly, and the sound of wings.
The staircase is a jury-rigged affair. Ryan mounts the stairs, carefully feeling each board for soundness.
He stops after a few steps, looks back. The door is still open and the warm afternoon sunlight is inviting him back, calling him to come out. But it is hot out there, and in here it is cool. He notices the smell again, the strange smell of honey and steel. He looks up the stairs. At the top there is a hollow-core plywood door with a jagged-edged hole in the center. He imagines rotting construction, thin-walled offices and empty filing cabinets.
It is dark at the top of the stairs.
He keeps climbing.
The door opens onto a hallway, its linseed lineolum flooring warped and curled. Four doors open off the hallway, two on either side. He opens the first door. There is an office beyond, nothing in it but a mouse’s nest and some chewed-on newspapers.
He looks in the second office. It has a heavy metal desk in it. There is a window that looks over the factory floor, but it is covered with plywood.
There is a woman in the third office.
Ryan jumps when he sees her, slamming back against the door with a rattling thud. She is sitting with her back against the wall, staring up at the ceiling as if expecting it to do something. There is a look on her face, a look that is both empty and full, like she is thinking very deep thoughts about nothing.
“Jesus,” he whispers, his heart pounding in his throat. “Who the hell are you?”
She drops her oil-colored eyes and looks at him, not blinking. She is, Ryan notices, as far from beautiful as a woman can get. She is shaped like a bell; her ass is immense, her waist lumpy, her shoulders strangely narrow. Her breasts poke out through her too-tight tank-top, and they’re small and hard and probably sour, like unripe persimmons. Her arms are thick with muscle.
“Winnie,” she says, lifting a hand. In it, there is a bottle of vodka. She takes a swig of this and holds the bottle
Squatter, he thinks, with a mixture of disgust and glee. The first secret to be stripped, the first boil to be lanced. He knows how to deal with squatters.
“You’re going to have to leave.” His voice is firm and unshaking, full of money.
“No,” she says.
“I’ve bought this place. It’s mine now.”
Winnie does not move, but stares at him, a grim little smile playing over her lips.
“Yours, eh?” she says.
Ryan thinks about going for the police. But it is hot out there, burning and dry, and in here it is cool. So instead of leaving, he does something stupid. Something he knows he should not do. He reaches out and grabs the strange woman’s arms, tries to pull her to her feet. He halfway succeeds before she wrenches herself backward, pulling him off balance and sending him tumbling to the dirty floor.
She moves quickly, coming up over him. With a balled fist, she punches down viciously, catching his chin. He puts up his arms, shields his face. The world is a confusion of movement and pain as she hits him. Her fists find his softest spots, unerringly, hard. He closes his eyes.
“Yours, eh?” she shrieks again and again, until her voice finally retreats down a dark tunnel.
He wakes up choking.
The woman is pouring vodka down his throat.
He gags, shoving her hand aside. He is lying on the floor. He wants to jump up, but he cannot; he is stiff and sore. He can barely move. She is sitting next to him, legs stretched out before her. In her hand, she has a long heavy piece of wood that looks like it came out of a ruined place in the wall. She is tapping the wood gently against her knee.
He looks at her lap, stretched out beside him. It is vast, doughy, clad in worn-thin sweatpants. He tentatively reaches over a hand to touch it. It is warm, like pudding encased in a heating blanket. Winnie says nothing, but takes a drink of the vodka. Then she hands it to him. He takes his hand off her leg and takes the bottle, drinking from it delicately. She offers him a cigarette. He doesn’t smoke. But he watches as she puts one in her mouth, lights it carefully, exhales the smoke in a thin stream.
“Why are you here?” Winnie asks.
“This place is mine now,” Ryan says, his voice uncertain. “I bought it.”
“You bought it.” She says the words flatly, a statement, not a question. She sees to find them humorous, but she does not smile; instead, she flares her nostrils.
“To … to clean it. To make it new.”
“What if it doesn’t want to be?”
Ryan blinks at her, as lost as one of the gals at the assessor’s office.
“What are you talking about?”
“What if it just wants to be what it is? What it has become?”
This makes Ryan laugh, a loud barking laugh that echoes through the empty building.
Winnie snarls, her lip curling. She lifts the wood, brings it down hard.
He curls his arms around his head again, and again the world retreats in darkness.
When he wakes up, she is gone and he is alone.
He limps down the stairs and out of the building, down to where his green Lexus is waiting. It is night, a thick hot summer night. Where did the whole day go? He has the most horrific hangover he’s ever experienced, and he aches terribly.
Running his tongue over his lip, he can tell that it’s split. Touching fingers to his eyes, he can tell that they’re blackened.
When he gets to his green Lexus he looks at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. It’s worse than he thought. There’s a red welting crease over his cheekbone, and both his eyes are as purple and blue as overripe plums.
First, he uses his cell phone to call the police. He tells them that about the crazy squatter in his building. He wants her cleared out. He is a man of substance, goddamn it! He has pumped millions into the local economy over the past decade. He is on a first-name basis with the mayor.
Yes, he is willing to press charges for assault. He wants her locked up for life. Maybe in an insane asylum.
Satisfied, he flips his phone shut. Then he drives to his fiancee’s condominium. She is wearing green silk pajamas, and she looks as smooth and beautiful as fresh plaster. She looks at him blankly, without interest, without surprise, without anything. She does not even comment on his battered face. In a flash of blackness, he shoves her to the ground and makes passionate, unpleasant love to her on the bleached oak floor of her entry hall.
Then, sitting naked on her distressed leather couch, her black portable phone pressed to his ear, he calls every contractor he knows. The most brutal, the most efficient, the most pragmatic, the most no-nonsense.
He makes appointments, sketches timelines, makes plans.
The first month, they clean.
Contractors tear out the old offices where Ryan was beaten, commenting on the drops of dried blood and the smell of spilt vodka.
The police find no squatter. They search the place thoroughly, come quickly to the conclusion that she has “moved on,” and happily wash their hands of the whole thing. Ryan, however, is not satisfied with this sanguine pronouncement. In fact, every now and again, Ryan is sure he sees Winnie’s lumpy figure out of the corner of his eye, rushing at him, the wood in her hand raised high. Her eyes are lit with hatred and anger.
But she is never really there, and the police can’t arrest someone they can’t see.
Ryan’s brutal and efficient men start to call him “twitchy” for he is always involuntarily dodging blows.
After a month, the building is completely gutted and structural work can begin. It is then that Winnie really does reappear. Ryan is alone in a room one afternoon, looking at plans, when he smells honey and steel, sweet and fleeting.
He looks up, alarmed, expecting to see her bearing down on him with the wood. But she’s just standing, looking at him, her arms crossed behind her back. She seems to have lost weight. Her ass is smaller, and her legs seem skinnier. Her skin seems smoother.
He regards her for a while, assessing danger. She’s still and solid and sullen. He flashes her a sandpaper grin.
“You’re back?” he says.
“Never left,” she says. “Never will leave. Never.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Ryan says. “The police …”
“The police won’t find me,” she says, looking at him. She looks paler, he notices. Slightly sick. There is a strange shimmer about her, as if he can see her bones superimposed upon her flesh, a luminous ghost-skeleton that moves as she moves. He blinks, trying to clear this odd vision from his eyes.
“What gives you the right?” she asks, softly. “What gives you the right to do this?”
His brow curdles. It is an insane question.
“I own this building,” he says slowly, reducing each word to inarguable finality.
“That is not an answer,” she says.
“What other answer is there?” Ryan blazes, sudden frustration firing him. He wants her to shut up, to do what she is told.
Winnie is silent for a few moments. She is standing at a place where a wall used to be. The wall is gone, only structural timbers remain. She stretches out a hand, strokes her fingers through the air that the wall used to occupy. He can see every bone in her hand set in angular contrast against the timbers and studs and beams. The stark intersecting lines are indescribably beautiful.
“I do not want to be what you want to make me,” she says.
Ryan says nothing, watches her stroke the ghost-wall. The moment of adoration passes, giving way to critical dissatisfaction. Her movements are crisp, clumsy, machinelike. Inelegant, he thinks. She needs curves, smooth clean curves that please the eye. He makes a mental note to work with the architect on some streamlined walls for the entrance.
“You have no right,” she gasps, and he realizes that she is crying. “You have no right to change something that does not want to be changed.”
He takes a step forward, then another, like an unwise park visitor approaching a seemingly tame bear. He reaches out a hand, and touches her face.
“There now,” he says, stroking her cheek. Her skin is smoother, he notices with satisfaction. “There now.”
Winnie reaches into her pocket for a cigarette. Her hand is trembling.
“No smoking,” Ryan says gently, prying the cigarette from between her fingers. With a ferocious snarl, she slaps his hand away. He jumps back, his heart thudding. A surprisingly pleasant thrill surges through him.
“It’s for your own good,” he adds, holding fists defensively before his chest, expecting her to rush him.
“Liar,” she spits at him, and in the time it takes him to blink she is gone.
Problems arise, one after another. Expensive problems. Seismic upgrades. Asbestos removal. Hazardous waste disposal from where old puddles of oil have polluted the ground.
It is easy to take out the first construction loan; Ryan’s bankers love him. They even love him enough to give him a second. But the third one is difficult. They shuffle their wingtips and cast glances back and forth. It is clear that they share some of Jose’s concerns.
We’re unclear on your vision here, Mr. Ceres.
The freeway’s a dozen blocks away.
To call the neighborhood transitional is being generous …
The infrastructure’s marginal … no retail component anywhere nearby …
Ryan bullies them and gets the third loan, but there will not be another. It should be enough. That, added to some liquidated longer-term investments … his broker will squeal that the money is for his future, but Ryan doesn’t care. She is his future.
The contractors finish the framing. The smell of fresh pine is one of the best smells Ryan knows. It’s the same smell that disinfectants have, and Ryan always associates new framing with cleanliness. Old ugly hidden things, invisible squirming vermin being scorched away, burned away, sterilized.
One of Ryan’s brutally efficient Russian workers, a framer, is named Sergei. He leaves behind a plate of bread and salt one night, which Ryan stumbles over. Ryan swears roughly at Sergei; while the Russian is much bigger than he is, it’s always good to look tough to one’s people.
“What the hell is this?” Ryan picks up the plate of bread and salt and shakes it in the big man’s face. “We got the rats cleared out of here months ago, you want them back?”
“This will not attract rats,” Sergei shrugs. “She will not let it.”
“She?” Ryan looks at him. “Who?”
“The building,” Sergei says. “The domovoi.” Seeing that Ryan does not understand, Sergei gently takes the plate of bread and salt from him and puts it down carefully.
“The domovoi is the spirit of the building. Its soul. This building’s soul is sad and in pain. I thought to comfort her.”
“Comfort her?” Ryan clenches his teeth, remembering Winnie bearing down on him with the wood. “I’m not paying you to comfort the goddamn building.” He kicks at the plate of bread and salt, sending it scattering across the plywood flooring.
Sergei shrugs, and turns to go. Ryan calls after him:
“Can they be killed?”
Sergei turns slowly, looks at him through narrowed eyes.
“Killed?” he says.
“Yes,” Ryan says curtly. “Killed. Eradicated. Exorcised.”
“I have heard that they can be moved,” Sergei says thoughtfully. “By carrying hearth coals to a new home. If the domovoi likes it there …”
“I didn’t say moved,” Ryan interrupts him sharply. “I said killed. Can they be killed?”
Sergei shrugs, looks around at the clean-smelling new pine framing.
“I suppose this is the way to do it,” he says.
Winnie does not show herself again until month four.
The contractors are putting in bamboo flooring and installing energy-efficient double-paned glass windows. The money is running thin, but Ryan will not cut corners. He runs up bills that he knows he will not pay. This does not concern him in the least.
Visitors from the bank begin showing up at the worksite, at odd hours of the day. Taking notes.
Ryan is in a room that will become the master bedroom of the most expensive loft, eight thousand square feet of exposed concrete and thick hewn beams. The room is large and airy, with wiring for a ceiling fan and arched windows that look out over the street. He’s looking down at the street, his hands clasped behind his back. On the street, there’s a man leaning against a blue camaro, selling drugs.
“Please stop.” The words come from behind him. He turns slowly.
She looks much thinner now, her face sleek and shining. Her hair is smoothed back from a soft, placid face. She’s wearing a suit of grey silk. He looks her up and down, approvingly.
“It hurts,” she says. “Please stop.”
“I’m too far along now,” he says. The words make her wince visibly.
A vague premonition of worry crosses his mind. What is the pain in his chest, what is the ineffable regret? He doesn’t understand it; he dismisses it with a curt gesture of his hand.
“You’re just afraid of change,” he says, more harshly than he intends to.
“It hurts,” Winnie says again.
“Good things sometimes hurt,” Ryan says, careful to make his tone soft. He wants her to understand, he wants her to stop fighting. He wants her to let him have her, to give him access and permission. “Medicine hurts. It hurts, but it heals.”
“You are not healing me, you are killing me,” she whispers. “I don’t know what I am anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I know what you are.”
“I hate you,” she whispers, tears gleaming slick in her oil-colored eyes.
Ryan smiles down at her sadly. She doesn’t hate him. He knows it, just knows it. She doesn’t hate him. She can’t hate him.
“You hate the idea of changing,” he says. “You hate the idea of being changed. You hate the idea of letting someone else help you.”
“I never asked for your help,” Winnie says.
“But you did. By decaying, by getting old, by letting yourself fall to ruin,” Ryan strokes her hair. “But I will make it better. I will take care of you.”
“It hurts,” Winnie says finally, and then she’s gone, and Ryan’s arms encircle nothing.
After six months, the renovation is complete. The Windsor Machine Works rehab is finished. It is clean, sterile, perfect. There are no secrets left.
Every item on the punch list has been checked off, and the Russians have been paid, even if there are other bills that never will be.
There are five vast condo lofts on the top floor, each with a prime view of the surrounding neighborhood. The ramshackle houses that haven’t been painted in years, the rusting cars in their driveways and side-yards, the drug dealers and prostitutes in their blue camaros. Who said there wasn’t a viable retail component?
Ryan has had a dozen calls from the real-estate agency he usually uses to broker his properties. They’re trying to back out. They want nothing to do with marketing this one. He enjoys listening to the voice mails, how they get progressively screechier.
There is 15,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, lease ready. The blonde wood floors and cool white lighting are perfect for the Starbucks and the Gap and the Old Navy that will never come.
Ryan takes one last walk through the building, but he does not enjoy it. He feels so strange. The familiar joy, the pride and feeling of completion, the post-orgasmic relaxation of tense energy pleasantly spent, is nowhere to be felt. Instead he feels keyed up, anxious and annoyed. Frustrated. Stifled. Twitchy.
He comes into the room where he last saw Winnie. This is the display model; it has been decorated so that perky sales agents can inspire prospective residents with visions of the kind of life their exorbitantly high mortgage can purchase for them. The walls have been painted a soothing shade of mint green. There is a comfortable arrangement of camel-colored suede furniture in one corner. One chair is draped with a fuzzy, avocado-hued chenille throw. Ryan tries to imagine getting comfortable in this room. He can’t. The thought gives him a headache.
There is also a large white bed, a cast-iron four-poster looped with gauze that (Ryan knows from experience) will have to be washed every goddamn week to keep from getting dusty. More meaningless garniture. More curls of shaved beet. He imagines making love to his fiancee in that bed, in that engulfing marshmallow-soft nest. Imagines her yielding body, her blank eyes staring up at him.
What is wrong with him? He presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. These things sell. These are what people want. Why should they annoy him so? Why does he suddenly long for the smell of motor oil and rust and honey?
“Winnie!” he whispers loudly, looking wildly about the room. “Winnie, for God’s sake!”
Then, she is there. Sitting on the bed.
The transformation is complete. She is slender and sylphlike, with a delicate face and vacant eyes.
She looks, Ryan notices with sudden horror, exactly like his fiancee.
She is staring out the window, thinking unfathomable thoughts. Her hair shines, her face is perfect, her nails gleam, her skin is smooth as glass. She is perfect and perfectly self-contained.
“You know something strange?” she says distantly, her face wrinkling in a pretty frown. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
That night, Ryan burns it down.
Burns it all down; the bamboo flooring, the soothing mint-green walls, the new plaster. Everything. He storms through the dark virgin rooms with a five-gallon gasoline can. He lights the fire by putting a ripped piece of rag into the mouth of a bottle of vodka. Then he stands across the street and watches her burn, brilliant greens and oranges, deep mysterious flickers of blue, black billowing smoke that makes the sky weep.
He sits across the street, watching the fire trucks cluster around like busy insects. Dawn breaks, the sun rises, and no one notices him, no one knows who he is; he is just another man, sitting silently, watching something go up in flames.
He waits until the firemen have gone, leaving behind nothing but yellow tape and the smell of death and her gray, hulking, empty skeleton, charred and angular.
Crawling through the yellow tape, sneaking like an animal, he moves around at her feet, through her hot shadow. With a shaking hand, he fills a galvanized bucket with damp gray ash. There are pieces of wood mixed in with it; wood like bone.
He places both hands on the side of the bucket, closing his eyes. There is a warmth banked within, the warmth of pudding encased in a heating blanket, the warmth of rage and retribution and desire.
“Come with me,” he whispers, pleading. “Stay with me. Please.”
He puts the bucket into the trunk of his green Lexus.
He visits the gals at the County Assessor’s office. They are surprised again, because he smells like smoke and his face is streaked with ash and tears. But they take his check gladly and issue him a receipt with a formal red stamp on it.
And so he reclines with Winnie in the warehouse by the river. In the rain. On a stained mattress, drinking vodka from a bottle with a torn label.
Ryan’s appraising gaze shifts to the brick wall instinctively, out of habit. Once painted glossy white, now it’s grimy, smudged with old black handprints. How many layers of paint hide beneath there?
I should strip that paint, he thinks. Expose the brick. People like exposed brick.
As soon as the thought crosses his mind, pain sears through him, tearing his heart into little throbbing bits. He gasps for air.
“The secrets stay,” Winnie growls.
Ryan presses both palms flat against the sides of his head, as if he can press the pain out his ears.
“How did you …” he begins.
“You breathed in the ash when you were scattering it,” Winnie says, taking a drink from the vodka bottle. There is a long silence while she lets Ryan absorb the implications of what she has said. Then she looks at him with cool, unblinking, oil-colored eyes.
“You’re a murderer and a rapist,” she says again.
How could he not have seen it? It is a secret he kept from himself, only now brought into the light to be scoured away.
With a shaking hand, Ryan takes the bottle of vodka from her. He takes a long harsh swallow. He’s 40, rich and beautiful, and the ghosts of his victims will live within him for the rest of his life.
He lays his head on her soft, warm lap.
“You will remake me,” he says, closing his eyes. He will sleep. He will sleep for a long time. He will dream her dreams. He will remember what he never knew. He will savor the exquisite beauty of acceptance.
He feels her hand upon his head. She smooths his hair carefully.
“There may be hope for you,” she says very softly, her voice sweet as honey.