‘1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…’
‘No, no, stop. That’s the wrong numbers. It’s the wrong order.’
‘…7, 8, 9…Come on!’
‘No, you’re getting it wrong. It’s 41, 131, 131, 20’
‘Stay with me! 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…’
‘I’ll never get the door open if you keep changing the numbers!’
Combat Woman lent back on her haunches, hands on her hips. She was slightly out of breath, as if she’d been doing something strenuous. She frowned.
‘The door has always been open, Gretchen. You just never noticed.’
‘Then why do I need the numbers?’
‘The numbers are everything. The difference between life and death.’
And then I was carrying a cat – my cat – into a building. I had an apartment somewhere in there but there were barriers across the stairways. Some sort of fumigation was taking place and everyone was barred from entering. But I had to get my cat in the apartment. I had to make sure the cat was safe. I approached some of the workers and asked to be quickly let through. One of them looked up at me. It was Combat Woman again. What was happening? Am I even dreaming anymore? She waved me through but shouted after me: ‘Why do the women keep disappearing?’
Gretchen lurched suddenly and violently, as though she’d had an electric jolt. She was safe though. She was at home. Not walking through a fumigated apartment block. Not carrying a cat. She’d never had a cat.
The images from her subconsciousness flashed through her brain. Open doors? Vanishing women? What did it mean? What was her brain trying to tell her? Anything? Nothing? Her head slumped back against the cushions. She was so tired. So very tired. She wanted to stay; she wanted to be well but it was just so hard. It would be so much easier to just let go. Stop fighting and simply go. What did Combat Woman say? Stay with me. Gretchen wanted to but it was taking too much energy. She had nothing left to fight with.
Her eyes glazed yet drifted to the notebook. It was lurking on the coffee table and she could swear that its grey cover was undulating. A gentle writhing, as if a metamorphosis had taken place and the new creature was striving to burst out from its constricting cocoon. What would be reborn? Would it be beautiful? An enlightenment? Or something aggressive and dangerous whose only purpose was to destroy her world. A darkness clouded her mind as she allowed the memory back in. Her name was in the book. Her own name. There were so many questions already that she couldn’t answer. How was she supposed to handle this one? Why had he written her name? ‘A coincidence?’ – oh sure! It was such a common name, she replied to the voice sarcastically. In all this mystery, she was now intractably entwined. She was a part of it. Was she destined to disappear too?
Another flash. Another recall. “The numbers are starting to have importance for her now, Lezka“. For her! He’s talking about me, Gretchen realised. He’s talking about me with his bloody therapist! ‘Stay calm’ the voice instructed. No, I won’t bloody well stay calm, she replied. He knows about the numbers. Everybody knows about the bloody numbers except me! Is that what Combat Woman wants? Me to count to 10 to stay calm. Why do I need to stay calm?
Time passed but it seemed to have lost all relevance for Gretchen. No-one had noticed her absence. The world had just continued revolving without her. She didn’t sleep so why should she punctuate endless hours with meals or exercise or housework or any of the myriad of self-imposed routines?
But as tempting as oblivion was, she still just couldn’t let go and, like an annoying strand of vegetable which is stuck between the teeth, she kept probing and tugging at an unformed thought. Eventually, she yanked it out of the deep recesses of her mind and held it up for inspection. “…guitar on his back was acting like a Kennedy brace” and “Awkward movements. Fender strat back pain.” The Broken Man had written that but how did that FICTION link to the FACT that a Fender Stratocaster was found in the Underpass? Another coincidence? Gretchen shook her head – oh no, not this time. She was definitely onto something now. She looked up Kennedy brace first. Turns out that President Kennedy was wearing a corset-like brace for back pain when he was assassinated. He should have slumped over in the car with the first, non-fatal bullet but the brace kept him erect. Upright and in prime position for a shot in the head. That explains the Broken Man’s ‘awkward movements’ but he isn’t dead. So why make the reference? What would’ve been different – better – if he hadn’t had the guitar on?
But Gretchen was going round in circles again as she contemplated the conclusion that the Broken Man must have left his guitar in the Underpass when he made the woman disappear with a huge bolt of electricity. Spoken out loud, it didn’t sound quite as rational as it did inside her head.
‘It is Wednesday today, you know’ the voice reminded her. She nodded slowly. Yes, that’s a good plan. She’ll try that. She’ll go to the tearoom to see if the Broken Man was there.
As she pulled on her coat and shoes, Gretchen determinedly tried to ignore the fact that she couldn’t remember what her last name was. It was as if she never had one…