Guiding Light - Spiderweb
“Not too shabby!” comments Felix, hands on his waist, as he inspects the room they have just unlocked with the keycard.
The room is small but not oppressively so, cosy in other words, maroon carpet beneath their feet. Its clean beige walls meet a burgundy ceiling, from which spherical ceiling lights dangle. Beyond the turn of the wall and the bathroom door, a large bed stands flanked by nightstands. Lamps hang over the pillows, shaded so they glow a lovely honey. A metal desk is backed up against the wall facing the bed, a red armchair reclining beside it. The window that looks into the room is veiled by a cream curtain.
Coming up beside her, he asks again, “Are you sure you do not mind?”
She turns. His coat is hanging in the wardrobe, so he stands in a grey waistcoat and a white shirt. "Mind what?“ She can feel the sleep hanging upon her eyelids; the great white blankets are so very tempting.
Raising an eyebrow, Felix shakes his head and decides to change course. "It is far past your bedtime,” he murmurs, pacing before the bed.
She weaves her fingers together. Suddenly the words are jammed in her throat. “Well…you—saved me, and you’re paying for this, and it’s of no benefit to you…so I thought I should thank you.”
“Oh, you are welcome,” he replies, another kindly smile coming to him. “But of course, your friendship has more than compensated the effort.” He tilts his head and gestures at the bed again. “Go ahead; I did interrupt in the middle of your sleep.”
She nods many times, profusely, before dropping onto the cushy bedside and pulling her shoes off. The night is warm enough so she takes the sweater off and leaves it in a bundle on the nightstand. The night is so warm. Perhaps the cold of being alone and far away has already seeped so deep. She never realised till now, now that she has a friend.
Morning circles the room, faint gray, pink, colors nuanced and strange. Adelaide blinks her eyes mistily open, expecting her ceiling panel with its circular lights. Her head swims for a while when she sees deep red instead.
Then last night bursts through the windings of her mind to inundate it. She remembers a confusing swirl of lights on the street, and lots of pedestrians. She isn’t…in her room. She is safe. She remembers the strangers by the counter, and Felix—
When she first lifts her head to look about, she is alarmed to find Felix is asleep in the armchair. He’s being too polite, refusing to sleep in the bed without invitation. She makes a note to give him permission tonight. Keeping as silent as she can, she shuffles across the bed to the window and draws the curtain. Gray light pours through, and a pair of windows set in green stares back from across the street. The streets are already bustling below.
While he is not awake, she studies the brochures on the glass desktop, and hovers about the telephone at the corner of the desk. An unexpected plant has placed itself at the corner of the table, sprouting out of what looks like a small brown drawstring bag, a plant she recognizes in a single nervous touch. Narcissus jonquilla. She remembers the textbook, the leaf, the—light.
Adelaide tries not to gasp with sudden understanding. She stores that new knowledge away, and begins to sort through the brochures on the tabletop. One of the guides tells her she can order breakfast-in-bed by dialing 819, so timidly she picks up the receiver and tries.
Her companion wakes without her notice, in the midst of her experimentation. “Good morning, Miss Moore,” he mutters, startling her away from the phone. “What have you been up to?”
“Good morning,” she replies. “Um, I opened the windows, found an odd dish in the drawer, and…ordered breakfast.”
He raises an eyebrow. “You did?” He is interrupted by the doorbell. “…so you did.” He frowns. “You’ll have to hide, or else I must disguise you again.”
Her eyes widen, and she slips obediently into the bed where the turn of the wall hides her. She listens as Felix crosses the carpet, sleepily, and opens the door. A conversation ensues between him and the room service employee outside:
“Good morning, Sir.” The lady sounds old but not tired.
“Good morning to you too, ma'am.” He’s managed to sound lively, at least as much as morning grogginess allows.
Wheels rattle on the carpet. “You ordered breakfast?”
“Yes, I did. Thank you.”
The clawing of hunger at her stomach sharpens when the first whiff of breakfast reaches her. Food, not pellets—real food. She shifts on the mattress.
The door clicks shut. Felix arrives at the bedside with a tray of two dishes, laden and rich. Heat wafts against her chin. It smells of an old diner in her memory, the one down at the end of the street where she used to live. Her parents used to take her there when she was good.
Mum, Dad. Should she visit now, flag a cab downstairs, risk the ten-mile trip? Will her family shun her like the rest of the nation—will they think her a monster?
Felix turns. “You look dazed.” She shakes her head blankly and reaches for her plate. He shouldn’t have to listen to problems that shouldn’t matter by now.
She eats on the bed, as she often does, but he insists on dining at the steel-glass desk. “Did you sleep well?” asks her companion between mouthfuls.
“I think so.”
“We must take you to a hairdresser,” he says musingly, “have your hair dyed, perhaps obtain ‘contact lenses’, as they’re called…”
“I could change them myself,” she ventures. She could, but is it safe—or right? It…it must be right. Felix used his abilities to save her. And this will safeguard them both.
“Oh! I forgot you could.” He taps his chin. “Blue eyes. Blue eyes will suit you, I think.”
She blinks, and decides not to respond. “Okay…and, is that all? Is that all we will do today?”
Considering the question with a pursing of lips, Felix folds his arms. “To ease your reentry into the San Francisco of year 2060, I suppose I could take you to tour it—a strange arrangement, considering you are the citizen and I, the tourist!” He grins. “Fish out of water, us both. I imagine much has changed since you last saw it. Eleven years, was it?”
She nods. It must have. Both things, the city and she.
“This must be how butterflies feel,” she murmurs pensively at her scrambled eggs, “emerging from their cocoons.”
“Quite so,” Felix replies. “I imagine San Francisco will surprise you, too.”
Before the sun has crawled above the arachnoid antennae of the fortresses of shops, Felix takes Adelaide into the city beneath their window, the city in which they will be eternal fugitives; it won’t hurt, she thinks, to get to know it better.
With the help of street signs and some agreeable conversations with pedestrians, her companion locates the shop of Dania Mille, hairdresser extraordinaire—but she only dares to enter when he is guiding her with a hand upon her arm.
Adelaide wears her false face as the chemicals are massaged, foaming, into her locks and the hairdresser begins an inane conversation that remains largely one-sided. Even though her visage is absolutely unrecognisable, a little sharper and terribly strange, she’s afraid to give anyone a proper glimpse of her face.
Mishap avoids them today, though, and the new light brown shade settles nicely into her hair, just as the noon sinks calmly into the streets. Their fellow customers are none the wiser when the pair leaves the little shop’s air-conditioned comfort, Felix sixty dollars poorer.
“You needn’t have,” Adelaide murmurs when they are outside.
“Sixty dollars? That has not impacted my finances in the least.”
“You…did you bring money from your world?”
He shakes his head in the burning noon, the sun blazing upon his hair as they pause outside a cafe among empty tables, wafts of air-conditioning bringing some reprieve. “I did, however, bring a gold locket,” he replied. “Not one I fancied particularly; it was but a gift from an acquaintance who has since come to abhor me. The auctioneer seemed thorougly enthralled with the good state of the supposedly two hundred-year-old artifact.”
“Did it fetch you a lot?”
“One million, six hundred thousand dollars in your currency,” he says, quite fluently for such a remarkably hefty sum. “I do personally favour financial investment as an income source, though. I have, for example, shares in Faro Technologies—”
“But don’t you—need a computer to do that? All this investing business, I mean…”
He grins. “What else would I have done with a million dollars and a month’s boredom?”
“Oh, acerbity at last!” he says. “It works charmingly on you.”
She wonders if she should take offence, because she feels none. She has studied the art of speech but she isn’t in the habit of manipulating her tone and diction to specific ends. “I mean it,” she replies. “You have earned a frightening amount for a month of idle living.”
“Barely idle! A stably-paying job is the heartbeat of a successful life. It was knowing thus that I sought employment with a news bureau. They were pleased to welcome me.”
“Your luck must be amazing.”
“Strategic prowess is easily mistaken for luck.”
They hop over to the opthalmologist’s next, where she picks a box of blue contact lenses. Adelaide doesn’t think her grey eyes are much of a giveaway, but every change she can make to her face—she knows—will be invaluable now.
He then offers to pay for a new set of clothes, and she insists on a market where she supposes they will be cheapest. He is very visibly alarmed and attempts to convince her that no one should be allowed to make purchases in a place where the clothing cannot first be sampled, but she knows—and insists—she cannot burden him with more expenses.
“I am a millionaire,” he answers pointedly.
She shakes her head, and hopes refusal is not offensive—not as much, at least, as the offence of accepting would be. “I don’t think millionairehood would make it any less rude of me, if I remember what rudeness means,” she says, and borders on snappiness—to her surprise, later.
Between changing rooms and cost and rudeness, they eventually settle on a roadside boutique that minds itself quite well, if a little modestly. Their prices are equally well-though-modest; fifty dollars gets her two new skirts, and another seventy or so go to top wear of various sorts. She asks him about underwear next, but he seems very reluctant to discuss it altogether, and leaves her to make her purchase in a store upstairs, half a dozen shopping bags in tow.
The evening, they become patrons at a relatively obscure cafe in the southern part of the city, in a place where the freeways cross and there are less eyes to discover her. It is strange how quiet the roads have become, how high the buildings tower over her where she sits at the cafe table, as if bridging the gap between the ground and the scant fiery clouds above.
“How have you been feeling?” asks Felix over his tea. Earlier at the counter, he seemed visibly displeased with the plastic cup in which it was originally offered, but the Dusk’s Delivery is a place that respects itself and the counter staff replaced the container in due time.
Pursing her lips at the swirly marbling of the tabletop, Adelaide tosses the question about in her head. “You mean…how I have been feeling ever since leaving the lab?”
“Yes, that, and also with regards to the city you’ve just seen.” He casts a meaningful glance at the jagged faraway skyline where the buildings are taller.
She fumbles with her empty saucer. “It’s amazing,” she says, just a whisper. San Francisco is all the colours she’s forgotten. Grey till the morning is properly awake. Blue with the sky arching above it. And it grows so searingly orangely hot so soon, like when bulbs overheat, or when—she has read—airplanes rub against the air. They passed the coast; the old sea waits there still, though the bollards are gone and gleaming fences stand in their place.
The city has changed again, and keeps changing, even as she stares at the rough black tarmac. The skyscrapers gleam purple and blinding gold upon their little cafe. Down the street the first shops have lit up for the night.
“There is more that will amaze you yet,” he replies smilingly.
“Oh? Do you have more stop planned?”
“The secret of its location cannot be spoiled now, but I promise you will like it,” he replies, and she decides not to pursue the matter. But the question keeps returning. Where?
They stay in their seats, quiet-eyed, till the tea menu is replaced by dinner on the screen behind the counter. Adelaide orders pizza for the first time in so long; she finds the portion so large that she must offer the rest to Felix, who very politely obliges, though she can tell—or at least guesses from the furrow of his brow—that he would not otherwise deign to consume the food.
Felix finally decides, at dinner’s end, that it is time he completed the tour with a visit to the mysterious place he has so far withheld all information on. She follows him to the roadside, and wears her false face again while he flags a taxi in the wind.
The city is so bright that the black sky peeking into the canyon between the skyscrapers is devoid of stars. Gazing through the window as the taxi glides through the streets, chin on the sill, Adelaide finds she is beginning to think that San Francisco is not as monstrous as it seemed yesterday. Not when the streets are shining, not when she has walked amongst its citizens and seen no threat. The city has almost begun to seem…safe.
But that sense of security is only a result of careful disguising and street protocol. And Felix. No small part is owed to Felix…
The taxi has stop on a particularly busy street, along which great screens on mall facades pretend to be the vivid forests that were hacked apart years ago. The digital greenery glows in pedestrian faces on glittery sidewalks.
Adelaide is alarmed when her companion does not take her down the street but rather up the front steps of the nearest skyscraper and through the glass doors. Servers chorus welcomes as they cross the marble floor. She shivers and pulls her arms close; he takes her arm and convinces her with a smile. The lift rings to announce its arrival.
Where are we? the question is still there. She does not ask when he pushes the very highest button in the lift, nor does she ask when the lonely lift ride exceeds a minute’s length and she begins to feel awkward in her shoes. That anxiety of being near someone again. She stares at the golden doors to distract herself.
When the lift rings again, Adelaide shrieks, and hears him laugh. “What has you so jumpy?” asks Felix as she dashes through the doors and he follows. It’s all dim outside, a deep rich red carpet path bordered by glass walls, beyond which she can only faintly make out a shelterless balcony—and the glow of the city.
“I paid this location a visit once,” Felix’s voice is a reverent whisper, “but not in the nighttime, and not in good company.” He begins down the corridor, passing between ochre lights and the bright patches of floor they light.
She almost feels the question leave her, of what makes her good company when all she does is be nervous and silly. But then they reach the far glass wall, and the doors there slide apart, and the wind knocks the words away. Her eyes sting—where are we going? She still wants to ask—but Felix seems sure that they’re in the right place, and she follows him through the battering gales to the rooftop’s edge, to place her hands on the frigid rails.
The lights drown her eyes, and she loses her answer somewhere in them. It is not a city that she sees, but a network of colourful stars. The lines of gold where the freeways tangle with each other. The reticulation of the roads, the black fathomless border where she knows lies San Francisco Bay, and the bridge that pierces like a bright knife through the void.
She has never seen her city from the top before, but it is so bright, so much brighter than she remembers at all. She doesn’t understand this thing, between excitement and surprise, between surprise and fear of falling—she doesn’t think she’s felt it before, not like this, but her heart thrums.
“Wow,” she breathes, just so Felix knows she hasn’t forgotten his presence. “Where are we?”
“The Marah Tower,” he finally answers. “It was constructed during your time inside the laboratory. What do you think of the them, the city lights?”
“They are…very nice to look at.” They are a giant web, woven to trap butterflies.
Lowering the shopping bags to the ground, Adelaide swallows and closes her eyes, waiting for tears. She doesn’t think being here will nourish her or heal her, or do anything to help her at all. It is so very empty on this rooftop. Yet she finds this view quite priceless, all the same. This view and this moment. So high above the fog.
“Thank…y-you.” Again she loses her grip on the words, and has to straighten her tongue. She is glad she has an excuse not to face him while speaking. “For the hairdresser, and the lunch, and the clothes, and the dinner, and the taxi ride, and the time all this is wasting.”
“The hours are not wasted on a friend who needs them more,” he says, “and you are most welcome to take all the time you require still. I do have an excess of it.”
“Thank you!” Adelaide repeats. She thinks it’s not enough yet. Then she remembers what people do to thank each other, so she turns around and hugs him, as tightly as she can.
“You are welcome,” he says, “but if I could offer a few words’ advice…you may find it useful to acquaint yourself with the social customs of your time.”
“I know them, I lived with everyone else till I was seven!” she protests, but withdraws, staring down at the shopping bags fluttering by her feet.
Felix folds his arms, coat corners flapping about. “Strange as it might sound, adults have quite a different set of customs from children.” A smile spreads across his face. “I am humbled by the extent of your gratitude, though.”
It is ten o'clock before they make it back to their hotel. Adelaide falls asleep in the taxi, and has to be woken by her companion. Upstairs, she finally offers, with droopy eyelids, the other side of the bed, but he refuses, and takes to the armchair before she can protest.
“I will be collecting my luggage from my previous hotel tomorrow,” he says. “Don’t mind me.”
This is the last thing she hears before everything in the brilliance beyond her eyelids—Felix, and the plant upon the tabletop, and the pocketbook he studies—fades into the dark of her sleep.
When Adelaide wakes in the white hours before morning, Felix shows her the news.
She barely has to read two lines to find out that it is about her. Her. They want her back for forty million dollars.
But it is the rest of the news that decides to stick long after she’s flung the papers aside. She can barely make it past the second paragraph, but she does, she drags her eyes through the words. Freak, they call her, threat to public health, malignant menace, anomalous, deleterious, not allowed to live.
It is most destroying to read because of Felix. Felix. Felix has created something in her that can be destroyed. She’s begun to believe she is something other than a monster—that like a gnarly ravaging caterpillar she can fall sleep in her cocoon and emerge something beautiful. Something they will love for all its fury. Felix made her think so. Felix made her think it didn’t matter.
No, she can change many things, but not the monster she is.
They’ll be here soon, too. Someone will see her and know her. Someone will tip the authorities. Someone as near as next door…
…or in this very room.
Assaulted suddenly by myriad feelings she doesn’t understand, Adelaide curls up and begins to cry. She cries distrustful tears, wracked and black and cold. She sobs spasmodically, and pants and sobs until her shrieks become breathless and the lights are all dazzling. Through a fog of sound, she can hear Felix trying to calm her down—verbally, uselessly, taking her shoulder. He puts a pillow behind her head and orders something on the phone.
“Quiet, my dear, calm down,” he murmurs, pressing the orange juice into her hands. She downs it in convulsive gulps and drops the glass onto the nightstand. “We’re still here, and no one knows where you are—”
“If you want to so badly, then turn me in!” she yells; part of her is gasping for life. “Forty million dollars! You could—find—better friends with forty million—dollars.” More sobs spear their ways out of her.
“I will not.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“You have me! You've caught me! You could take me there right—now—and get their reward—” She glares; she doesn’t know why she does. His fear makes her afraid. “Just another investment, isn’t it? You—you meant to do it, you meant to break me out of the lab so—you could turn me in for a reward.”
“No!” The exasperation is so furious it almost leaves a scratch. “I am not that sort of person!”
“Fear! I have been afraid of myself, and the things I can do. But to know that I am not alone in this business of commanding incomprehensible powers…just to know, dear God, I needed that, I needed your friendship—do you see, Adelaide?”
She finally manages to stem the torrent of horror that has wrung these tears out of her, but the hiccuping sobs interrupt her silence every few seconds. “Yes.”
Adelaide blinks her eyes open. Another cascade of tears. Through them she sees him sadly smile.
Can she believe him? He appeared so suddenly, so soon. She barely knows him. A man with an unbelievable story. Believe him?
Danger, her heart cries. Danger when you don’t understand.
Danger pretends to be good.
She slumps against the headboard, tired, tired as the old sea that has been pounding all these eleven years on the shores of San Francisco. San Francisco which has shifted and grown outside her cocoon. San Francisco the spiderweb.
He fixes her with a serious look, and nods once. Nodding back, she sucks in a breath, and grits her teeth together.