He would search the apartment top to bottom, and much more meticulously this time. If any trace of them remained, he would find it. And if he found no trace, then what? It had all happened while he was sleeping. Maybe if he went back to sleep, he would wake up in the morning and the world would have returned to normal, and it would seem like it really had been a dream.
A little bit of madness had crept into him. Jim knew that, and he welcomed it. He thought he would need it to survive.
Adrift in his own mind, he parked in his space behind his building. His sense of dislocation made even those most familiar surroundings feel surreal. He hurried along the sidewalk beside Tallulah’s and turned right at the corner, keys clutched in his hand, thinking of the nooks and hidden corners of the apartment where some evidence might still be found that he did not live there alone.
Music came from the café, acoustic guitars and voices raised in song. He heard it only vaguely, like elevator Muzak, too focused on the task ahead. But a few steps past Tallulah’s he heard the music grow louder as someone opened the door, and a voice called his name. Hope flickered and died within him as, for half a second, he thought it could be Jenny. But it wasn’t her voice.
The woman had lovely, anguished features and bright pink hair. Everything about her spoke of desperation, from her black clothing to the imploring look in her eyes. “Jim, please say you know me,” she whispered.
He blinked in surprise and studied her. “Trix?”
Something burst within her. She let out a sob and rushed to him, threw her arms around him, and held on tight. Trix Newcomb. Jenny’s best friend. Thinner than he remembered, her pink, jagged-cut hair such a radical departure from her usual look, she was barely recognizable at first. Now she wept into his shoulder, trying to talk but unable to get words out past the sobs.
“Trix,” he said again, in wonder. With some effort, he pried her away from him, staring into her face. “You remember.”
Eyes wide, she caught her breath. “I just …” She gestured at her clothes, then grabbed fistfuls of her hair. “I changed. In, like, a millisecond. I totally freaked. I didn’t know if someone had slipped me something or, shit, I just didn’t know. I went to call Jenny and her number wasn’t in my cell. Yours, either. I was already online, and I went to find it on her Facebook page, but it’s gone, so I looked for her blog, only that’s gone, too. So I called information and your number is unlisted and there’s nothing for her and then I started calling around and …”
Her voice stopped working. Her mouth opened and closed, but her lower lip quivered and fresh tears slid down her cheeks.
Jim hugged her again, so relieved to see her, to have her know him. He wasn’t alone. And if Trix remembered Jenny and Holly, then that meant that Jim wasn’t crazy. They had existed. Somehow they had vanished, and who- or whatever had taken them had managed to eliminate them from the minds of anyone who had known them, except for Jim. And now Trix.
“Holly’s gone, too,” he said. The hardest words he’d ever spoken.
“Where … where are they?” Trix pleaded with him.
Jim didn’t let her go. Trix had become his anchor. “I don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll find them. I swear we’ll find them both.”
Chapter 3 - You Won’t Make a Fool Out of Me
ONCE, TRIX had dreamed that Jenny loved her. More than that, she had dreamed that they were in love, and so fiercely that when she had woken from that dream, it had broken her heart to realize it wasn’t real. It hardly seemed fair. She had loved Jenny since college, constantly fighting not to be the love-struck lesbian her friends had warned her she might become, mooning over the straight girl she could never have.
Over the years she had forged her love for Jenny into something sweet and mostly selfless. In the beginning, Trix had wanted to hate Jim, but she’d found herself unable to do it. They had too much in common. They had Jenny in common. And over time, Trix had come to realize that she cared for Jim nearly as much as she did Jenny, though in a very different way.
Then Holly had come along, and that had caused a metamorphosis in Trix. All the romance and lustful thoughts she had harbored for her best friend over the years had receded as her dedication to Jenny became a love for and loyalty to this family. Jenny, Holly, and even Jim … they were as much her family as anyone related to her by blood.
But sometimes she remembered that dream, and the love she felt so deeply that waking had broken her heart, and she let herself fantasize about making her way up to the apartment and entering to find Jenny alone. She toyed with the scenario in her mind, a conversation that would finally set fire to the spark between them. They would make love, Jenny discovering a part of herself she had never acknowledged. They would hold each other afterward, and it would feel so natural.
Trix never relayed these dreams to Jenny and Jim, not even in jest. After eight years of joyful marriage, Jenny might not understand.
Now Trix stood outside the door to Jim and Jenny’s apartment. She was shaking. Anticipation was part of it—she had found the one person who seemed to accept what had happened to her, and now was the time to see just how much he had changed as well—but the climb up the stairs had shaken her. She never took the elevator, always kept in shape, and three flights of stairs were more beneficial than standing in a moving box held up by a few wires. But since she’d changed, even the way she moved felt strange. She was thinner than before, more wiry, stronger, and the effort she needed to do things was different. Before, she would have walked up the stairs and been breathing a little heavy. Now she had run up and wasn’t even breathless. Her heart thumped in her chest, and she could see her T-shirt rippling beneath the leather jacket. When she closed her eyes the whole sense of herself was different—her awareness of limbs, the space her body occupied, and her personal space surrounding her. It was as if she had been removed and replaced, and the world around her refused to adapt.
It’s not the world, chick, she thought. It’s you who’s not adapting. There was an unbearable truth in that—the world was ambivalent, at best—but she couldn’t face it right now. She had to believe that she was still Trix Newcomb, and that perception of herself had changed because of quirks in the world around her. There was the pink hair and the sleeker body, yes … but inside, she was still her.
Remembering Jenny and Holly proved that. She and Jim couldn’t both be crazy, could they?
“Can we?” she whispered, and she slid Jim’s key into the lock.
He’d remained down in the parking lot, sitting in his locked, darkened car. No, she’d confirmed, she’d never seen him in the Mercedes, either. He drove a six-year-old Audi. He couldn’t face coming up here again, not right now, but he’d asked her to look for a few things.
Entering Jim and Jenny’s home, Trix thought of how much her own place might have changed. She hadn’t returned there yet. When she had felt this impossible change while out shopping, she had wanted the company of friends, not the silence of her lonely apartment.
Even the smells were different. She pushed the door closed behind her and heard it snick shut, then stood there with her eyes closed for a few seconds. The apartment felt different, smelled different, and when she opened her eyes and took a few steps into the hallway, it sounded wrong as well. She looked around. The large leather sofa looked the same as before, but it was newer, unscuffed, and not smothered with the usual mountain of scatter cushions. She was sure that the big flat-screen TV was a different make, and the Wii game console was gone, along with the slew of game boxes usually piled beneath it.
It could have been a different apartment entirely, but Trix didn’t believe that for a second. All the spaces were right, it was just what those spaces contained that seemed so wrong.
“What the fuck is this?” she said aloud, and the apartment swallowed her voice. She’d always been careful not to swear here in case Holly heard. She walked past the living room and gasped as something moved to her left. She stumbled back against the wall, bringing her fists up, shock surging through her until she realized it was herself. The mirror was a new addition to the hallway as well, perhaps there to make the space look larger. She stared into the mirror and only just recognized herself. Her sporty, urban chic style was gone. Her hair was more spiked and punky than she’d ever worn it, even as a rebellious teenager. Her face was thin and delicate, body hard and lithe instead of curvy. She knew her eyes—the pain and shock there, as well as the subtle green color that had always been her most distinctive feature.
“Trix,” she said, and the reflection named itself. “Okay … okay …” She hurried on, because being somewhere so familiar and yet so utterly different was freaking her out. In Jim, she’d found momentary respite from the nightmare her life had suddenly become, and she wanted to return to him as soon as possible. But first there were two places he’d asked her to look, and one she wanted to see for herself.
She entered the bedroom, and here Jenny’s absence was harsher still. It was obviously a man’s room; although Jim’s artistic flourishes extended this far, there were no feminine touches. Bedside cabinet, he’d told her. Third drawer down, hidden beneath the file of old newspaper clippings at the bottom. A poem I wrote to Jenny the day Holly was born. I never gave it to her, because I was embarrassed. Stupid, I know. But I could also never throw it away. Trix had nodded, understanding where he was reaching. The poem was entirely to do with him, and because it had never been a part of Jenny’s awareness, perhaps it would still be there now.
She sat on the bed and opened the drawer. Blinked. For the briefest instant she thought, They’re doing this as a practical joke, maybe they’re even filming. But that idea went as quickly as it had come. In these days of the Internet, she didn’t even know that guys looked at magazine porn anymore. She took the magazines out and laid them on the bed beside her. They seemed safe enough, and there was almost a retro feel to the covers, as if they might even show pubes instead of the preferred shaven parts of modern porn. But the dates were recent.
Beneath the magazines was a brown folder. Trix took it out and flicked through the contents. Newspaper clippings, as Jim had said—a variety of stories and features that often inspired him for a painting. And beneath the folder in the drawer … nothing. No poem. No envelope or folded paper. She examined the drawer in case it had a false bottom or she’d missed something. Scanned through the paper clippings more thoroughly. Held the magazines up by their spines, shaking them, expecting the sheet of paper to fall out at any moment. But there was nothing, and she didn’t even bother placing the items back in the drawer before moving on.
After she had encountered him on the street, Jim had sat in the driver’s seat of his car with her beside him, his hands gripping the wheel, his face a mask of concentration as he tried to think of something that would provide evidence of his wife’s and daughter’s existence. The poem had been one idea, and then as she’d opened the car to leave, he’d reached out, hooked a finger into her belt, and pulled her back inside. Then he’d leaned across the seats, so close to her that for a second Trix had been a little scared. Jim had never unsettled her before, but his breath had smelled of fear, his eyes were wide as a rabbit’s in headlights, and she’d wondered, Am I really on my own after all?
“There’s a painting,” he’d said. “It’s … special. Jenny knew about it, but no one else, not even Jonathan. Not even you.”
“Special how?” she’d asked, and instantly felt at ease once again. She was as eager to cling on to Jim as he was to her, because right now he was all she seemed to know. In Tallulah’s, the waitress had recognized her right away. No shock at the pink hair, no confusion over this subtly changed woman. I’ve always been like this here, Trix had thought, and the idea distressed her more and more.
“I painted it before I met Jenny,” he’d said. One hand rested on Trix’s knee, and the warmth was comfort to both of them. “I don’t usually do portraits, and this one … well, even this isn’t quite that. But it’s me and a woman, bodies enveloped with storm clouds, sunlight, reveling in the natural. And the woman is Jenny.”
“What do you mean?”
“I painted it before we even met.” He’d waved his hand. “Oh, there are differences. It’s like Jenny how she might have been, not exactly how she is. But it was as if I’d created a vision of my perfect woman, and then two years later …” He’d sobbed then, and Trix closed her hand over his and squeezed.
“Just tell me where it is.”
So now she climbed the narrower staircase to his studio, desperately hoping that the painting of Jim’s wife—her friend, the woman she’d loved for a long time—was still up there.
When she clicked the studio lights on she knew to squeeze her eyes shut. Jim had special lighting there, designed to be as close to real daylight as possible. She waited a few moments, then opened her eyes slowly, letting them adjust as she looked around the room. The fact that the studio appeared completely different was not what surprised and shocked her; she’d anticipated that, and the canvases propped around the place lived up to her expectation. Most of them seemed to be part of one advertising campaign or another, but their style was markedly different from what she was used to seeing from Jim. Before, his paintings had always had a soul about them, some element of tone or mood that she always found moving, whether they were seascapes painted for his own pleasure or advertising images for a new brand of sneaker. He’d always found some way to affect the viewer, and Trix always attributed that to Jim’s own sensitive personality. These paintings were different: brash, loud, technically brilliant but lacking in something profound. She imagined that they pleased many advertisers with their directness, and probably earned him a lot of money. But the soul had gone.