Devin stared through the large plate glass window of the Escamonde Hotel at the dark branches of the walnut tree. In between two of the large, lower branches there was a wispy, white piece of fabric. Or at least, there had been one a second before. He blinked, and saw the fabric again. But then he jerked away and yelped.
A small stream from the cup of caramel latte had burned his hand. The paper cup lay on the floor where he’d dropped it, a pool of overpriced, precious sugary brown liquid pouring out around it. “Shit,” he muttered.
“Isn’t that the fourth latte you dropped this week?” Ramona was asking in all seriousness, without the slightest trace of humor. She had somehow instantly turned up at Devin’s side, where he hadn’t realized she was standing, and was looking darkly at the mess spreading on the floor.
Devin quickly wiped the hot latte drippings from his hands on a white towel and began soaking up the remains of the failed beverage with all the recycled napkins and paper towels in the vicinity. He muttered some insincere apologies to Ramona and the elderly lady tourist who looked on peevishly from the other side of the counter, waiting impatiently for her indulgent drink.
“I’ll get that for you,” Ramona told the frail lady without enthusiasm. She went into action on the latte, with her patented, sullenly slow-motion technique.
“I want whip cream,” chirped the lady, repeating her earlier instruction. She was clearly perturbed at having her carefully planned Arcata idyll interrupted by a teenage barista’s incompetence and was eager to re-join her equally elderly lady friends at one of the cafe’s little wooden tables covered with one of the hotel’s quaint, handmade tablecloths so they could plan out their birding or antiquing adventures for the day.
“Yeah,” said Devin. He’d popped back up, a soggy towel in one hand. As Ramona plunked the latte on the counter, he grabbed a nearby canister and shot onto it an unceremonious glob of lopsided whip cream, giving the latte a final, disorderly glop of indignity. The tourist lowered her white eyebrows darkly but took the cup and retreated without another word before some other injury could be visited on her beverage.
The elderly lady, who seemed to be a proper New Englander, was no doubt putting down Devin as yet another surly, incoherent California teen, the kind of kid who hung out after work at the local arcade or bowling alley, smoking illegal weed in the parking lot and trading tales of bad behavior with fellow delinquents.
In fact, Devin considered himself a lot more considerate than most of the kids from Grey Bluff High, the county’s second-most-populous high school. But there was no denying he’d been getting distracted more often lately. And maybe distracted wasn’t a strong enough word. He’d be at work, or at school, staring at some object in the middle distance and before he knew it his mind had blanked out and he was off in some kind of half-trance where any activity or talking around him – the sardonic droning of his math teacher, the meticulous orders of picky Escamonde Cafe customers, even the usually very appealing British beer recommendations of his friend Clive – disappeared behind an invisible filter. And now there were actual images that had started to appear during his phase-outs, as he called them. Wisps of clothing that shouldn’t be there, or even partial apparent faces that looked like they were floating or staring...
“—a few unpaid days off.” He’d been so preoccupied that Devin caught just the last few words of Ramona’s latest sarcastic comment. She was the manager at the Escamonde Café, a little coffee house where Devin worked that was integrated into a boutique Arcata inn. The Escamonde Hotel catered to guests looking for a throwback to the “intimate, personalized hotel of yesteryear”, at least according to its website.
Not that there was any other kind of hotel in Arcata. The big chains weren’t to be found in the carefully cultivated city interior that preserved a conspicuously quaint, historically authentic quality the tourists loved but that wasn’t so popular with the local teens, who would’ve preferred a town center with at least one Taco Bell or Jack-in-the-Box. An elderly Maine lady’s perfect picturesque resort was a teen’s vision of boredom purgatorio.
Devin narrowed his dark eyes slightly at Ramona. He’d never thought she fitted into the “boutique, intimate, personalized” atmosphere the hotel promoted. Not unless you wanted to get intimate and personalized with an overweight, cigarette-smoking, greasy-haired, sarcastic single mother who lived in a trailer south of town and munched cold hot dogs for lunch. “I know,” he said, trying to stave her off while not realizing entirely what she’d said. “I get distracted sometimes. I try to focus, but before I know it I just get into some zone.”
That unapologetic approach wasn’t going to get anywhere with Ramona. “Try visiting this place I call the work zone sometime. Some of us gotta spend all day there.”
Ramona sauntered off to the other corner of the café. It was a small café, but she was the queen saunterer in residence and made it clear that she wanted to get as far away as possible from her recalcitrant barista. Ramona ended up making a desultory effort at reorganizing the boxes of unsold tea on the wall shelving. Devin smiled half-heartedly at the old ladies, who’d now had their afternoon further dampened by Ramona’s loud sarcasm. They turned away from him and took out their bird books.
Devin took off his black barista apron with relief after two more quiet hours at the Escamonde. Spending time with a peevish Ramona was no treat, but at least you didn’t get overworked at the Escamonde. After the bird-watchers, there’d only been six more customers that afternoon, not an unusually small number for late on a fall Thursday. The big summer tourist season was over and the quiet time at the cafe gave Devin plenty of time to think.
But that wasn’t always an advantage when his thoughts kept drifting back to his numerous unwanted episodes of distraction.
He ran into Nayra outside the candle shop. It wasn’t a shop devoted exclusively to candles, but the large racks of handmade black currant, peach, cranberry and ocean mist-scented wax pillars, along with a few dozen other scent varieties crowding the windows, had always defined the shop’s identity. Nayra was often found there, talking to the owner about her newest shipment of Tibetan amulets or Wiccan figurines.
Not that Nayra was a Wiccan. Or a Buddhist. But she gave a casual acquaintance the impression she could be either, with her array of flowing, loose-fitting clothes, vaguely Asian or pagan exotic jewelry and long, puffed-up, raven-black hair.
“You had another phase-out, didn’t you?” was Nayra’s greeting, as she looked up from a candleholder shaped like a Mexican cow skull. She often drove straight to the heart of a conversation without any of the preliminary niceties that average people found necessary.
“Why do you say that?”
“I see it in your eyes. That distant dark, soulful look in your eyes. Another phase-out.”
“I guess so.”
Nayra stared at him intently. “You do have good eyes for that spiritual look, dark and bottomless.”
Nayra put down the cow skull and drifted away from the shelf. “The spiritual literature is filled with experiences just like yours. People who find their days interspersed with strange manifestations, insinuations. Vague and mysterious hints of an alternate world.” Nayra stopped short. She’d led the way out onto the sidewalk and faced Devin head-on, putting her hands on his shoulders in a gesture meant to be reassuring. “You’re not alone.”
Devin looked down sideways at the large black widow spider ring on Nayra’s right hand. “I didn’t think I was. Really.”
Nayra removed her hands and continued walking. “The exact nature of your phase-outs are what perplex me. Do you like lemon?”
“Why? Are phase-outs, like, citrus related?”
“No. They have lemon-melon ice cream this week on special at the Freezer Cup.”
“Yeah. I guess lemon is cool.”
As they stood in line at the Freezer Cup, Nayra continued to analyze Devin’s phase-outs. “I’ve been reading up on the Battleton sisters. Are you familiar with their case?”
Devin shook his head, letting some of his shaggy black hair fall into his eyes. He wasn’t too comfortable with Nayra talking about his phase-outs in public. There were kids in line from Grey Bluff High and all he needed was for word to get around that he was some sort of tweaked out, wanna-be psychic nutcase or something. “I’ve never heard of them,” he said. Hopefully she’d go on talking about the Battleton sisters and their troubles, whatever they were, and leave him out of it.
“Well, you should look into their story. They were two of the best-known spiritualists in Victorian England. Deirdre Battleton was a military widow who saw visions of her husband in all sorts of public places long after he died, dressed in full military regalia, mind you. But she’d have phase-outs at all kinds of awkward times. Once the sisters were doing a séance with this old major and his wife. The major had paid a lot for the séance but Deirdre just stopped in the middle of her spirit invocation and stared out the window motionlessly for half an hour. Her sister Penelope couldn’t bring her back.”
Devin gave Nayra a skeptical glance. Of all things, she had to compare him to some old widow in England? Really? She couldn’t think of anyone more appropriate? More modern or masculine? “So what happened?” he asked a little sulkily, since Nayra had fallen into one of her pregnant silences and clearly wasn’t going to continue until he said something.
“She finally started back to life with an unearthly shriek!” and Nayra gave a kind of shriek herself on the last word, causing the blonde girls in front of them to turn around with annoyed and startled expressions.
“Can we talk about this later?” asked Devin.
Nayra ignore him. “After everyone calmed down, Deirdre explained that she’d seen a vision of her husband across the street whipping a dark-skinned man.”
“Not really. He’d been part of the colonial administration in India.”
“So what happened with the séance?”
“That’s not the point,” replied Nayra. “Medium Lemon-Melon with orange sprinkles,” she ordered, having reached the counter, then turned back to Devin. “The point is we don’t want you getting to the stage of seeing dead people all over the place.”
Devin sighed as the Freezer Cup clerk, an overweight boy with a bad complexion, gave them a surly, mocking smile. Devin ordered quickly, getting a plain lemon cup, which was the fastest thing to order. He had visions of the obnoxious clerk spitting out pulp from his own Freezer Cup smoothie later, while he laughed with his friends about the guy who was seeing visions of dead people.
“Let’s go outside.”
“I always sit under the vine,” she replied, pointing to a monstrous purplish-gray plant on a shelf. “That’s where I feel the most energy circulating.”
Devin scrunched further into his jacket, feeling the eyes of all the Freezer Cup clients on them as they walked to Nayra’s favorite table.