In this tale of horror and suspense, protagonists Sunny, a struggling actor, and husband Andrew, who has had to compromise his own ambitions, have recently moved into a 19th century cottage with their toddler daughter. It was to be the home of their dreams, but it is turning out to be the miasmic stuff of nightmares. In this scene, Sunny, in NYC to meet her agent, has caught her husband in a lie – he’s not working overtime, as he’d told her, he’s sitting in a bar, which has been occurring all too frequently of late. She hails a cab only to find the driver is one of three mysterious neighbors living in the vacated convent on the church grounds abutting the cottage.
Outside, full dark, and the neon contrails of the rush hour vehicles streaked through the gridded canyons of the city. Sunny headed back east toward Grand Central. But first, another stop at Andrew’s building, and her timing was as perfect as her hunch; her husband was coming through the revolving doors, alone, and he too turned east. For a shining moment Sunny’s heart lifted. He’d gotten off early for once. He was hurrying home to join her and the baby for dinner. Everything that had happened could be explained. Misunderstandings. Overheated imaginations. The strain of their unwanted houseguest.
Andrew strode down Park Avenue toward the terminal, but unexpectedly veered into the Waldorf. Sunny followed, head down, watching as her husband entered Sir Harry’s Bar, right off the lobby, and by then she’d seen enough. The piano in the lobby tinkled out a little Gershwin riff over the hum of talk and laughter. Sunny’s shoulders slumped. Her feet throbbed, and a certain moisture about her right heel indicated the genesis of a bloodying blister on the rise. She turned, half expecting to see Mrs. Smith stride in, soignée and elegant, tossing her long hair back with a slender hand, garbed in chic head to toe black. But there were only strangers. Why, in a neighborhood crawling with happy hour haunts, would he choose a hotel bar? And why alone, and not with colleagues? Sunny guessed she knew. She would not follow him in; but if she had, and if she’d been a fly on the wall, or otherwise rendered invisible, she would have seen him sitting alone, drinking martinis one after the other, downcast, looking at no one save the bartender when necessary, responding to nothing. One hand cupping his chin, fingers splayed across his mouth, forefinger tapping incessantly at the side of his nose.
Back on the street, she stood at the curb to flag a cab, and was numbly surprised to see one glide over immediately. Sunny took a tired breath and clambered in, glancing back once at the hotel. “I’m just going a few blocks,” she told the driver. He turned then, grinning broadly, and it was Shepherd at the wheel. He even had a hack license displayed on the dash, with his picture and his name, reading simply, ‘Shepherd.’
“Hey, Chiquita,” he said. “Where can I take you?”
“Shepherd. You sure hold a lot of jobs.” She stared with little interest out the window at the slur of traffic. The radio faintly audible, Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love.’
“I multi-task like nobody’s business,” he told her. “That’s my MOS. Military Occupational Specialty, to the untutored. I’m a busy, busy man. Industrious, so to speak.” He turned up the radio. Madonna moaned and whispered, cajoling. “Too bad I wasn’t around for your little visit there yesterday. Lucky thing ol’ Bachelor wasn’t in residence – he might could’ve torn your fucking throat out, me not there. Find out what was puzzling you?”
“How did you know I was there?” Sunny asked. (Tell me your stories I’m not afraid of who you are we can fly!) In the rear view mirror Shepherd’s eyes burned into hers. A faraway reluctant stirring in her blood. (I’m open…and ready…for you…to justify my love…)
He tossed the flashlight lightly into the backseat. “Your property. You forget, Chica. This is YOURS. I worked down your basement. I’ve USED this. You left it in the bushes, but I don’t miss much. Missed you though.”
“Were the Smiths home? Somebody was. There was someone standing on the stairs as I left.” As I fucking ran away. Wetting my panties, and not in a good way.
“Negative,” Shepherd said shortly. “He works nights. She wouldn’t have been home yet – she works late. Like somebody else we know.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Sunny said, but without irritation. “Was it you then?” She lowered her head. In the traffic’s play of light and shadow, her clasped hands moved almost independently of herself, knuckles cracking. Like the bones of small animals.
“HELLS, no, Chica. I always love a visit with you. Wouldn’t pass it up, not for love or money.” The cab sped onto the ramp to the FDR north. The air in the taxi suddenly static, buzzing. Tiny bits of glittering confetti swirled in Sunny’s field of vision, snowing inside and out. The sound of warp and tectonic fracturing, her mind pitching and yawing. (Hoping…praying…for you…to justify my love…)
The taxi stretched and morphed and was then a taxi no more, but a limo, redolent with the fragrance of fine leather. Shepherd was sitting beside her. He slipped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close.
“Come for a ride with me, little girl?” He dropped his face into the scented essence of her hair. Whispered, “You don’t know what we might find. I want you. To know.” Reached for the bottle of wine set open and ready on the walnut minibar. The wine from the Smiths, with its strange, hypnotic label, the tossing, luminous red sea and the scarred white face of the moon holding the secrets of eternity to itself. He poured out formally, for both, handing Sunny hers with care that not a drop would spill.
“’This is thy hour, Oh Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,’” he said. “Here’s to Mr. Walt Whitman. And to you, darlin’.” Clicked his glass against hers, never shifting his yellow gaze away from her. Sipping. Sighing with pleasure. Finally leaning his great head back against the seat, his craggy profile in sharp relief against the moving lights of passing vehicles.
“Mi querida. Do you want it?” A susurration, an incantation.
Sunny drank. The wine a tantalizing puzzle, nectarous, dizzying. Shepherd kissed her then, fully, and she could taste the wine in his kiss, and it was good.
Sunny woke to full daylight in a strange bed, though she was not aware that it was strange; she had no memories of any past, of any existence beyond the present. (O Reader, have you guessed perhaps that such a life, with its humble trappings and its failures and sorrows and imperfect loves, may never have existed at all?) Only morningtime, naked in a sumptuous bed. Three walls of windows revealed an expanse of steep hillside, with a shining city far below shooting spires of glass and steel into the pale blue haze of the sky. She could smell eucalyptus and a good roast coffee; the latter was laid on a tray upon the nighttable, steaming gently, already poured.
When Shepherd entered she could not have known he was altered – gone his rough edges, his beard stubble, his coarse manner; intact his subtle suggestion of the anomalous, the ‘other.’ His tan hair brushed back smoothly from his forehead, and could his eyebrows have been waxed? (They were; but here in the glass house in the hills, his eyebrows have always been groomed, and so were unremarkable.)
He bent to kiss her, and she knew from his kiss that he was her lover as well as her bodyguard. “Ready for the big day?” She smiled at him. “You’ve worked hard for this,” he said. It’s about time.” He pulled back the duvet, slapped her lightly on the ass. “You better kick it up,” he said. “You’ve got about a thousand stylists running around clucking like a bunch of hens. Also flowers are arriving.”
A light knock at the door, and a pretty young woman popped her head in. Her name, Sunny knew, was Peg. “Morning! Phone calls coming in by the dozens already, and not even ten AM. You talking, or not?”
Sunny fell back onto the pillows. “Not. Not until after, when I have something to say one way or the other.”
Shepherd laughed. “You have your notes ready for that?”
“More or less, I suppose,” Sunny told him. “But please let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I’d feel too bad if I walk out of there empty handed after running my mouth.”
“You won’t, Chica,” Shepherd said confidently. “Trust me.”
Feeling him watching her, she stood and walked naked into the bath, turned the faucets on full. The platform bathtub was as large as a plunge pool, and the wall of windows in this room overlooked the gardens and infinity pool shimmering precariously over the city in the lemony light. Black marble, sleek built-in fireplace with a flatscreen mounted above it. Sunny lit the scented white candles surrounding the tub, and settled floating into the warm fizzing waters with a soft exhalation.
In the mellow afternoon, Shepherd, urbane in evening clothes, pressed a broad hand into the small of her back. Crowds beyond barricades were beginning to scream her name as they caught sight of her. She was wrapped like a present in sheer layers the color of sunshine and as weightless, pale as her hair, which lifted in the mild breeze. That eucalyptus scent wafting. She was calm and happy. Flashbulbs popped. They were on the red carpet then, and she smiled easily, first this way, and then that, mics thrust in her face no bother at all, minions milling, stylists fussing, handlers allowing only some to speak to her and the afternoon dissolved into the sweeping space of the theater, and there was her very face on screen as the clip began, large as a building and as beautiful as the sun, and later the golden idol was offered to her and she took it and it was solid and heavy and real and the roaring hurricane of applause remained in her very ears as she opened her eyes on the commuter railroad, still a peak hour train, heading north toward home. She could feel the blisters on her oozing feet. The tailcap lanyard of the Dorcy LED flashlight protruded snakelike from her purse. Sunny reached past it for her cellphone, dialed Stuart.
“Hey, favorite client!” Her agent all cordiality and self-assurance. “You in?”
“Sorry, Stuart,” she told him. “I’m out.” She had never felt more certain about anything in her life. Except perhaps for when she decided the cottage on Church Lane should be hers. But that was another story.
DISCLAIMER: Stephanie Silber owns the copyright to the foregoing and gives permission only for the sample herein to be distributed free of charge, and without alteration.