The Places Between
by John Gatley
Bill Ortiz was checking the basement for mold when he first saw the girl.
He was examining the naked floor joists overhead when he noticed her standing unabashed in the center of the long basement. By the time he noticed her, he had no idea of how long she had been there watching him.
She may have been there when he flicked on the headlamp he wore over his faded Pittsburg Pirates hat. Did she wonder what he was doing as he looked at the walls and the places between?
Bill would have told her, if she had asked, that mold can be a tricky thing to find.
Her eyes were the color of those blue plastic Easter eggs Bill’s daughter used to collect in the lawn behind their church in Claire. She looked about eight years old, though it is hard to tell when they are that age.
Bill’s Nikki looked practically the same, minus a few teeth from the age of six to the age of ten. Then she just seemed to grow and change overnight. It was possible this girl was like that. Her clothes didn’t help to pin down her age. She wore a peach-colored dress of the kind that would look appropriate in church on Sunday, and scuffed saddle shoes. There was a bow in her dark hair; it matched the dress.
When Bill turned his light towards, her their eyes locked, and she vanished. It was as if, like many children, she acted bashful around strangers. He played the flashlight against the expanse of the basement but couldn’t find her. It was possible she was still down here, but in all likelihood she had darted upstairs.
“Okay,” Bill said to himself in his low rumbling voice, “so there’s that.” Though he knew he wouldn’t be noting “that” on his inspection sheet.
He turned his lights back to the floor joists and ran them along the length of them, focusing especially on the places where the naked joists met the walls. He began to hum softly to himself as he did so. The house was in good order, he thought as he finished filling out the inspection. The place wasn’t perfect, but few were.
Bill stood in the kitchen using the laminate countertop beside the sink to fill out the last of the paperwork. The kitchen felt cozy and inviting, he imagined briefly the breakfasts and dinners the young couple would enjoy here. It felt like a good kitchen should, detached from the world, separate from the busy city streets outside.
His phone rang. He fished it out of the pocket of his faded carpenter jeans and flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Hey, man, you almost done up at the Maple place?” Tom Warner asked.
“Almost. Finishing up the mold inspection now,” Bill lied. “Ran into some trouble in the garage.”
Bill clicked the ball point pen he was holding and stammered, “No, not too bad. Some electrical work. It’s no big deal.”
“Good, good,” Tom said, and Bill could picture his best friend and business partner sitting in the cab of his Ford Ranger with the T&B Home and Building Inspectors logo airbrushed on the side of it. Bill had done that air brushing on a Saturday last April, when the business started to take off again, and they could ditch the little magnetic signs they clung to their pair of well-kept but old Rangers. “Well, do you mind adding one more to your docket today?”
Bill looked at the Casio on his wrist, he wore it face down; he had to turn his wrist to see it. It was just after eleven in the morning. “I don’t mind. Where is it?”
“Mineton. On the hill in New Mineton, I think it’s near that rectory we did last spring.”
Bill remembered the rectory. The place had been beautiful and massive, a holdover from a time when people went to church. After the consolidation of all the Catholic churches in the county a few years ago, there had been a sudden surge of vacant, sanctified ground for sale. T&B had inspected a lot of those properties. Like the Maple Avenue place he was currently standing in, many of those properties had also had things Bill had not noted on his inspection sheets.
“Address,” Bill said, and clicked the pen as he pulled out his battered notepad from his back pocket. He jotted it down.
“I can be there at three, if everything goes smoothly at my next site,” Bill said.
“The place in Droslin, right? Split-level?”
“Yup, on both counts.”
“Shouldn’t be bad. I think it was built in ’86.”
1987, Bill thought, but didn’t correct his friend. Just like a good marriage, a good business partnership was built on knowing when to correct someone and when to let certain mistakes go.
“Anything else there, Bill?” Tom asked, and Bill could hear the trepidation in his voice. Tom had known for some time that friendships, like marriages, also held shared secrets.
“Okay.” Tom ended the call as he always had: “Be safe, bud.”
“Will do, and you, too,” Bill said. “I should be wrapping up here soon. Just have one more thing to look into.”
They hung up.
Bill looked out from the kitchen and into the open space of the massive living room. The light coming in through the slatted window shades illuminated the room but did not reveal the little girl. Bill wondered briefly where she had gone to, and then he turned back to his paperwork.
Bill found her upstairs in the master bedroom.
The room was empty except for a huge old radiator and a single empty milk crate with the words Droslin Dairy painted on the side of it. She was standing in the center of a big bay window on the eastern facing of the room, looking out into the street.
Bill wondered how many times a day she gazed out into those streets, which must have seemed so close and yet so far away to her, like the worlds inside a television: intriguing but inaccessible.
“Hello,” Bill said, trying to make his low rumbling voice sound as cheerful as possible.
The girl turned to look at him for the second time that day. Since she looked as if she might vanish once more, Bill added, “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. My name’s Bill.”
She regarded him. It took a few moments, the both of them standing across the expanse of the empty room starring each other down like weird gunfighters before she spoke.
Her voice was as soft as an autumn wind and as sweet as honey. She said, “Who are you?”
“I’m a home inspector. I’m making sure the house is okay to live in.”
She seemed to take this in and then said, “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers. That’s what Beth says.”
“My dad’s girlfriend,” she said, then added, “Kind of my step-mom.”
“Oh, I see. Well, Beth is smart, that’s good advice. But my dad taught me that somebody is only a stranger if you haven’t introduced yourself. So, once again, I’m Bill. Bill Ortiz. I’m a home inspector. I have a daughter. She’s thirteen. Her name is Nikki.”
She stood there. Outside, the clouds parted for a moment and the sunlight in the room intensified, as if someone had kicked up a dimmer switch. In that moment, she was almost translucent in the radiance, then the clouds rolled back over and the room darkened some.
Bill smiled at her. He asked, “And what’s your name? So we aren’t strangers anymore.”
“Maddie,” she said, “Well, Madeline. Madeline Hall, but everyone calls me Maddie.”
Called, Bill thought, but he did not correct her.
Bill looked at the empty milk crate near the door and flipped it over. He sat down on it, removed his hat and wiped sweat from his receding hair line. He placed the cap back on his head and looked up to find the girl suddenly only a few feet away from him holding her hands behind herself, one saddle shoe toeing the carpet.
Over the years, there had been much that Bill had accepted about these encounters, but one thing he had never gotten over was their sheer speed. The way they could move from one space to another in the blink of an eye.
It still unnerved him a little, even when it was just a shy little girl of about eight years old. At this distance, he could smell her. She smelled faintly of gardenias and, beneath that, a hint of clove, a familiar smell that always made his heart ache.
“You can see me?” she asked.
Bill smiled and nodded. “That’s right. No more hide and seek.”
She smiled at that. It was how she thought of it. He couldn’t say how he knew that, but he did. It wasn’t like he could read their minds. No, it was more like he could understand them on some level, the way you can understand the needs of a dog, most of the time, or, the way he understood his own little girl.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t think the question is really ‘why,’ but ‘how,’ and honestly I don’t know. I just can. I’ve been able to, most of my life.”
“You’re not like me.”
Bill shifted on the milk crate and considered the statement. “No, I’m not, I guess. How old are you, Maddie?”
“Seven,” she said. Then she hesitated, “I think.”
“I’m forty-three,” Bill said. “Sadly, I know.”
She didn’t get the joke.
He asked, “What’s your favorite song on the radio?”
“Billie-Jean,” she said, “I like to dance to it.”
Liked, Bill thought, liked. Billie-Jean by Michael Jackson, that would have been about 1983. “Is that from the radio or from your step-mom’s record player?”
“Oh, Beth hates him, no way. It’s from the radio. Beth likes Fleetwood Mac.”
Bill laughed and glanced down at his scuffed work boots.
“Do you like Billie-Jean?” she asked with some trepidation.
Bill admitted, “I don’t know many people who don’t. It’s a great song.”
“It is,” Maddie said. There was a pause then in which Bill took a few breaths and he noted that Maddie did not take any.
She said, “I didn’t really like the music that the girl played. Lydia. Her room was my room. She liked music that was too loud. People screamed in it. After her came a boy named Jonah, and I liked what he played on his stereo. He liked to dance, but only with the door closed, so his parents wouldn’t see.”
Bill considered this; at least two families had lived here since. “Were they nice to you?”
Maddie shrugged. “I don’t think they saw me, like” — she hesitated, chewing on her lower lip — “like you do.”
“Did you want to be seen?”
She shook her head.
That was good, Bill thought. Her being here was not ideal, but it was better that she was bashful rather than brash.
“Do you know why they can’t see you?”
Her ponytail bobbed as she nodded.
She bit her lip again, and said, “Because I’m dead. I’m a ghost” — and then, as if still unsure about all of this, she added — “Right?”
Bill hesitated because, if he didn’t play his cards right, she could get angry. He had seen it before. Denial is a powerful defense and truth has an equally powerful way of smashing worlds apart, and minds. It was like telling a toddler no. Sometimes it was okay, and other times it resulted in fits.
Bill took a chance and nodded. He said, “It’s okay, though.”
“Why don’t you go that other place?”
She seemed to know what he meant. She shrugged. “I don’t want to leave or anything.”
Maddie looked across the room, to a closed closet door with a crystal knob. She looked so innocent and so young that Bill had to choke back a reflexive response in his throat, and rubbed his eyes against the sudden well of tears.
He thought of his own daughter, Nikki. She would be thirteen now, exploring that frail precipice at the edge of teenhood. Bill pictured Nikki in high school, Nikki at the prom, and Nikki learning to drive. He imagined her talking of college, of careers; vague but there, like distant stars.
Still, Maddie would never know those things. She had witnessed them, no doubt: vicariously through this Lydia she mentioned, or some of the other women or girls who had resided here since the early 80’s. Through them, Maddie must have begun to understand what it would have meant to be a woman. That hurt worst of all: to understand, to know, but never to realize. The diminished potential of a life was itself a kind of funeral.
Finding them was always hard, but it was the hardest when they were children, especially girls. Every one of them reminded him of his own, and how fragile life really is.
In her small voice Maddie said, “I can’t leave because my brother is still here.”
“He is?” Bill asked, his voice coming out choked from the withheld tears.
“Well that’s good, where is he?” Bill smiled at her, and he shuffled his weight on the milk crate.
“He’s lost,” she said, sounding more adult than she looked. “Sometimes he is here, and sometimes he’s not.”
“Lost?” Bill asked. “What do you mean?”
She shrugged. “He’s little. Too little. Sometimes he is here, and sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes I can hear him screaming.”
“Can you find him when he is screaming, you know, follow the sound?”
She shook her head. She sniffled a little, and he realized she was beginning to cry, she said simply, “No, I tried,” and she covered her face with her small hands. There were no sobs, but her body shook a little as if charged with electricity.
Lost, Bill thought, there had been times when others had been looking for loved ones, and Bill was able to talk them into moving on their search to, well, to other places. He had remembered telling a thirty-something year old man who had been searching for his girlfriend in an apartment building, If she isn’t here, she must be over there, you know?
With that the man had moved on.
A pang of guilt struck resoundingly in his stomach. Had he been wrong? Was there another place, some between-place? Could they truly get lost? It made sense; the world was rarely black and white.
“Are you sure he isn’t here?” Bill asked.
“He’s not. He even sounds far away. It’s like, I can barely hear him, but he is trying so hard.”
Bill didn’t know what to make of it, and he didn’t think he could help. He looked at his watch, he had to be to the next site soon, but it could wait just a little longer. He felt for the girl, a part of him loved her, even, a love a man can’t know unless he has a daughter. A love that cannot be understood unless a man knows loss in equal measure to love, he thought.
“I’m scared,” she said then, her voice sounding feeble and very far away like a fragile signal on a radio. “I know that sounds strange, but I am.”
He wanted to hug her, to reach out and comfort her. He thought of Nikki and then he rubbed his hands together hard, feeling the pressure and the friction in his calloused palms, and stood up.
He walked to the big old window and peered out into the street. He did the math: twenty years, three different owners in that time, all those chances to make herself known, and she hadn’t. How long had she been aware though? That was important.
He asked her. “Maddie, do you mind telling me how long you’ve known you were a, a...?”
Copyright © 2016 by John Gatley