“I bought another book today.”
“Where, on eBay?”
“Yes.” Christian shifts in his seat to face her. “Could you please… slow down.”
She sucks air between her teeth, “Relax.”
“I’m not speeding. And why waste money on books? No one reads like that anymore.”
“I do.” His hands betray his annoyance at her tone and he deliberately turns his head toward the oncoming lights. “Do you?”
His jaw tightens. The tail lights of a tractor-trailer wink in and out of the darkness.
“Ten years ago, kitchens used real recipes to make food. Back then I used to cook – with real vegetables that still had dirt on them. I used a real knife and a cutting board and made salads with real lettuce and dressing.” His voice grows quiet as he utters the last syllable.
Unbidden, an image of him wearing a chef’s jacket surfaces. His next sentence comes out in a rush, “Now it’s just a matter of mixing one flavor strip with the next.”
She grips the steering wheel more tightly and the car speeds up.
Christian sighs and says, “Celia, let the GPS take us home.”
“Why are you so stubborn? Let the computer do what it was programmed to do. He reaches out and strokes her cheek. “I promise… promise to stop living in the past.”
Celia allows the tension to leave her shoulders. “It’s just that sometimes, I feel as if you’re trying to make the world leave you behind.”
He leans closer to her. “My love, let the GPS steer the car. I‘m in the mood.”
The words echo across the tiny interior of the car, in counterpoint to the rapid staccato of raindrops falling on the roof. Christian doesn’t wait for an answer. He wiggles out of his t-shirt and climbs between the seats and into the back. He pokes her in the side with a toe. Laughing, she presses the green neon button in the center of the steering wheel and a male voice chimes in and asks for a destination.
“Home,” she says, and the computer searches for the coordinates. After a few seconds, the metallic voice chimes in, “Your destination is 1-0-4, P-e-a-c-h, T-r-e-e D-r-i-v-e, A-t-l-a-n-t-a, G-e-o-r-g-i-a. The right indicator light flicks on, and the steering wheel turns silently to the right. The computer adjusts speed and guides the car behind a white Ford Explorer.
She disengages the safety harness and squeezes into the backseat on top of him.
“Ouch! Be gentle, Celia!” They wiggle into a more comfortable position and his legs wrap hers as the landscape slips by, painted in jagged slashes of light and gloom. Moaning, Christian uses his hands to firmly clasp her buttocks and presses himself hard against her body. She responds to his advance by biting him on the ear. Their passion ends quickly, muted by the glaring headlights of cars passing.
He allows his thoughts to drift backwards to the first time they met. It’s one of his clearer memories: Celia kneeling over him, her hand shaking his shoulder, her voice asking him his name. The feel of old leaves wet with dew pricking him in his back. The smell of garbage, ripe, and overflowing from the bin close to his head.
The sound of traffic somewhere nearby. The sting of mosquito bites on his face. The crunch of shoes on the grass around him.
Flashing lights, red and white pinpricks as he drifts in and out of consciousness.
Her eyes, hazel, looking into his.
The antiseptic whiteness of the emergency room.
Waking to see her speaking to a nurse by his bed.
Sleep, so restless.
Dreams of a book with a silver binding, its words and symbols spinning like a spider’s web at the edge of his sub-consciousness. The book! Taunting him. He cannot remember.
Panic, then the sound of her voice talking to him, asking him his name, asking questions.
Her visit to the hospital the next day to talk to him, and then the next.
He strokes her hair as they lay nestled together in the dim interior of the car. A big rig glides by, tires sluicing water onto the windshield. The white line on the road brightens as city lights hover over the highway. She sighs as he gropes around for her clothes and gives them to her. The left indicator light blinks on and the car overtakes the Ford Explorer.
“Shhhh, be quiet, my phone is ringing… Artichoke, look for it.”
“It’s on the floor underneath your seat, can’t you see the lights flashing?”
Celia leans forward and sticks her hand under the seat searching with her fingers. Finally, she feels the slim outline of her still vibrating phone. Resting it on her lap, Celia touches the screen and a holographic image of Tony appears.
“Hey Celia, I need a cocktail waitress for a function tomorrow night… interested?”
“Oh yea, what about that bar mitzvah last week, Tony? I still haven’t got my money yet.”
Tony turns to face Christian.
“Hey, Christian; can you come in early tomorrow? Damn purchasing software has a glitch again. It forgot to place my order for macaroni and cheese flavor crystals for dinner service.”
“Gonna have to do it old school and cook some from the box, if we can find some. Should make you happy, eh?”
Celia uses her finger to poke Tony’s image in the stomach “Tony, what time is the function tomorrow?”
Distracted he looks away, as if listening to someone else, “Tell them I’ll be out in a minute,” he shouts to someone inside the kitchen.
“Damn roast chicken flavor strips, can’t any of the cooks get it right?” mumbling to himself.
“Sorry Celia” he laughs apologetically, “Chow time is at 7 p.m., but you gotta be there by 6:30 for set up.”
“Christian, come in at 1 p.m., and get with José; see if you can find some pots. God knows why I kept those things.” Tony says, chuckling. “There should be some in the storeroom somewhere.”
“Ok, kids; gotta go – got things to do and people to see.”
“What now, Celia?” sounding slightly annoyed.
“You’re a sleazebag; I want my money when I come in for work tomorrow.”
Laughing at the compliment, “Sure, sure, sure,” he terminates the call and disappears from view.
With a grimace Celia slips into the driver’s seat. She sits still for a moment, thinking about Christian. She never meant to take him home after he was released from the hospital. But he looked so lost and alone, her heart took a chance. Her mother always said she was like Florence Nightingale; there was Sam the turtledove with the broken wing and a whole litany of wounded pets through her teenage years. It helped that she volunteered at the animal center. Celia had a gentle, familiar touch with animals, and somehow they sensed it.
Christian is singing slightly off key to a Sublime song floating through the speakers. She’s glad he’s distracted. His book is waiting for him, on top of the growing pile in the corner of her apartment. She felt strange holding it. She was glad to put it with the rest.
She thought about how she had first met Christian six months ago while jogging in the park. One minute she was alone on the pathway and the next moment he was there, right under her feet. She almost tripped over him. He had no idea who he was or where he was. The only reason she knew his name was because it was on the nametag of the old chefs’ jacket he had on. She was so surprised she had run ahead a few hundred paces before curiosity got the better of her and she decided to go back.
The strange book had appeared at her doorstep in a similar manner. It seemed she had a way of collecting strays. And yes, she had almost stepped on the damn book, too. It lay with the others. “Artichoke’s relics of the past,” she liked to call them, unopened, still in the thick brown envelope with his name stenciled across the front.
“Celia” he breaks her reverie.
“I love you, baby” he puts a hand on her leg.
Both car doors slide upwards and they run towards the protective alcove of their apartment building. Christian lets her go in front as they bolt up the stairs to their second-floor apartment.
“Hurry, Celia; I’m getting wet,” he jumps up and down as a pool of water forms around his sandals. Celia peers into the sensor and a beam of light scans her iris. She blinks and it winks back as if acknowledging an old friend. Celia steps back, the light blinks green and the door slides open. Celia pushes Christian inside, then pushes past him as a crack of lightning stabs the darkness. She’s home: it’s tiny, but comfortable. It’s all she could afford on her salary. Cocktail waitresses were poorly paid even in the days of gas stoves and deep fat fryers. That hasn’t changed – and veterinary school still isn’t cheap.
Her apartment is sparsely furnished, anchored by a cube that unfolds into a sectional sofa when pressed. A 40” Sony holograph TV on the wall, a collapsible dinette set that hangs on the wall as decoration. They hardly use it, preferring to eat their meals on the sofa watching television. Celia moves around in the small space and heads to the bathroom. It’s late, and she needs to get out of her damp clothes.
“Christian, I’ll be in the shower a while,” the sound of running water distorts her voice.
“Take your time, baby; I’ll be right here,” he answers and walks towards the stack of books in the corner. Sitting on the floor beside it, Artichoke gingerly takes hold of the package and holds it in his lap. For a minute he just sits there, alone in the semi-darkness. Pointing to the ceiling, he says the words, “reading light,” and a beam illuminates his hands as he slowly tears away the wrapping paper.
He slides a hand inside and drops the brown packaging paper on the floor. “Ghost in the Kitchen,” he mouths the words and a knot forms in his belly. His fingers feel so cold; he wants to get up, but can’t. He tries to look away, but the pale indistinct image on the cover holds him transfixed. He recognizes the face of the person on the cover.
His name is Christian Artichoke, and suddenly it all comes back to him in a rush of memories. The cover flips open as his vocal cords constrict and the face on the cover looks up at him and smiles. Suddenly, he remembers what he had left behind and he tries to force the book shut again. He tries to fight as his soul is pulled from his body with the slick sucking sounds of boots walking in mud.
He thinks about Celia and what his life could have been with her. What could have been – should have been. The face pulls him closer and it pulses and squirms as the grin widens and his face is swallowed. First his short brown hair, then his nose, then the scream from his lips.
Yearning to stay conscious, finally Christian gives into his past as he is pulled deeper into the book with a snap until there’s nothing left but silence.
“Christian, Christian! Are you ok? I thought I heard someone screaming.” Celia runs into the living room barefoot with a towel hastily wrapped around her body. “Christian, where are you?” She looks around the room growing more concerned. She walks over to the beam of light and notices the book sitting on the floor. Tears well in her eyes, and she knows she’s about to start crying. Christian! Something draws her eyes back to the book lying on the floor and for the first time she looks down at the cover.
A face stares back at her as if confined behind glass. She starts to scream, a sound so wrenching and terrible that it breaks her heart. Celia couldn’t hear the sound of her own screams; in fact, she couldn’t see anything beyond the book cover and the face staring back at her.