Free Fiction Monday: Shadows on the Moon
Justin needs something to believe in. At a crossroads in life, he arrives in New York City reminiscing about the past but uncertain of the future. Until he meets Wendy, who inspires him to take a leap of faith.
But soaring into the unknown might prove harder than it seems.
“Shadows on the Moon,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
Shadows on the Moon
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
She leaned out the hotel window and felt the misty air on her face. A symphony of honking horns played to the beating of her heart as the cars below moved like well-lit ants. In the haze of artificial lights and a full moon the city stretched before her, buildings packed against one another like people on a subway.
She glanced back at the hotel room with its king-size bed, chrome lamps, and pale cranberry decor. A maid had come in and turned down the covers, leaving chocolates on the pillow. So tasteful, so refined—a glimpse of a life she had always wanted to have.
The fresh air beckoned. She pushed herself out the window and sat on the ledge. To her left the United Nations glistened, reflecting the city lights on its glass sides. Boats slid along the river. The mist caressed her, made her shiver just a little.
“Come on, Wendy, you can do it,” said Peter Pan, her childhood hero, speaking in the voice of Mary Martin, from an album she used to play over and over. “You can fly if you think you can. All you have to do is believe.”
“Believe,” she whispered. She stared out at the night sky, the lights refracted through the mist, and refused to look down. Then she spread her arms and dived. For a minute, she flew.
For a minute, she believed.
Justin refused to let the bellboy carry his bags up to the room. Justin had lugged the clothes bag and duffel across three airports and in two cabs. He could handle an elevator ride to the fortieth floor all by himself.
He leaned against the mirror in the back of the elevator. The hotel specialized in mirrors. Instead of paint or wallpaper, someone had decided to cover the wall in reflecting glass. He had watched himself approach the elevator from five different angles, all showing his graying hair, his suit rumpled and travel-worn, and the frown that looked as if it were baked into his skin.
He closed his eyes on the elevator, not wanting to watch himself ignore himself for forty floors. When the elevator eased to a stop, he got out and sighed. Forty was done in a tasteful, rich cranberry. Black tables and chairs lined the walls, and large pink and white floral arrangements covered each table. He glanced at the chrome numbers placed just above eye level on the wall and felt his stomach lurch. He didn’t know what he was doing in New York. He hated the city, hated the hustle and bustle that allowed for the rudeness and lack of consideration that had made his trip from La Guardia so difficult. For a brief half-second, he thought of turning around, stepping back into the elevators, braving the world of mirrors, and going home.
But if he did that, he wouldn’t be able to look at himself at all.
He clutched the metal computer card that passed for a key in his right hand and followed the arrows. The room was in a little cubby all by itself. Instead of another room beside it, the maid’s closet took up the remaining space. He knocked, the sound echoing in the quiet hallway, and waited. A man opened a door two down, looked at Justin, then closed the door again. Justin sighed, slipped the entry card in the slot, and pushed the door open.
“I said, ‘Just a minute.’ ” Elise took a step out of the bathroom. She was wearing a robe with the hotel’s monogram and a white towel turban hid her hair. Her face was naked and plain without makeup. She looked surprised to see him. “Jesus, Justin. Three days late, as usual.”
Justin let the door swing closed. He set his luggage down. The room was wide, with a king-size bed and large windows on the far wall. He loosened his tie and pulled off his suitcoat. Humidity from Elise’s shower covered him like beads of sweat. “You said to be here by today. So I am.”
“Before. Before today. If we wanted any time together at all. I make my speech tonight, then there are a few social functions, and I fly back to Oxford tomorrow. I doubt that I’ll use the room for anything other than changing clothes and packing in the next twelve hours.” She kicked the bathroom door closed with one long, narrow foot. He stared at the oak door as an interior buzz signaled a blow dryer starting up.
He ran a hand through his hair, then picked up his luggage and hung it inside the closet. She had made it clear enough: she wasn’t coming back tonight. She had given up on him and found someone else. Or worse, she hadn’t found anyone at all.
The blow dryer shut off. He closed the closet door and sat on the bed. His fingers shook as he punched 0 for the front desk. He asked for a two-day extension on the room, which they gave him, and then he leaned back against the thin mirrored headboard and waited.
Elise emerged from the bathroom a few moments later, bringing more steaming, humid air with her. Her naturally curly dark hair fell about her face in waves, and the carefully applied makeup gave her face the sophisticated beauty he was used to. She took her clothes out of the closet, then pulled off the robe, not caring that she paraded naked in front of him. Her body was as trim as ever.
“I flew all the way from San Francisco,” he said quietly, fighting the arousal her movements stirred in him.
“You should have read my letter more carefully, then. I waited here for two days.” She slipped on black silk underwear and a matching camisole.
“You could have called.”
“Don’t put it on me, Justin. I did call, a month ago, and sent a follow-up letter. I always keep copies of my correspondence. The note said ‘before.’ Your slip was very Freudian. I’m sure you did want to be here, consciously. It was your subconscious that fought you.” She pulled on a pair of nylons, then stepped into a black, understated dress that looked both professional and sexy.
“Elise, look. I booked the room for two more days. Stay with me. We’ll see if we can fix this.”
She turned, her dark eyes cold and flat. “I have to return to Oxford to finish my appointment. Then I’ll be in Washington. Maybe we can work something out there.”
He shivered despite the heat in the room, the full extent of his mistake suddenly clear. She had meant the weekend to be a celebration. He had thought the speech would determine whether or not she was appointed as undersecretary of state. But apparently, the president had already made the appointment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
He got off the bed and reached for her. She waved him away. “You’ll muss by face.” She bent over, pulled a badge out of the drawer, and tossed it at him. “This will get you into the UN tonight,” she said. “I’ll try to be back so that we can have lunch before my flight.”
Justin clutched the badge, afraid it would slip through his fingers like the relationship had. “I’d like that,” he said.
She nodded, grabbed her purse and cape, and let herself out the door. He reached up, touched the air as if it were her shoulder. “Good luck,” he whispered.
A shadow crossed the moon. Justin stopped in front of the delegates’ entrance to the United Nations and glanced up. The sky was too hazed over, too filled with artificial lights and fog for him to even see the moon. Yet he remembered the feeling from his childhood in Montana, where the sky was open and free and the moon dominated like a god: the prickle at the back of the neck, the small shiver that ran down the spine.
He shook his head, showed his pass to the guard, and walked along the curved driveway that led to the row of glass doors. He felt no pride walking here. He should have felt pride, with his wife about to speak to an important international assemblage, soon after which her appointment to the Cabinet would be announced.
They had been estranged for nearly a year.
And the president was Republican.
Justin ignored the doors that read Delegates’ Entrance in several languages and pushed through the revolving door. The interior room was huge, with glass on the left and a curving blond wood wall on the right. Large tapestries hung on the wall, and elevators faced him. Security people lined the carpeted path, keeping the invited guests flowing toward the correct room and guaranteeing that no one had a chance to hide in the building. Justin stopped, let people in ceremonial kimonos, African tribal dress and Western business suits pass him.
He felt lost here. He was a former flower child turned California computer programmer who had happened to meet, in the San Francisco airport, a woman returning from her Rhodes scholarship studies. They had happened to fall in love and happened to get married, and then realized that their dreams were different. He didn’t belong in the United Nations any more than she belonged behind a computer screen.
“May I help you, sir?” one of the guards asked in accented English.
Justin shook his head, taking the hint. He walked along the carpet, gawking at the architecture, realizing that if he ever came here again, he would enter by the tourists’ entrance on the other side of the gate. He rode the escalator and stared at the blond wood, the faded royal blue colors, the sculptures and paintings donated by various countries. He was walking in a post-World War II international dream, decorated in the 1950s and tarnished by years of misuse. The building symbolized the dream, but people like his wife—who made speeches to get Cabinet posts, not to promote world peace—multiplied in the corridors like a thousand tiny microbes. Eventually the microbes would eat at the structure and the entire building would crumple, dreams and all.
Like his marriage had crumpled. In the early days, he and Elise used to talk about going to major political functions together. But they had always discussed it as if they would be a team, instead of two individuals. Elise probably remembered that dream, and that was why she tried this last time.
He passed the General Assembly room—the door closed and locked, a guard posted in front—and followed a heavyset man in a dark suit into a smaller corridor. The guards at the end of the corridor stopped everyone and checked badges, sending representatives and their interpreters down one hallway, and guests down another. Justin walked with the guests into a wide gallery high and well back from the delegates below. He took a seat and glanced around for Elise. He finally found her, up front below a large statue of a phoenix holding a world in its claws. Elise was talking with a man Justin had never seen before, laughing, and touching him gently as she used to do with Justin. He shivered, although the room was warm. And remembered something he had ignored in his conversation with Elise. She had said there were social functions afterward. In politics it was de rigueur for politicians to bring their spouses to social functions.
Elise hadn’t invited him. She had set this up as a test, and he had failed. He leaned back in his chair and stared at his wife touching another man. There wouldn’t be a lunch tomorrow. But when Justin returned to California, there would be divorce papers waiting in his mailbox. He wasn’t a gambling man, but he would have bet everything he owned on that.
The mist felt cool on his face. Justin sat in front of the open window in his oh-so-expensive hotel room, too shell-shocked and exhausted to move. He wanted to drink himself into oblivion, but even that sounded like too much work.
The speech had been good and well-received, but he hadn’t been able to reach Elise afterward. The guards wouldn’t let him down to the floor, and despite the message he sent, she never came up to him. So he sat in his hotel room, staring at the lights of the city reflected in the mist, ignoring the UN building off to his right. He would stay here the next two nights, maybe hit a Broadway show, maybe sightsee—do something to justify the expense and the time off. Then he would go home, pick up the divorce papers, and retreat behind his computer screen, where everything was safe and understandable.
He was getting cold. He stood up and slammed the window shut. Then he picked up the room-service menu, thinking he could order himself enough to drink, to wipe that tall, thin, dream-covered building across the street out of his vision.
A magnum of champagne. Yes. A magnum would do quite nicely for a start.
He picked up the phone to order when something tapped against the window. He hung up the phone and turned, a bit spooked, thinking of cords and wires and electrical things, of dangers from an explosion he hadn’t heard, a disaster he hadn’t anticipated.
He saw a face. A woman’s face peering at him through a haze of mist. Her hand reached up slowly, as if she were underwater, and tapped the glass again. He saw her fingernails hit the glass, heard the tiny click-click. For a minute he checked, to see if he had already ordered the champagne and finished it, but he saw no empty bottles and felt too much pain to be drunk.
He was on the fortieth floor.
And probably sound asleep.
He opened the window. The woman grasped the ledge and hauled herself inside. She dripped mist on the cranberry carpet. Water droplets dotted her blond hair and her pale eyelashes, shrouding her clothes in a spiderweb of dew. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought your window was open.”
“I just closed it.”
She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, making some of the drops roll down her cheeks like tears. “It got cold out there.”
She blinked then and looked at him, apparently seeing his confusion. “Where am I?”
“The fortieth floor.”
“Oh.” She sank into one of the chairs and patted her pocket, pulling out an entry card. “I’m on the forty-third, but apparently the maid closed the window. I’ve been trying to get in for almost a half an hour now. I didn’t know if I could land.”
Justin nodded, his confusion growing. He didn’t expect her to be staying in the hotel. He though that, if he looked outside, he would see a girder or window-washing equipment. He half-expected to see a rope attached to her waist or rock-climbing equipment hanging from her hips. Perhaps she was a cat burglar gone awry. Or perhaps she had jumped.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
Her smile was small, almost sheepish. “I flew.”
Justin shook his head. He didn’t want to know how she got to New York. “No, I mean here, in my room.”
“I just told you.” Her gaze was clear. Her face, even without makeup, had an old-fashioned prettiness. He had a dizzying moment when he thought he was seeing a ghost, then the digital watch on her wrist beeped. She reached over and shut it off.
“People don’t fly,” he said.
Her smile grew, just a little. “I did.”
He frowned, thinking there had to be another explanation. There was equipment outside the window, or Elise was playing a trick on him, or he was asleep and dreaming. He went to the window and looked out, and saw nothing but mist and lights and cars far below. He wondered what it would be like to catch a breeze, sail on it, and see the city from above with no glass between him and the lights.
Justin turned around. She was already grabbing the door, letting herself out. She reached up a hand, the hand holding her entry card. “Thanks,” she said.
“Wait. Can we talk for a minute?”
She shook her head. “I’m really bushed. But catch me tomorrow. I’m in room forty-three twenty-five. My name is . . . Wendy.”
He heard the pause, frowned again, checked her hands. She wasn’t holding anything but her entry card. His fingers brushed his back pocket. His wallet was still there. “My name is Justin.”
She shrugged. “Oh well,” she said. “I was sort of hoping it was Peter.”
He waited about an hour, and at that point, he couldn’t take it anymore. He thought of trying to get into the UN, seeing where the parties were, imposing himself on Elise. But he couldn’t embarrass himself on an international scale. So he paced the room, and finally, when he couldn’t stand himself any longer, he decided to go to the bar.
Justin had forgotten about the mirrors. From the moment he stepped into the elevator, his company quintupled. He felt as if he were in a party with people he despised. When the elevator reached the ground floor, he thankfully turned right, away from the mirrors. The crowd lessened to a single look-alike pacing him. As he went down the stairs into the bar attached to the five-star restaurant, the look-alike disappeared altogether. He was finally alone.
The bar was almost empty, although the restaurant sounded full. Two men in business suits sat on opposite sides of the bar. Behind the glass racks and bottles of booze, another mirror waited for him. Justin decided to take a table. He turned and found himself face to face with Wendy.
She looked out of place here. Her clothes were a little bit shabby and her haircut was two seasons out of style. She had applied makeup inexpertly, as if she were a teenage girl trying for the first time. She held an unlit cigarette in one hand, waving it like Bette Davis in a 1940s movie.
“I thought you were tired,” he said.
“I thought so, too.” Her voice seemed harsher here, with the trace of an accent. Brooklyn? Queens? He didn’t know. He could never tell the variations of Eastern accents apart. “But to have something special happen—it may tire you out, but God, I’m still so wired, there’s no way I could sleep.”
“What happened?” he asked.
Her smile quirked half her mouth. “I told you.”
He glanced around the bar. “Mind if I join you?”
“Please.” She waved the chair back with her cigarette hand.
He sat. The chair was soft and plush, too comfortable for a bar chair. He leaned back and ordered a gin-and-tonic from the cocktail waitress. “So tell me again,” he said.
The light was dim, but it looked as if Wendy flushed. “You didn’t believe me the first time, and you saw it.”
“I might believe you now,” The waitress set his glass on the table. He moved the glass a half-inch. “I kind of need a miracle.”
“Yeah.” Wendy sipped her wine. “You look a little lost.”
“Not lost,” Justin said. “Left.”
“It’s been happening for over a year now, but today . . .” His voice cracked and he covered it by tasting his drink. “Today was the end.”
“I’m sorry,” Wendy said. She sounded sincere.
“Don’t be.” Justin took another drink. The alcohol felt good. “It was my fault.”
Wendy shook her head. “Two people make a relationship. Two people end it. Surely you had dreams for this once—?
“Computer programmers don’t have dreams,” Justin said, repeating one of Elise’s bitter statements. “They have goals.”
“Everyone has dreams,” Wendy said. She held her wine with both hands. The soft lighting reflected off a solid gold band on her left hand. She glanced at him over the rim of her glass. “I’m going to be thirty tomorrow.”
Her softly spoken sentence surprised him. He didn’t understand its connection to their discussion. “Happy birthday,” he said.
She ignored him. “My husband wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was thirty. He worked really hard at it, trying some get-rich-quick schemes, opening his own business. He’s thirty-five. We live in a one-bedroom apartment near Brooklyn College and he goes to night school. But he’s given up. And he’s getting bitter. If he couldn’t do it by thirty, I guess he figures it wasn’t worth doing. Me, I did it. I made my goal.”
He looked at the elegant surroundings, her shabby clothes. “You’re a millionaire?”
She shook her head. “I wanted to see if there was a little bit of magic left in the world.”
“And you found some.”
“I found some.” She set her glass down, ran her finger along the stem. “And tomorrow I’ll charge much too much money on our VISA card for one glamorous evening where I could pretend to be Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn rolled into one.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t want to be bitter.”
He set his half-empty glass aside and watched her. The light had shifted, surrounding her. She looked ethereal, as she had when she climbed into his hotel room, touched with mist and magic. “Teach me to fly,” he said.
“You look heavy.”
“I’m not,” he said. “I need a miracle tonight. Teach me to fly.”
She put the unlit cigarette in her mouth, pretended to take a puff, and frowned. “All right,” she said.
They went to his room—perhaps, he thought, because she did not want to taint her earlier experience. She opened his window, leaned out, and breathed the cool air. He loved the way the mist collected on her hair. He stepped beside her, hearing the horns, the bustle, smelling the thickness of city in the breeze.
“It’s real easy,” she said, her face half-turned away from him. “You think about all of your dreams, and you reach for them, and you’ll get lighter and lighter until you can almost hold them. Your bones will get hollow and wings will sprout along your back, and the wind will carry you as far as you want to go.”
His heart thudded against his chest. He felt the metal sill dig into his palms. She hoisted herself on the ledge. “All you have to do is believe,” she said, and pushed off.
He reached for her, thinking she was going to fall, thinking she was going to die and he wasn’t going to be able to grab her in time. Then she soared away from him. “Just believe,” she called.
Believe. He pulled himself on the ledge, his feet dangling over forty stories of mist-filled air. His heart had moved to his throat. He had always been nervous around heights, not quite afraid of falling but not willing to chance it either. She had said he had to believe, and believe he would.
He pushed away. The air felt heavy and for a moment, he was buoyant, then he fell through like a man standing on a child’s toy. Dreams, he thought, he had to grab for his dreams and he thought of them—the computers, Elise, his apartment in San Francisco, the walk through the UN—and realized none of those dreams were his. They had all belonged to someone else, someone he never was, someone he hadn’t even wanted to be. In those few seconds, windows rushing past him, he searched for his own dreams and could think of nothing.
He wanted to believe, but he had nothing to believe in.
The ground came closer, the mist zooming past him like water, drenching him. The cars grew in size, the buildings grew shorter, and finally he screamed, feeling sorry, strangely, for Elise, realizing she would never be able to live this down, never be able to fight the publicity from this one moment of his stupidity.
His scream stretched out and he looked up, feeling a flap of wings. Something soft brushed his face, then arms grabbed him and a body wrapped him tight. Wendy held him, her wings snapping like sheets in the wind. Gently, ever so gently, she eased his fall, letting him drop until his feet kissed the concrete sidewalk.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “for ruining your dream.”
She shook her head, not even allowing him a moment of self-pity. “You added to it.” She smiled, and in the glow of the streetlamps she was beautiful. Her feet weren’t touching the ground. He could hear, but not see, her wings. “I always wanted to be a hero. I just thought that was too much to ask for one night.” And then she rose away from him, higher and higher, until he couldn’t see her anymore.
People passed him like water around a stone. If they had seen anything, they didn’t acknowledge it. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down. His hands were shaking, his body was shaking, and his heart threatened to pound a hole in his chest.
He took another deep breath and waited until the shaking eased. Then the hair on the back of his neck prickled. He looked up and wished he could see as Wendy’s shadow crossed the moon.
The next morning he got up at six, dressed, and went to the lobby. He paid for Wendy’s room and had the concierge leave her a singe rose with a message thanking her for all the help she had given him. Then he went back up the elevator, staring at his own reflection in the mirror.
He had been thinking of changing hotels, but he decided that this one wasn’t bad. He needed the mirrors, needed the constant reminder that he didn’t know the man who stared back at him through the silvered glass. He would spend the next few days walking through Manhattan, looking at Central Park, seeing a show on Broadway, staring at the down-and-outs on Times Square. The city was filled with examples of dreams, successful and broken. And maybe, just maybe, by the time he left, he would know what he longed for.
It wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t millions. It was something his, uniquely his.
He would find it. He knew he would.
That much he believed.
Copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Newer York, edited by Lawrence Watt-Evans, NAL, June 1991
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2018 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Muladhara/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.