The Thirteenth Door
by Kelly Zientek-Baker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
At 8:00 pm, Caleb stood with a bouquet of flowers in front of The Thirteenth Door’s entrance, a wooden door, painted green and buffed bare in spots, giving a faux-vintage feel. Hand-painted in red was a number 13.
Caleb ducked inside. He found himself standing under a ladder painted green, blue, and yellow, and stretching halfway up to the warehouse ceiling, straddling the entrance.
George waved from a dim corner. Caleb walked across the cement floor littered in exaggerated cracks and slid into the booth. The table was covered in a mosaic of broken pieces of mirror, reflecting the lamp that hung above them.
“Dude! You’re making me look bad!” George grinned as he eyed the flowers.
Caleb tossed the bouquet on the table. “Give them to Melissa, then,” he said. “Say they’re from you.”
Caleb grabbed the carafe of house red already on the table and splashed wine into his glass. George used his napkin to smear sweat from his forehead. Caleb swirled his glass and studied his usually easygoing friend. George had slicked back his shaggy hair and wrestled his broad frame into a button-down shirt that was already pitting out.
“Calm down, man,” Caleb laughed.
George rolled his eyes and took a gulp of wine.
“My, my. What beautiful flowers.”
The voice startled George, who choked and sputtered as Caleb turned and found his gaze locked with a pair of emerald eyes.
“Hey boys!” Melissa said, sliding out of her trench coat and into the booth next to George. “This is my sister, Allie.”
George waved and Caleb stared as “Allie” unwrapped her minx cape in a single swirl, revealing a form-fitting, sequined turquoise dress, cut impossibly low and tight.
“A pleasure,” she said, extending her hand to Caleb. When he took it, she squeezed his hand like an orange she had plans to drink.
As the goddess slipped into the booth beside him, Caleb’s breaths shortened into spasms. He looked across the table at Melissa and sucked in a full breath of air. She smiled at him, and the spasms calmed.
“Oh, these are beautiful!” Melissa said, seizing the bouquet and burying her nose in its midst with closed eyes. “Mmmm, my favorite.”
She broke off a blossom and tucked it behind her ear. “Thank you,” she said, leaning over and kissing George’s cheek.
George blushed and responded by filling the wine glasses.
“Please excuse my sister,” Alisandre said. “She is such a lunatic about things that quickly die.”
She turned and stared at Caleb, like a snake before it strikes.
* * *
The table’s occupants relaxed with the arrival of appetizers, and the wine unleashed conversation. For moments at a time, Caleb even forgot that the deliriously charming woman across the table might be separated from him for all eternity by the elegant conversationalist sitting beside him. After another carafe of wine, a debate erupted over the onset of old age.
“To age is to die slowly in an ugly, painful manner,” Alisandre said, resting an elbow on the table unsteadily. She shuddered and studied her gold-spackled fingernails. “I, for one, will never grow old.”
George barked a laugh. “And how do you plan to make that happen?”
“I think what she means...” Caleb began.
Alisandre raised an eyebrow.
Caleb hesitated before continuing. “Why wouldn’t you want to hang onto your youth for as long as possible? Youth is beautiful, yes?”
Alisandre gave a satisfied smile and took another gulp of wine.
George threw one hand up in the air. “I can’t deny that,” he said, showing off his scruffy beard, and feigned fluffing his hair.
The booth’s occupants laughed as he raised a pinky finger and sipped his wine.
“But, I think it’s an honorable thing to age,” Melissa said. She set her glass down and pressed her palms together. “The body is just a vessel.”
Caleb’s forked paused halfway between the plate and his mouth. “A vessel for what?”
Melissa smiled. “Our souls.”
Caleb pointed with his spaghetti-wrapped fork. “You believe in soul mates?”
Alisandre rolled her eyes. “What an antiquated, over-romanticized notion.”
George crunched on a piece of garlic bread. “Stole the words right out of my mouth.”
Melissa closed her eyes. “Hmm, yes. I think in each life, we search for our other, for our kindred spirit.”
George made a face, and Alisandre frowned.
Caleb thoughtfully slurped his spaghetti.
Melissa tipped her head back and laughed. She picked up her napkin and leaned across on her elbows. “Come to me, sweetie,” she said.
The laughter paused. Caleb’s vision blurred. He remembered the burning rain in his dream, the chain on the boulder, watching Leonora die. “What did you say?” he asked quietly.
“I said come here!” she said, unfazed and waving her napkin. “You’ve got sauce all over your chin.”
Caleb offered her his face, leaning past Alisandre in the process and noticing her bristle as Melissa dabbed his chin. He sat back and thanked her with a nod. They held eyes for a moment longer.
George’s cell phone rang, breaking the spell. “Excuse me, Melissa,” he said, scooching out of the booth. “Gotta take this.”
Melissa stood. “I need the ladies’ room anyway.”
They walked away from the table, leaving Caleb and Alisandre.
“Her sister?” Caleb seethed. “Have you known this whole time?”
“It does not matter,” Alisandre fired back. “You found her, didn’t you?”
“So, I won? You’re letting me go?”
She whirled to face him and clamped her fingernails into his forearm. “You will be mine,” she hissed.
He gritted his teeth and wrenched his arm out of her grip. She ripped the silver chain from around her neck and slammed a flask down between them. The liquid sloshed against the number thirteen etched on the side.
“Are you going to break that one too?” he asked.
“You are very funny, Caleb,” she said. “I will enjoy laughing at your jokes for the rest of eternity.”
“Don’t be so sure,” he scoffed. “You know how long I can make one of these last?”
He made for the flask, but she snatched it first. In one swift move, she uncorked the flask and dumped the contents into Caleb’s wine glass.
“Your time is up,” she said as Caleb’s eyes widened. “When the flask is finished, so is this pathetic little romance you have kindled in your head for all these years.”
George slid back into the booth. “Sorry about that,” he said. “My sister is watching Baxter tonight. Apparently he got into the garbage and is now puking all over their house.”
“You have a son?” Melissa asked as she slid back into the booth, cracking a smile.
George chuckled. “Close. A puppy.”
Alisandre picked up the carafe and spread the remainder among their glasses. “Let’s finish this off before we go.” She lifted her glass. “To loyal companions.”
George and Melissa raised their glasses to Alisandre’s. Caleb sighed.
“C’mon, Cal,” George said.
Caleb looked up and found Melissa smiling at him, urging him with her glass.
Alisandre raised one eyebrow and one corner of her mouth.
He reached for his glass and clinked it against theirs, raising it to his lips. He lowered it to the table, dreading the eternity about to begin.
“Oh!” Melissa said, “Looks like you and I have one toast left, Caleb!”
Caleb saw that, indeed, one swallow remained. Alisandre’s eyes widened and her cheeks flared red. “We can order more.”
“Naw, don’t worry about me,” said George. “I really need to take off.”
Caleb studied his glass. “Okay, here’s one for you,” he said.
He held out his glass again and looked at Alisandre. She glared back. Melissa tipped her glass, smiling. Caleb glanced at George and offered a silent apology to his friend. He took a breath. “To souls. To discovering a kindred spirit.”
Something flickered in Melissa’s eyes. “I’ll drink to that,” she whispered, never breaking his gaze as they each downed their glass.
Caleb set his empty glass on the table, grateful that he’d had the chance to see her again. Alisandre sat back in her seat and flipped a wave of hair over her shoulder.
“Sorry to break this up so soon,” George said. “But I need to rescue my sister from Baxter.”
“We must be going too,” Alisandre said. “Melissa works very early in the morning.”
Melissa stared at Caleb a moment longer, before tearing her eyes away to nod at Alisandre.
* * *
As he crossed the parking lot, Caleb wondered when it would happen. Tonight? Or would she leave him to age painfully to punish his insolence? Caleb drew his car keys and hit the unlock button.
“What the heck, dude?” came a voice behind him.
“You don’t have to worry about me, George,” Caleb answered, opening the door and turning to look at his friend. “I’m not going to steal your girl.”
George shook his head. “No. But I think she’s going to steal you.”
Caleb cocked his head. “Come again?”
George nodded his head off to his left and raised his eyebrows in an exaggerated way. Caleb looked up and saw Melissa lingering under a street light a few car lengths down, the bouquet drooping from one hand.
“No more double dates,” George called, pointing as he backed away. He shook his head and chuckled.
George stopped at Melissa, gave her a hug and a last wave to Caleb before disappearing into the night.
As Melissa walked toward Caleb, swishing the flowers against her legs, Caleb looked past her and saw Alisandre, standing under the street lamp where Melissa had just been, watching them, her face coiled in a scowl.
Melissa leaned against the side of his car, bringing the bouquet to her face. She smiled into the flowers before she looked up.
“How did you know to get gardenias?” she asked.
“Me?” Caleb asked, cocking his head to one side.
“I knew it wasn’t George,” she said, rolling her eyes.
He scrunched his face. “Busted.”
She laughed. “But how did you know?”
“I...” he started but paused, crinkling his brow. “I don’t know,” he finished.
Neither spoke for a long minute. Caleb glanced back to the street lamp. Still there. Still watching.
“That was a beautiful toast,” Melissa finally said.
Caleb smiled sadly.
She opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it abruptly, shook her head, and smiled.
“What is it?” Caleb asked.
“It’s the strangest thing,” she said, stepping closer to him. “I feel like I’ve known you for ages.”
She reached up to play with the lapel of his jacket. The flowers’ perfume wafted around them. He curled his fingers around hers.
“Come to me,” she whispered.
He looked past the light-tinged edges of her curls. Where Alisandre had stood a moment before was now an empty pool of light. He closed his eyes as relief flooded his ancient soul. He opened them and found Melissa watching him. He smiled. Bent his forehead to hers.
Copyright © 2014 by Kelly Zientek-Baker