I Can See Right Through You
A short story from McSweeney’s Quarterly 48, available now.
When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did. He went to cry on Meggie’s shoulder. Girls like Fawn came and went, but Meggie would always be there. Him and Meggie. It was the talisman you kept in your pocket. The one you couldn’t lose.
Two monsters can kiss in a movie. One old friend can go to see another old friend and be sure of his welcome: so here is the demon lover in a rental car. An hour into the drive, he opens the window, tosses out his cell phone. There is no one he wants to talk to except for Meggie.
(1991) This is after the movie and after they are together and after they begin to understand the bargain that they have made. They are both, suddenly, very famous.
Film can be put together in any order. Scenes shot in any sequence. Take as many takes as you like. Continuity is independent of linear time. Sometimes you aren’t even in the scene together. Meggie says her lines to your stand-in. They’ll splice you together later on. Shuffle off to Buffalo, gals. Come out tonight.
(This is long before any of that. This was a very long time ago.)
Meggie tells the demon lover a story:
Two girls and look, they’ve found a Ouija board. They make a list of questions. One girl is pretty. One girl is not really a part of this story. She’s lost her favorite sweater. Her fingertips on the planchette. Two girls, each touching, lightly, the planchette. Is anyone here? Where did I put my blue sweater? Will anyone ever love me? Things like that.
They ask their questions. The planchette drifts. Gives up nonsense. They start the list over again. Is anyone here? Will I be famous? Where is my blue sweater?
The planchette jerks under their fingers.
Meggie says, “Did you do that?”
The other girl says she didn’t. The planchette moves again, a fidget. A stutter, a nudge, a sequence of swoops and stops.
“It’s talking to you,” the other girl says.
Meggie says, “Hello?”
The planchette moves again and again. There is something animal about it.
H-E-L-L-O I A-M W-I-T-H Y-O-U I A-M W-I-T-H Y-O-U A-L-W-A-Y-S
They write it all down.
M-E-G-G-I-E O I W-I-L-L L-O-V-E Y-O-U A-L-W-A-Y-S
“Who is this?” she says. “Who are you? Do I know you?”
I S-E-E Y-O-U I K-N-O-W Y-O-U W-A-I-T A-N-D I W-I-L-L C-O-M-E
A pause. Then:
I W-I-L-L M-E-G-G-I-E O I W-I-L-L B-E W-I-T-H Y-O-U A-L-W-A-Y-S
“Are you doing this?” Meggie says to the other girl. She shakes her head. Meggie laughs. “Okay, then. So okay, whoever you are, are you cute? Is this someone I’m going to meet someday and we’ll fall in love? Like my husband or something? Who is this?”
The other girl says, “Can whoever this is at least tell me where I left my sweater?”
O W-A-I-T A-N-D I W-I-L-L C-O-M-E
They wait. Will there be a knock at the bedroom door? But no one comes. No one is coming.
I A-M W-I-T-H Y-O-U A-L-W-A-Y-S
No one is here with them. The sweater will never be found. The other girl grows up, lives a long and happy life. Meggie goes out to LA and meets the demon lover.
After that, the only thing the planchette says, over and over, is Meggie’s name. It’s all very romantic.
(1974) Twenty-two people disappear from a nudist colony in Lake Apopka. People disappear all the time. Let’s be honest: the only thing interesting here is that these people were naked. And that no one ever saw them again. Funny, right?
(1990) It’s one of the ten most iconic movie kisses of all time. In the top five, surely. You and Meggie, the demon lover and his monster girl; vampires sharing a kiss as the sun comes up. Both of you wearing so much makeup it still astonishes you that anyone would ever recognize you on the street.
It’s hard for the demon lover to grow old.
Florida is California on a Troma budget. That’s what the demon lover thinks, anyway. Special effects blew the budget on bugs and bad weather.
He parks in a meadowy space, recently mowed, alongside other rental cars, the usual catering and equipment vans. There are two gateposts with a chain between them. No fence. Eternal I endure.
There is an evil smell. Does it belong to the place or to him? The demon lover sniffs under his arm.
It’s an end-of-the-world sky, a snakes-and-ladders landscape: low emerald trees pulled lower by vines; chalk and apricot anthills (the demon lover imagines the bones of a nudist under every one); shallow water-filled declivities scummed with algae, lime and gold and black.
The blot of the lake. That’s another theory: the lake.
A storm is coming.
He doesn’t get out of his car. He rolls the window down and watches the storm come in. Let’s look at him looking at it. A pretty thing admiring a pretty thing. Abandoned site of a mass disappearance, muddy violet clouds, silver veils of rain driving down the lake, the tabloid prince of darkness, Meggie’s demon lover, arriving in all his splendor. The only thing to spoil it are the bugs. And the sex tape.
(2012) You have been famous for more than half your life. Both of you. You only made the one movie together, but women still stop you on the street to ask about Meggie. Is she happy? Which one? you want to ask them. The one who kissed me in a movie when we were just kids, the one who wasn’t real? The one who likes to smoke a bit of weed and text me about her neighbor’s pet goat? The Meggie in the tabloids who drinks fucks gets fat pregnant too skinny has a secret baby slaps a maître d’ talks to Monroe’s ghost Elvis’s ghost ghost of a missing three-year-old boy ghost of JFK? Sometimes they don’t ask about Meggie. Instead they ask if you will bite them.
Happiness! Misery! If you were one, bet on it the other was on the way. That was what everyone liked to see. It was what the whole thing was about. The demon lover has a pair of gold cuff links, those faces. Meggie gave them to him. You know the ones I mean.
(2010) Meggie and the demon lover throw a Halloween party for everyone they know. They do this every Halloween. They’re famous for it.
“Year after year, on a monkey’s face a monkey’s face,” Meggie says.
She’s King Kong. The year before? Half a pantomime horse. He’s the demon lover. Who else? Year after year.
Meggie says, “I’ve decided to give up acting. I’m going to be a poet. Nobody cares when poets get old.”
Fawn says, appraisingly, “I hope I look half as good as you when I’m your age.” Fawn, twenty-three. A makeup artist. This year she and the demon lover are married. Last year they met on set.
He says, “I’m thinking I could get some work done on my jawline.”
You’d think they were mother and daughter. Same Viking profile, same quizzical tilt to the head as they turn to look at him. Both taller than him. Both smarter, too, no doubt about it.
Maybe Meggie wonders sometimes about the women he sleeps with. Marries. Maybe he has a type. But so does she. There’s a guy at the Halloween party. A boy, really.
Meggie always has a boy and the demon lover can always pick him out. Easy enough, even if Meggie’s sly. She never introduces the lover of the moment, never brings them into conversations or even acknowledges their presence. They hang out on the edge of whatever is happening, and drink or smoke or watch Meggie at the center. Sometimes they drift closer, stand near enough to Meggie that it’s plain what’s going on. When she leaves, they follow after.
Meggie’s type? The funny thing is, Meggie’s lovers all look like the demon lover. More like the demon lover, he admits it, than he does. He and Meggie are both older now, but the world is full of beautiful black-haired boys and golden girls. Really, that’s the problem.
The role of the demon lover comes with certain obligations. Your hairline will not recede. Your waistline will not expand. You are not to be photographed threatening paparazzi, or in sweatpants. No sex tapes.
Your fans will: offer their necks at premieres. (Also at restaurants and at the bank. More than once when he is standing in front of a urinal.) Ask if you will bite their wives. Their daughters. They will cut themselves with a razor in front of you.
The appropriate reaction is—
There is no appropriate reaction.
The demon lover does not always live up to his obligations. There is a sex tape. There is a girl with a piercing. There is, in the middle of some athletic sex, a comical incident involving his foreskin. There is blood all over the sheets. There is a lot of blood. There is a 911 call. There is him, fainting. Falling and hitting his head on a bedside table. There is Perez Hilton, Gawker, talk radio, YouTube, Tumblr. There are GIFs.
You will always be most famous for playing the lead in a series of vampire movies. The character you play is, of course, ageless. But you get older. The first time you bite a girl’s neck, Meggie’s neck, you’re a twenty-five-year-old actor playing a vampire who hasn’t gotten a day older in three hundred years. Now you’re a forty-nine-year-old actor playing the same ageless vampire. It’s getting to be a little ridiculous, isn’t it? But if the demon lover isn’t the demon lover, then who is he? Who are you? Other projects disappoint. Your agent says take a comic role. The trouble is you’re not very funny. You’re not good at funny.
The other trouble is the sex tape. Sex tapes are inherently funny. Nudity is, regrettably, funny. Torn foreskins are painfully funny. You didn’t know she was filming it.
Your agent says, That wasn’t what I meant.
You could do what Meggie did, all those years ago. Disappear. Travel the world. Hunt down the meaning of life. Go find Meggie.
When the sex tape happens you say to Fawn, But what does this have to do with Meggie? This has nothing to do with Meggie. It was just some girl.
It’s not like there haven’t been other girls.
Fawn says, It has everything to do with Meggie.
I can see right through you, Fawn says, less in sorrow than in anger. She probably can.
God grant me Meggie, but not just yet. That’s him by way of St. Augustine by way of Fawn the makeup artist and Bible group junkie. She explains it to the demon lover, explains him to himself. And hasn’t it been in the back of your mind all this time? It was Meggie right at the start. Why couldn’t it be Meggie again? And in the meantime you could get married once in a while and never worry about whether or not it worked out. He and Meggie have managed, all this time, to stay friends. His marriages, his other relationships, perhaps these have only been a series of delaying actions. Small rebellions. And here’s the thing about his marriages: he’s never managed to stay friends with his ex-wives, his exes. He and Fawn won’t be friends.
The demon lover and Meggie have known each other for such a long time. No one knows him like Meggie.
The remains of the nudist colony at Lake Apopka promise reasonable value for ghost hunters. A dozen ruined cabins, some roofless, windows black with mildew; a crumbled stucco hall, Spanish tiles receding; the cracked lip of a slop-filled pool. Between the cabins and the lake, the homely and welcome sight of half a dozen trailers. Even better, he spots a craft tent.
Muck farms! Mutant alligators! Disappearing nudists! The demon lover, killing time in the LAX airport, read up on Lake Apopka. The past is a weird place, Florida is a weird place, no news there. A demon lover should fit right in, but the ground sucks and clots at his shoes in a way that suggests he isn’t welcome. The rain is directly overhead, shouting down in spit-warm gouts. He begins to run, stumbling, in the direction of the craft tent.
Meggie’s career is on the upswing. Everyone agrees. She has a ghost-hunting show, Who’s There?
The demon lover calls Meggie after the Titanic episode airs, the one where Who’s There?’s ghost-hunting crew hitches a ride with the International Ice Patrol. There’s the yearly ceremony, memorial wreaths. Meggie’s crew sets up a Marconi transmitter and receiver just in case a ghost or two has a thing to say.
The demon lover asks her about the dead seagulls. Forget the Marconi nonsense. The seagulls were what made the episode. Hundreds of them, little corpses fixed, as if pinned, to the water.
Meggie says, You think we have the budget for fake seagulls? Please.
Admit that Who’s There? is entertaining whether or not you believe in ghosts. It’s all about the nasty detail, the house that gives you a bad feeling even when you turn on all the lights, the awful thing that happened to someone who wasn’t you a very long time ago. The camera work is moody; extraordinary. The team of ghost hunters is personable, funny, reasonably attractive. Meggie sells you on the possibility: maybe what’s going on here is real. Maybe someone is out there. Maybe they have something to say.
The demon lover and Meggie don’t talk for months and then suddenly something changes and they talk every day. He likes to wake up in the morning and call her. They talk about scripts, now that Meggie’s getting scripts again. He can talk to Meggie about anything. It’s been that way all along. They haven’t talked since the sex tape. Better to have this conversation in person.
(1991) He and Meggie are lovers. Their movie is big at the box office. Everywhere they go they are famous, and they go everywhere. Their faces are everywhere. They are kissing on a thousand screens. They are in a hotel room, kissing. They can’t leave their hotel room without someone screaming or fainting or pointing something at them. They are asked the same questions again. Over and over. He begins to do the interviews in character. Anyway, it makes Meggie laugh.
There’s a night, on some continent, in some city, some hotel room, some warm night, the demon lover and Meggie leave a window open and two women creep in. They come over the balcony. They just want to tell you that they love you. Both of you. They just want to be near you.
Everyone watches you. Even when they’re pretending not to. Even when they aren’t watching you, you think they are. And you know what? You’re right. Eyes will find you. Becoming famous, this kind of fame: it’s luck indistinguishable from catastrophe. You’d be dumb not to recognize it. What you’ve become.
When people disappear, there’s always the chance that you’ll see them again. The rain comes down so hard the demon lover can barely see. He thinks he is still moving in the direction of the craft tent and not the lake. There is a noise, he picks it out of the noise of the rain. A howling. And then the rain thins and he can see something, men and women, naked. Running toward him. He slips, catches himself, and the rain comes down hard again, erases everything except the sound of what is chasing him. He collides headlong with a thing: a skin horribly clammy, cold, somehow both stiff and yielding. Bounces off and realizes that this is the tent. Not where you’d choose to make a last stand, but by the time he has fumbled his way inside he has grasped the situation. Not dead nudists, but living people, naked, cursing, laughing, dripping. They carry cameras, mikes, gear for ghost hunting. Videographers, A2s, all the other useful types and the not so useful. A crowd of men and women, and here is Meggie. Her hair is glued in strings to her face. Her breasts are wet with rain.
He says her name.
They all look at him.
How is it possible that he is the one who feels naked?
“The fuck is this guy doing here?” says someone with a little white towel positioned over his genitals. Really, it could be even littler.
“Will,” Meggie says. So gently he almost starts to cry. Well, it’s been a long day.
She takes him to her trailer. He has a shower, borrows her toothbrush. She puts on a robe. Doesn’t ask him any questions. Talks to him while he’s in the bathroom. He leaves the door open.
It’s the third day on location, and the first two have been a mixed bag. They got their establishing shots, went out on the lake and saw an alligator dive down when they got too close. There are baby skunks all over the scrubby, shabby woods, the trails. They come right up to you, up to the camera, and try like hell to spray. But until they hit adolescence all they can do is quiver their tails and stamp their feet.
Except, she says, and mentions some poor A2. His skunk was an early bloomer.
Meggie interviewed the former proprietor of the nudist colony. He insisted on calling it a naturist community, spent the interview explaining the philosophy behind naturism, didn’t want to talk about 1974. A harmless old crank. Whatever happened, he had nothing to do with it. You couldn’t lecture people into thin air. Besides, he had an alibi.
What they didn’t get on the first day or even on the second was any kind of worthwhile read on their equipment. They have the two psychics—but one of them had an emergency, went back to deal with a daughter in rehab; they have all kinds of psychometric equipment, but there is absolutely nothing going on, down, or off. Which led to some discussion.
“We decided maybe we were the problem,” Meggie says. “Maybe the nudists didn’t have anything to say to us while we had our clothes on. So we’re shooting in the nude. Everyone nude. Cast, crew, everyone. It’s been a really positive experience, Will. It’s a good group of people.”
“Fun,” the demon lover says. Someone has dropped off a pair of pink cargo shorts and a T-shirt, because his other clothes are in his suitcase back at the airport in Orlando. It’s not exactly that he forgot. More like he couldn’t be bothered.
“It’s good to see you, Will,” Meggie says. “But why are you here, exactly? How did you know where to find me?”
He takes the easy question first. “Pike.” Pike is Meggie’s agent and an old friend of the demon lover. The kind of agent who likes to pull the legs off small children. The kind of friend who finds life all the sweeter when you’re in the middle of screwing up your own. “I made him promise not to tell you I was coming.”
He collapses on the floor in front of Meggie’s chair. She runs her fingers through his hair. Pets him like you’d pet a dog.
“He told you, though. Didn’t he?”
“He did,” Meggie said. “He called.”
The demon lover says, “Meggie, this isn’t about the sex tape.”
Meggie says, “I know. Fawn called too.”
He tries not to imagine that phone call. His head is sore. He’s dehydrated, probably. That long flight.
“She wanted me to let her know if you showed. Said she was waiting to see before she threw in the towel.”
She waits for him to say something. Waits a little bit longer. Strokes his hair the whole time.
“I won’t call her,” she says. “You ought to go back, Will. She’s a good person.”
“I don’t love her,” the demon lover says.
“Well,” Meggie says. She takes that hand away.
There’s a knock on the door, some girl. “Sun’s out again, Meggie.” She gives the demon lover a particularly melting smile. Was probably twelve when she first saw him on-screen. Baby ducks, these girls. Imprint on the first vampire they ever see. Then she’s down the stairs again, bare bottom bouncing.
Meggie drops the robe, begins to apply sunblock to her arms and face. He notes the ways in which her body has changed. Thinks he might love her all the more for it, and hopes that this is true.
“Let me,” he says, and takes the bottle from her. Begins to rub lotion into her back.
She doesn’t flinch away. Why would she? They are friends.
She says, “Here’s the thing about Florida, Will. You get these storms, practically every day. But then they go away again.”
Her hands catch at his, slippery with the lotion. She says, “You must be tired. Take a nap. There’s herbal tea in the cupboards, pot and Ambien in the bedroom. We’re shooting all afternoon, straight through evening. And then a barbecue—we’re filming that too. You’re welcome to come out. It would be great publicity for us, of course. Our viewers would love it. But you’d have to do it naked like the rest of us. No clothes. No exceptions, Will. Not even for you.”
He rubs the rest of the sunblock into her shoulders. Would like nothing more than to rest his head there.
“I love you, Meggie,” he says. “You know that, right?”
“I know. I love you too, Will,” she says. The way she says it tells him everything.
The demon lover goes to lie down on Meggie’s bed, feeling a hundred years old. Dozes. Dreams about a bungalow in Venice Beach and Meggie and a girl. That was a long time ago.
There was a review of a play Meggie was in. Maybe ten years ago? It wasn’t a kind review, or even particularly intelligent, and yet the critic said something that still seems right to the demon lover. He said no matter what was happening in the play, Meggie’s performance suggested she was waiting for a bus. The demon lover thinks the critic got at something true there. Only, the demon lover has always thought that if Meggie was waiting for a bus, you had to wonder where that bus was going. If she was planning to throw herself under it.
When they first got together, the demon lover was pretty sure he was what Meggie had been waiting for. Maybe she thought so too. They bought a house, a bungalow in Venice Beach. He wonders who lives there now.
When the demon lover wakes up, he takes off the T-shirt and cargo shorts. Leaves them folded neatly on the bed. He’ll have to find somewhere to sleep tonight. And soon. Day is becoming night.
Meat is cooking on a barbecue. The demon lover isn’t sure when he last ate. There’s bug spray beside the door. Ticklish on his balls. He feels just a little bit ridiculous. Surely this is a terrible idea. The latest in a long series of terrible ideas. Only this time he knows there’s a camera.
The moment he steps outside Meggie’s trailer, a PA appears as if by magic. It’s what they do. Has him sign a pile of releases. Odd to stand here in the nude signing releases, but what the fuck. He thinks, I’ll go home tomorrow.
The PA is in her fifties. Unusual. There’s probably a story there, but who cares? He doesn’t. Of course she’s seen the fucking sex tape—it’s probably going to be the most popular movie he ever makes—but her expression suggests this is the very first time she’s ever seen the demon lover naked or rather that neither of them is naked at all.
While the demon lover signs––doesn’t bother to read anything, what does it matter now anyway?––the PA talks about someone who hasn’t done something. Who isn’t where she ought to be. Some other gopher named Juliet. Where is she and what has she gone for? The PA is full of complaints.
The demon lover suggests the gopher may have been carried off by ghosts. The PA gives him an unfriendly look and continues to talk about people the demon lover doesn’t know, has no interest in.
“What’s spooky about you?” the demon lover asks. Because of course that’s the gimmick, producer down to best boy. Every woman and man uncanny.
“I had a near-death experience,” the PA says. She wiggles her arm. Shows off a long ropy burn. “Accidentally electrocuted myself. Got the whole tunnel-and-light thing. And I guess I scored okay with those cards when they auditioned me. The Zener cards?”
“So tell me,” the demon lover says. “What’s so fucking great about a tunnel and a light? That really the best they can do?”
“Yeah, well,” the PA says, a bite in her voice. “People like you probably get the red carpet and the limo.”
The demon lover has nothing to say to that.
“You seen anything here?” he tries instead. “Heard anything?”
“Meggie tell you about the skunks?” the PA says. Having snapped, now she will soothe. “Those babies. Tail up, the works, but nothing doing. Which about sums up this place. No ghosts. No read on the equipment. No hanky-panky, fiddle-faddle, or woo-woo. Not even a cold spot.”
She says doubtfully, “But it’ll come together. You at this séance barbecue shindig will help. Naked vampire trumps nudist ghosts any day. Okay on your own? You go on down to the lake, I’ll call, let them know you’re on your way.”
Or he could just head for the car.
“Thanks,” the demon lover says.
But before he knows what he wants to do, here’s another someone. It’s a regular Pilgrim’s Progress. One of Fawn’s favorite books. This is a kid in his twenties. Good-looking in a familiar way. (Although is it okay to think this about another guy when you’re both naked? Not to mention: who looks a lot like you did once upon a time. Why not? We’re all naked here.)
“I know you,” the kid says.
The demon lover says, “Of course you do. You are?”
“Ray,” says the kid. He’s maybe twenty-five. His look says: you know who I am. “Meggie’s told me all about you.”
As if he doesn’t already know, the demon lover says, “So what do you do?”
The kid smiles an unlovely smile. Scratches at his groin luxuriously, maybe not on purpose. “Whatever needs to be done. That’s what I do.”
So he deals. There’s that pot in Meggie’s dresser.
Down at the lake people are playing volleyball in a pit with no net. Barbecuing. Someone talks to a camera, gestures at someone else. Someone somewhere is smoking a joint. At this distance, not too close, not too near, twilight coming down, the demon lover takes in all of the breasts, asses, comical cocks, knobby knees, everything hidden now made plain. He notes with an experienced eye which breasts are real, which aren’t. Only a few of the women sport pubic hair. He’s never understood what that’s about. Some of the men are bare, too. O tempora, o mores.
“You like jokes?” Ray says, stopping to light a cigarette.
The demon lover could leave; he lingers. “Depends on the joke.” Really, he doesn’t. Especially the kind of jokes the ones who ask if you like jokes tell.
Ray says, “You’ll like this one. So there are these four guys. A kleptomaniac, a pyromaniac, um, a zoophile, and a masochist. This cat walks by and the klepto says he’d like to steal it. The pyro says he wants to set it on fire. The zoophile wants to fuck it. So the masochist, he looks at everybody, and he says, ‘Meow?’”
It’s a moderately funny joke. It might be a come-on.
The demon lover flicks a look at him from under his lashes. Suppresses the not-quite-queasy feeling he’s somehow traveled back in time to flirt with himself. Or the other way round.
He’d like to think he was even prettier than this kid. People used to stop and stare when he walked into a room. That was long before anyone knew who he was. He’s always been someone you look at longer than you should. He says, smiling, “I’ll bite. Which one are you?”
“Pardon?” Ray says. Blows smoke.
“Which one are you? The klepto, the pyro, the cat-fucker, the masochist?”
“I’m the guy who tells the joke,” Ray says. He drops his cigarette, grinds it under a heel black with dirt. Lights another. “Don’t know if anyone’s told you, but don’t drink out of any of the taps. Or go swimming. The water’s toxic. Phosphorous, other stuff. They shut down the muck farms, they’re building up the marshlands again, but it’s still not what I’d call potable. You staying out here or in town?”
The demon lover says, “Don’t know if I’m staying at all.”
“Well,” Ray says. “They’ve rigged up some of the less wrecked bungalows on a generator. There are camp beds, sleeping bags. Depends on whether you like it rough.” That last with, yes, a leer.
The demon lover feels his own lip lifting. They are both wearing masks. They look out of them at each other. This was what you knew when you were an actor. The face, the whole body, the way you moved in it, just a guise. You put it on, you put it off again. What was underneath belonged to you, just you, as long as you kept it hidden.
He says, “You think you know something about me?”
“I’ve seen all your movies,” Ray says. The mask shifts, becomes the one the demon lover calls “I’m your biggest fan.” Oh, he knows what’s under that one.
He prepares himself for whatever this strange kid is going to say next and then suddenly Meggie is there. As if things weren’t awkward enough without Meggie, naked, suddenly standing there. Everybody naked, nobody happy. It’s Scandinavian art porn.
Meggie ignores the kid entirely. Just like always. These guys are interchangeable, really. There’s probably some website where she finds them. She may not want him, but she doesn’t want anyone else either.
Meggie says, touching his arm, “You look a lot better.”
“I got a few hours,” he says.
“I know,” she says. “I checked in on you. Wanted to make sure you hadn’t run off.”
“Nowhere to go,” he says.
“Come on,” Meggie says. “Let’s get you something to eat.”
Ray doesn’t follow; lingers with his cigarette. Probably staring at their yoga-toned, well-enough-preserved celebrity butts.
Here’s the problem with this kid, the demon lover thinks. He sat in a theater when he was fifteen and watched me and Meggie done up in vampire makeup pretend-fucking on a New York subway car. The A train. Me biting Meggie’s breast, some suburban movie screen, her breast ten times bigger than his head. He probably masturbated a hundred times watching me bite you, Meggie. He watched us kiss. Felt something ache when we did. And that leaves out all the rest of this, whatever it is that you’re doing here with him and me. Imagine what this kid must feel now. The demon lover feels it too. Love, he thinks. Because love isn’t just love. It’s all the other stuff too.
He meets Irene, the fat, pretty medium who plays the straight man to Meggie. People named Sidra, Tom, Euan, who seem to be in charge of the weird ghost gear. A videographer, Pilar. He’s almost positive he’s met her before. Maybe during his AA period? Really, why is that period more of a blur than all the years he’s spent drunk or high? She’s in her thirties, has a sly smile, terrific legs, and a very big camera.
They demonstrate some of the equipment for the demon lover, let him try out something called a Trifield Meter. No ghosts here. Even ghosts have better places to be.
He assumes everyone he meets has seen his sex tape. Almost wishes someone would mention it. No one does.
There’s a rank breeze off the lake. Muck and death.
People eat and discuss the missing PA—the gopher—some Juliet person. Meggie says, “She’s a nice kid. Makes Whore-igami in her spare time and sells it on eBay.”
“She makes what?” the demon lover says.
“Whore-igami. Origami porn tableaux. Custom-order stuff.”
“Of course,” the demon lover says. “Big money in that.”
She may have some kind of habit. Meggie mentions this. She may be in the habit of disappearing now and then.
Or she may be wherever all those nudists went. Imagine the ratings then. He doesn’t say this to Meggie.
Meggie says, “I’m happy to see you, Will. Even under the circumstances.”
“Are you?” says the demon lover, smiling, because he’s always smiling. They’re far enough away from the mikes and the cameras that he feels okay about saying this. Pilar, the videographer, is recording Irene, the medium, who is toasting marshmallows. Ray is watching too. Is always somewhere nearby.
Something bites the demon lover’s thigh and he slaps at it.
He could reach out and touch Meggie’s face right now. Through the camera it would be a different story from the one he and Meggie are telling each other. Or she would turn away and it would all be the same story again. He thinks he should have remembered this, all the ways they didn’t work when they were together. Like the joke about the two skunks. When Out is in, In is out. Like the wrong ends of two magnets.
“Of course I’m happy,” Meggie says. “And your timing is eerily good, because I have to talk to you about something.”
“Shoot,” he says.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “How about later? After we’re done here?”
It’s almost full dark now. No moon. Someone has built up a very large fire. The blackened bungalows and the roofless hall melt into obscure and tidy shapes. Now you can imagine yourself back when it was all new, a long time ago. Back in the seventies when nobody cared what you did. When love was free. When you could just disappear if you felt like it, and that was fine and good too.
“So where do I stay tonight?” the demon lover says. Again fights the impulse to touch Meggie’s face. There’s a strand of hair against her lip. Which is he? The pyromaniac or the masochist? In or Out? Well, he’s an actor, isn’t he? He can be anything she wants him to be.
“I’m sure you’ll find somewhere,” Meggie says, a glint in her eye. “Or someone. Pilar has told me more than once you’re the only man she’s ever wanted to fuck.”
“If I had a dollar,” the demon lover says. He still wants to touch her. Wants her to want him to touch her. He remembers now, how this goes.
Meggie says, “If you had a dollar, seventy cents would go to your exes.”
Which is gospel truth. He says, “Fawn signed a prenup.”
“One of the thousand reasons you should go home and fix things,” Meggie says. “She’s a good person. There aren’t so many of those.”
“She’s better off without me,” the demon lover says, trying it out. He’s a little hurt when Meggie doesn’t disagree.
Irene the medium comes over with Pilar and the other videographer. The demon lover can tell Irene doesn’t like him. Sometimes women don’t like him. Rare enough that he always wonders why.
“Shall we get started?” Irene says. “Let’s see if any of our friends are up for a quick chat. Then I don’t know about you, but I’m going to go put on something a little less comfortable.”
Meggie addresses the video camera next. “This will be our final attempt,” she says, “our last chance to contact anyone who is still lingering here, who has unfinished business.”
“You’d think nudists wouldn’t be so shy,” Irene says.
Meggie says, “But even if we don’t reach anyone, today hasn’t been a total loss. All of us have taken a risk. Some of us are sunburned, some of us have bug bites in interesting places, but all of us are a little more comfortable in our own skin. We’ve experienced openness and humanity in a way that these colonists imagined and hoped would lead to a better world. And maybe, for them, it did. We’ve had a good day. And even if the particular souls we came here in search of didn’t show up, someone else did.”
The A2 nods at Will.
Pilar points the camera at him.
He’s been thinking about how to play this. “I’m Will Gald,” he says. “You probably recognize me from previous naked film roles such as the guy rolling around on a hotel room floor clutching his genitals and bleeding profusely.”
He smiles his most lovely smile. “I just happened to be in the area.”
“We persuaded him to stay for a bite,” Meggie says.
“They’ve hidden my clothes,” Will says. “Admittedly, I haven’t been trying that hard to find them. I mean, what’s the worst thing that can happen when you get naked on camera?”
Irene says, “Meggie, one of the things that’s been most important about Who’s There? right from the beginning is that we’ve all had something happen to us that we can’t explain away. We’re all believers. I’ve been meaning to ask, does Will here have a ghost story?”
“I don’t—” the demon lover says. Then pauses. Looks at Meggie.
“I do,” he says. “But surely Meggie’s already told it.”
“I have,” Meggie says. “But I’ve never heard you tell it.”
Oh, there are stories the demon lover could tell.
He says, “I’m here to please.”
“Fantastic,” Irene says. “As you know, every episode we make time for a ghost story or two. Tonight we even have a campfire.” She hesitates. “And of course as our viewers also know, we’re still waiting for Juliet Adeyemi to turn up. She left just before lunch to run errands. We’re not worried yet, but we’ll all be a lot happier when she’s with us again.”
Meggie says, “Juliet, if you’ve met a nice boy and gone off to ride the teacups at Disney World, so help me, I’m going to ask for all the details. Now. Shall we, Irene?”
All around them, people have been clearing away plates of half-eaten barbecue, assembling in a half circle around the campfire. Any minute now they’ll be singing “Kumbaya.” They sit on their little towels. Irene and Meggie take their place in front of the fire. They clasp hands.
The demon lover moves a little farther away, into darkness. He is not interested in séances or ghosts. Here is the line of the shore. Sharp things underfoot. Someone joins him. Ray. Of course.
It is worse, somehow, to be naked in the dark. The world is so big and he is not. Ray is young and he is not. He is pretty sure that Pilar will sleep with him; Meggie will not.
“I know you,” the demon lover says to Ray. “I’ve met you before. Well, not you, the previous you. Yous. You never last. We never last. She moves on. You disappear.”
Ray says nothing. Looks out at the lake.
“I was you,” the demon lover says.
Ray says, “And now? Who are you?”
“You charge by the hour?” the demon lover says. “Why follow me around? I don’t seem to have my wallet on me.”
“Meggie’s busy,” Ray says. “And I’m curious about you. What you think you’re doing here.”
“I came for Meggie,” the demon lover says. “We’re friends. An old friend can come to see an old friend. Some other time I’ll see her again and you won’t be around. I’ll always be around. But you, you’re just some guy who got lucky because you looked like me.”
Ray says, “I love her.”
“Sucks, doesn’t it?” the demon lover says. He goes back to the fire and the naked people waiting for other naked people. Thinks about the story he is meant to tell.
The séance has not been a success. Irene the medium keeps saying that she senses something. Someone is trying to say something.
The dead are here, but also not here. They’re afraid. That’s why they won’t come. Something is keeping them away. There is something wrong here.
“Do you feel it?” she says to Meggie, to the others.
Meggie says, “I feel something. Something is here.”
The demon lover extends himself outward into the night. Lets himself believe for a moment that life goes on. Is something here? There is a smell, the metallic stink of the muck farms. There is an oppressiveness to the air. Is there malice here? An ill wish?
Meggie says, “No one has ever solved the mystery of what happened here. But perhaps whatever happened to them is still present. Irene, could it have some hold on their spirits, whatever is left of them, even in death?”
Irene says, “I don’t know. Something’s wrong here. Something is here. I don’t know.”
But Who’s There? picks up nothing of interest on their equipment, their air-ion counter or their barometer, their EMF detector or EVP detector, their wind chimes or thermal imaging scopes. No one is there.
And so at last it’s time for ghost stories.
There’s one about the men’s room at a trendy Santa Monica restaurant. The demon lover has been there. Had the fries with truffle-oil mayonnaise. Never encountered the ghost. He’s not somebody who sees ghosts and he’s fine with that. Never really liked truffle-oil mayonnaise either. The thing in the bungalow with Meggie wasn’t a ghost. It was drugs, the pressure they were under, the unbearable scrutiny; a folie à deux; the tax on their happiness.
Someone tells the old story about Basil Rathbone and the dinner guest who brings his dogs. Upon departure, the man and his dogs are killed in a car crash just outside Rathbone’s house. Rathbone sees. Is paralyzed with shock and grief. As he stands there, his phone rings—when he picks up, an operator says, “Pardon me, Mr. Rathbone, but there is a woman on the line who says she must speak to you.”
The woman, who is a medium, says that she has a message for him. She says she hopes he will understand the meaning.
“Traveling very fast. No time to say good-bye. There are no dogs here.”
And now it’s the demon lover’s turn. He says: “A long time ago when Meggie and I were together, we bought a bungalow in Venice Beach. We weren’t there very much. We were everywhere else. On junkets. At festivals. We had no furniture. Just a mattress. No dishes. When we were home we ate out of takeout containers.
“But we were happy.” He lets that linger. Meggie watches. Listens. Ray stands beside her. No space between them.
It’s not much fun, telling a ghost story while you’re naked. Telling the parts of the ghost story that you’re supposed to tell. Not telling other parts. While the woman you love stands there with the person you used to be.
“It was a good year. Maybe the best year of my life. Maybe the hardest year, too. We were young and we were stupid and people wanted things from us and we did things we shouldn’t have done. Fill in the blanks however you want. We threw parties. We spent money like water. And we loved each other. Right, Meggie?”
He says, “But I should get to the ghost. I don’t really believe that it was a ghost, but I don’t not believe it was a ghost, either. I’ve never spent much time thinking about it, really. But the more time we spent in that bungalow, the worse things got.”
Irene says, “Can you describe it for us? What happened?”
The demon lover says, “It was a feeling that someone was watching us. That they were somewhere very far away, but they were getting closer. That very soon they would be there with us. It was worse at night. We had bad dreams. Some nights we both woke up screaming.”
Irene says, “What were the dreams about?”
He says, “Not much. Just that it was finally there in the room with us. Eventually it was always there. Eventually whatever it was was in the bed with us. We’d wake up on opposite sides of the mattress because it was there in between us.”
Irene says, “What did you do?”
He says, “When one of us was alone in the bed it wasn’t there. It was there when it was the two of us. Then it would be the three of us. So we got a room at the Chateau Marmont. Only it turned out it was there too. The very first night, it was there too.”
Irene says, “Did you try to talk to it?”
He says, “Meggie did. I didn’t. Meggie thought it was real. I thought we needed therapy. I thought whatever it was, we were doing it. So we tried therapy. That was a bust. So eventually—” he shrugs.
“Eventually what?” Irene says.
“I moved out,” Meggie says.
“She moved out,” he says.
The demon lover wonders if Ray knows the other part of the story, if Meggie has told him that. Of course she hasn’t. Meggie isn’t dumb. The other part is for the two of them, and the demon lover thinks, as he’s thought many times before, that this is what will always hold them together. Not the experience of filming a movie together, of falling in love at the exact same moment that all those other people fell in love with them, that sympathetic magic made up of story and effort, repetition and editing and craft and other people’s desire.
The thing that happened is the thing they can never tell anyone else. It belongs to them. No one else.
“And after that there wasn’t any ghost,” he concludes. “Meggie took a break from Hollywood, went to India. I went to AA meetings.”
It’s gotten colder. The fire has gotten lower. You could, perhaps, imagine that there is a supernatural explanation for these things, but that would be wishful thinking. The missing girl, Juliet, has not returned. The ghost-hunting equipment does not record any presence.
Meggie finds the demon lover with Pilar. She says, “Can we talk?”
“What about?” he says.
Pilar says, “I’ll go get another beer. Want one, Meggie?”
Meggie shakes her head and Pilar wanders off, her hand brushing against the demon lover’s hip as she goes. Flesh against flesh. He turns just a little so he’s facing away from the firelight.
“It’s about the pilot for next season,” Meggie says. “I want to shoot it in Venice Beach, in our old bungalow.”
The demon lover feels something rush over him. Pour into his ears, flood down his throat. He can’t think of what to say. He has been thinking about Ray while he flirts with Pilar. He’s been wondering what would happen if he asked Meggie about Ray. Really, they’ve never talked about this. This thing that she does.
“I’d like you to be in the episode too, of course,” Meggie says.
He says, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think it’s a terrible idea, actually.”
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” Meggie says. “I think it would be good for both of us.”
“Something something closure,” he says. “Yeah, yeah. Something something exposure something possible jail term. Are you insane?”
“Look,” Meggie says. “I’ve already talked to the woman who lives there now. She’s never experienced anything. Will, I need to do this.”
“Of course she hasn’t experienced anything,” the demon lover says. “It wasn’t the house that was haunted.”
His blood is spiky with adrenaline. He looks around to see if anyone is watching. Of course they are. But everyone else is far away enough that the conversation is almost private. He’s surprised Meggie didn’t spring this on him on camera. Think of the drama. The conflict. The ratings.
“You believe in this stuff,” he says, finally. Trying to find what will persuade her. “So why won’t you leave it alone? You know what happened. We know what happened. You know what the story is. Why the fuck do you need to know more?” He’s whispering now.
“Because every time we’re together, she’s here with us,” Meggie says. “Didn’t you know that? She’s here now. Don’t you feel her?”
Hair stands up on his legs, his arms, the back of his neck. His mouth is dry, his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth. “No,” he says. “I don’t.”
Meggie says, “You know I would be careful, Will. I would never do anything to hurt you. And it doesn’t work like that, anyway.” She leans in close, says very quietly, “It isn’t about us. This is for me. I just want to talk to her. I just want her to go away.”
(1992) They acquire the trappings of a life, he and Meggie. They buy dishes and mid-century modern furniture and lamps. They acquire friends who are in the business, and throw parties. On occasion things happen at their parties. For example, there is the girl. She arrives with someone. They never find out who. She is about as pretty as you would expect a girl at one of their parties to be, which is to say that she is really very pretty.
After all this time, the demon lover doesn’t really remember what she looked like. There were a lot of girls and a lot of parties and that was another country.
She had long black hair. Big eyes.
He and Meggie are both wasted. And the girl is into both of them and eventually it’s the three of them, everyone else is gone, there’s a party going on somewhere else, they stay, she stays, and everyone else leaves. They drink and there’s music and they dance. Then the girl is kissing Meggie and he is kissing the girl and they’re in the bedroom. It’s a lot of fun. They do pretty much everything you can do with three people in a bed. And at some point the girl is between them and everyone is having a good time, they’re having fun, and then the girl says to them, Bite me.
Come on, bite me.
He bites her shoulder and she says, No, really bite me. Bite harder. I want you to really bite me. Bite me, please. And suddenly he and Meggie are looking at each other and it isn’t fun anymore. This isn’t what they’re into.
He finishes as quickly as he can, because he’s almost there anyway. And the girl is still begging, still asking for something they can’t give her, because it isn’t real and vampires aren’t real and it’s a distasteful situation and so Meggie asks the girl to leave. She does and they don’t talk about it. They just go to sleep. And they wake up just a little bit later because she’s snuck back into the house, they find out later that she’s broken a window, and she’s slashed her wrists. She’s holding out her bloody wrists and she’s saying, Please, here’s my blood, please drink it. I want you to drink my blood. Please.
They get her bandaged up. The cuts aren’t too deep. Meggie calls her agent, Pike, and Pike arranges for someone to take the girl to a private clinic. He tells them not to worry about any of it. It turns out that the girl is fifteen. Of course she is. Pike calls them again, after this girl gets out of the clinic, when she commits suicide. She has a history of attempts. Try, try, succeed.
The demon lover does not talk to Meggie again, because Pilar—who is naked—they are both naked, everyone is naked of course—but Pilar is really quite lovely and fun to talk to and the camera work on this show is really quite exquisite and she likes the demon lover a lot. Keeps touching him. She says she has a bottle of Maker’s Mark back in one of the cabins and he’s already drunker than he’s been in a while. Turns out they did meet once, in an AA meeting in Silverlake.
They have a good time. Really, sex is a lot of fun. The demon lover suspects that there’s some obvious psychological diagnosis for why he’s having sex with Pilar, some need to reenact recent history and make sure it comes out better this time. The last girl with a camera didn’t turn out so well for him. When exactly, he wonders, have things turned out well?
Afterward they lie on their backs on the dirty cement floor. Pilar says, “My girlfriend is never going to believe this.”
He wonders if she’s going to ask for an autograph.
Pilar’s been sharing the cabin with the missing girl, Juliet. There’s Whore-igami all over the cabin. Men and women and men and men and women and women in every possible combination, doing things that ought to be erotic. But they aren’t; they’re menacing instead. Maybe it’s the straight lines.
The demon lover and Pilar get dressed in case Juliet shows up.
“Well,” Pilar says from her bunk bed, “good night.”
He takes Juliet’s bunk. Lies there in the dark until he’s sure Pilar’s asleep. He is thinking about Fawn for some reason. He can’t stop thinking about her. If he stops thinking about her, he will have to think about the conversation with Meggie. He will have to think about Meggie. Pilar’s iPhone is on the floor beside her bunk bed. He picks it up. No password. He types in Fawn’s number. Sends her a text. Hardly knows what he is typing.
I HOPE, he writes.
He writes the most awful things. Doesn’t know why he is doing this. Perhaps she will assume that it is a wrong number. He types in details, specific things, so she will know it’s not.
Eventually she texts back.
WHO IS THIS? WILL?
The demon lover doesn’t respond to that. Just keeps texting FILTHY BITCH YOU CUNT YOU WHORE YOU SLIME etc. Etc. Etc. Until she stops asking. Surely she knows who he is. She must know who he is.
Here’s the thing about acting, about a scene, about a character; about the dialogue you are given, the things your character does. None of it matters. You can take the most awful words, all the words, all the names, the acts he types into the text block. You can say these things, and the way you say them can change the meaning. You can say, “You dirty bitch. You cunt,” and say them differently each time; you can make it a joke, an endearment, a cry for help, a seduction. You can kill, be a vampire, a soulless thing. The audience will love you no matter what you do. If you want them to love you. Some of them will always love you.
He needs air. He drops the phone on the floor again where Pilar will find it in the morning. Decides to walk down to the lake. He will have to go past Meggie’s trailer on the way, only he doesn’t. Instead he stands there watching as a shadow slips out of the door of the trailer and down the stairs and away. Going where? Almost not there at all.
He could follow. But he doesn’t.
He wonders if Meggie is awake. The door to her trailer is off the latch, and so the demon lover steps inside.
Makes his way to her bedroom, no lights, she is not awake. He will do no harm. Only wants to see her safe and sleeping. An old friend can go to see an old friend.
Meggie’s a shape in the bed and he comes closer so he can see her face. There is someone in the bed with Meggie.
Ray looks at the demon lover and the demon lover looks back at Ray. Ray’s right hand rests on Meggie’s breast. Ray raises the other hand, beckons to the demon lover.
The next morning is what you would predict. The crew of Who’s There? packs up to leave; Pilar discovers the text messages on her phone.
Did I do that? the demon lover says. I was drunk. I may have done that. Oh God, oh hell, oh fuck. He plays his part.
This may get messy. Oh, he knows how messy it can get. Pilar can make some real money with those texts. Fawn, if she wants, can use them against him in the divorce.
He doesn’t know how he gets into these situations.
Fawn has called Meggie. So there’s that as well. Meggie waits to talk to him until almost everyone else has packed up and gone; it’s early afternoon now. Really, he should already have left. He has things he’ll need to do. Decisions to make about flights, a new phone. He needs to call his publicist, his agent. Time for them to earn their keep. He likes to keep them busy.
Ray is off somewhere. The demon lover isn’t too sorry about this.
It’s not a fun conversation.
They’re up in the parking lot now, and one of the crew, he doesn’t recognize her with her clothes on, says to Meggie, “Need a lift?”
“I’ve got the thing in Tallahassee tomorrow, the morning show,” Meggie says. “Got someone picking me up any minute now.”
“‘Kay,” the woman says. “See you in San Jose.” She gives the demon lover a dubious look—is Pilar already talking?—and then gets in her car and drives away.
“San Jose,” the demon lover says.
“Yeah,” Meggie says. “The Winchester House.”
“Huh,” the demon lover says. He doesn’t really care. He’s tired of this whole thing, Meggie, the borrowed T-shirt and cargo shorts, Lake Apopka, no-show ghosts and bad publicity.
He knows what’s coming. Meggie rips into him. He lets her. There’s no point trying to talk to women when they get like this. He stands there and takes it all in. When she’s finally done, he doesn’t bother trying to defend himself. What’s the good of saying things? He’s so much better at saying things when there’s a script to keep him from deep water. There’s no script here.
Of course he and Meggie will patch things up eventually. Old friends forgive old friends. Nothing is unforgivable. He’s wondering if this is untrue when a car comes into the meadow.
“Well,” Meggie says. “That’s my ride.”
She waits for him to speak and when he doesn’t, she says, “Good-bye, Will.”
“I’ll call you,” the demon lover says at last. “It’ll be okay, Meggie.”
“Sure,” Meggie says. She’s not really making much of an effort. “Call me.”
She gets into the back of the car. The demon lover bends over, waves at the window where she is sitting. She’s looking straight ahead. The driver’s window is down, and okay, here’s Ray again. Of course! He looks out at the demon lover. He raises an eyebrow, smiles, waves with that hand again, need a ride?
The demon lover steps away from the car. Feels a sense of overwhelming disgust and dread. A cloud of blackness and horror comes over him, something he hasn’t felt in many, many years. He recognizes the feeling at once.
And that’s that. The car drives away with Meggie inside it. The demon lover stands in the field for some period of time, he is never sure how long. Long enough that he is sure he will never catch up with the car with Meggie in it. And he doesn’t.
There’s a storm coming in.
The thing is this: Meggie never turns up for the morning show in Tallahassee. The other girl, Juliet Adeyemi, does reappear, but nobody ever sees Meggie again. She just vanishes. Her body is never found. The demon lover is a prime suspect in her disappearance. Of course he is. But there is no proof. No evidence.
No one is ever charged.
And Ray? When the demon lover explains everything to the police, to the media, on talk shows, he tells the same story over and over again. I went to see my old friend Meggie. I met her lover, Ray. They left together. He drove the car. But no one else supports this story. There is not a single person who will admit that Ray exists. There is not a frame of video with Ray in it. Ray was never there at all, no matter how many times the demon lover explains what happened. They say, What did he look like? Can you describe him? And the demon lover says, He looked like me.
As he is waiting for the third or maybe the fourth time to be questioned by the police, the demon lover thinks about how one day they will make a movie about all of this. About Meggie. But of course he will be too old to play the demon lover.
Kelly Link is the author of the collections Get in Trouble, Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters. She and Gavin J. Grant have coedited a number of anthologies, including multiple volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and, for young adults, Monstrous Affections. She is the co-founder of Small Beer Press. Her short stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. She has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Link was born in Miami, Florida, and currently lives with her husband and daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts.