Do you know what today is?
The click of the lock feels wrong under Kate’s hand. Everything is shut tight and in its place, and that is right, but she can still hear voices coming from the south-end classrooms. There is still a ghost of daylight creeping down the corridor.
She’d let her friend Marty talk her into a double date the night before. The man—another math professor, an auditor, something like that—was forgettable, but the chocolate martinis were legendary. She’d had enough of them to lose count, and now she is feeling every one. She is tired. She is done with Thursday.
But she almost never leaves work this early.
Do you know what today is?
She’s been asking the question all day, silently, maliciously. She asked it behind every half-smile, fired it with every curt reply. How are you? Fine. Plans for the weekend? No. Do you know what today is? Even when she was alone the question rolled around in her head like a mantra, ridiculous because of course she knows and of course no one else does.
If it’s unspoken, she can almost pretend it isn’t real.
She pulls on her gloves. A veil of slow, heavy snowflakes hangs over the street outside Pickard Hall.
For the first year after her father died, Kate knew exactly how many days he’d been gone. She never had to think about it, it was just there every morning like the weather report on a clock radio. Good morning! Today is day 208 and a balmy seventy-four degrees!
But after the first anniversary came and went, she put that incessant voice into a dark room, bound and gagged it, and locked the door behind her.
Now she is just counting years.
She steps out into the cold.
Counting anniversaries is normal. It’s what people do. A way of taking note that, look, we’ve survived another year.
And she’d thought, for a whole year, that she was as close to normal as could be expected. She thought she was moving on. Yet when she opened her eyes this morning, the voice was there to greet her. Good morning! Do you know what today is?
The snow has only been falling for an hour or so, but already the sidewalks and parking lots are littered with slush. University foot-traffic has carved out slippery, interlocking trails on the sidewalks and crosswalks. She makes her way to the traffic light on the corner thinking, Do you know? Do you know?
It would have been easier and quicker to walk home along Main Street, but she chooses a path through a service lot between the math and language buildings. The snow here is still untouched; doors remained closed, windows dark. She takes deliberate steps, feeling the crunch of snow under her shoes.
The alley between Lafayette and Brown opens onto the crest of a hill. She pauses as she clears the buildings, struck by quiet beauty in the courtyard below, where brick and concrete have been transformed into a valley of white. Even the fountain at the center of the courtyard seems to be part of another landscape, and the edges of the benches and walls are softened by snow.
But what captures her attention is not the winter tableau. It is the people in the middle of it. Two of them, a man and a woman, though their forms are dark and blurred so that she can’t tell for sure where one ends and the other begins. They are tucked inside each other’s coats, doing nothing but looking at one another while the snow falls around them.
She waits to see how long it will take for them to move, thinking that at any moment they will laugh and stroll away. But they don’t. They just stand there. So she just stands there.
After a few minutes, she blinks to dislodge snowflakes from her lashes. They sting her eyes and melt like tears on her cheeks.
In the courtyard, the man pulls his hand from the woman’s coat and wipes her face. He smoothes the snow from her hair and brings his fingers to his lips.
Watching from the hill, she feels something stir inside her—loneliness, jealousy, anger, regret—it’s been so long since she felt anything besides numb that she can’t match a name to the emotion. It is gone before she can claim it, and later she will only be able to recall one thought with any clarity:
The giant neon martini glass blinked slowly back and forth, beckoning with each downswing toward a set of stairs that disappeared below the street. The sign on the awning proclaimed, “The Glass Menagerie—Piano Lounge and Martini Palace.”
Kate rechecked her phone. “Corner Marquis/Filbert,” the message said. “7PM.”
With a sigh, Kate left her Jeep and hurried across the street. She had only a light, knee-length jacket and no umbrella. She held her purse over her head, but she was soaked anyway by the time she reached the awning. With her skirt pasted to her legs and her hair stuck in reddish-brown clumps against her neck, Kate’s mood dissolved before she even opened the door.
She was met by the clink of piano chords, sharp and resonant as ice in a glass.
Kate watched her feet on the glittery floor, convinced she would slip and break an ankle and spend the rest of the night in a crowded Philadelphia emergency room.
The bartender was a tall, bald man with cinnamon-colored skin and a diamond stud in his nose. He smiled as she placed her order—a rum and coke, heavy on the rum. “My cousin has a husky with eyes like yours,” he said, flipping a bottle from under the bar with showmanship that was wasted on Kate. “Kinda…smoky? Hazy? What would you call that?”
“Gray.” Kate put her money on the bar and turned away from him.
The Glass Menagerie was a long, narrow room with black booths and mirrored walls. There were a dozen patrons or so, most of them elderly. Kate let her attention wander over their heads. She took in the Menagerie’s strange interplay of mirrors and lights, and the speakers among the rafters that dripped piano music into all corners of the bar. The only actual piano in the place that Kate could see was tucked under a sheet beside a service door.
The bartender left Kate’s drink by her elbow and wandered off. Kate tasted it—the alcohol was weak, but she gulped it down without comment. Then she waited, swiveling the ice around and around with her miniature straw.
By the time Marty burst in, beaming with excitement, there was little more than water in the bottom of Kate’s glass.
Marty’s white-blonde hair gleamed under the lights. Her smile, too, was incandescent, full of perfect white teeth—a mouth straight out of a toothpaste commercial. It hurt Kate to look at her. She spun her stool so that her back was to her friend, though she could still hear the quick click-clack of Marty’s high heels on the tiles.
Marty had no fear of falling.
Sliding out of her silver trench coat, Marty hopped onto the stool beside Kate. “He’s here,” she said, breathless.
“He was right behind me when I came around the corner. I know it was him. I have a sense for these things. Where did you park, by the way? I didn’t see the Jeep.”
“In the lot across the street. He who?”
“There’s a lot across the street? Damn it. What are you drinking?”
“Rum and coke.”
“In a martini bar?”
Marty motioned to the bartender. “My friend will have—”
“Rum and coke,” Kate interjected.
“—another rum and coke.” Marty raked him with her stunning green eyes. “I’ll have something more creative. Will you surprise me?”
The bartender gave her a sly grin. “You’ll be astounded.”
Kate watched the exchange with boredom. She had witnessed a hundred just like it. Marty had a fondness for young, handsome men, and all men had a fondness for Marty. She was a bit past her prime, perhaps, but still poised and perfect in every way, from the tips of her open-toed pumps to the glimmering droplets of rain on her brow. Kate thought it was unfair that Marty was also an esteemed professor—not that anyone would have guessed it outside of a classroom.
Marty sank back onto her stool. Her lips parted to make a comment, but then she caught sight of someone at the door. She closed her mouth and pointed with a perfectly manicured finger.
He did not look up as he made his way through the bar. Average height, average build. White tie. Black jacket, zipped at the bottom and puffed out from his body. Shock of dark hair flipped up by the wind. He had the appearance of some rare waterfowl, bustling in for shelter from the storm.
He settled in a booth in the far corner of the bar, ducking his head as he sat down, though there wasn’t anything to avoid hitting. His hair was thinning on top, with a gleaming white rift of skin down the middle of his head.
Kate frowned. “Who is he?”
Marty leaned closer, her voice dropping to a dramatic whisper. “He’s your seven o’clock.”
Kate put her empty glass on the bar, hard.
“It’s not what you think,” Marty began.
“You set me up? I sat in rush-hour traffic for an hour for another freaking blind date?” Kate glanced at the stranger for emphasis. “With a penguin man, no less?”
Marty laughed. “He’s a psychic.”
“Penguin Man has a ten-week waiting list. I planned ahead for this, Red. You should be impressed.”
A waitress approached the man’s booth with a glass of dark beer and a handful of wet naps. He acknowledged her with a terse nod and used one of the wipes to scrub down the glass. The others he placed at the edge of the table.
“A psychic,” Kate repeated.
After a sip of beer, the man reached into his coat pocket for a small spiral notepad. After the notebook came a pen and a watch. He put them all, with the stack of wipes, in a line at the end of the table. Then he took off his coat, folded it, and placed it next to him in the booth.
“He doesn’t look like a psychic.”
“How do you know what a psychic looks like?”
“He looks like an accountant.” Kate downed her second drink, which the bartender had delivered while visually assaulting Marty. “Are you sure he isn’t one of your Department pets?”
“He’s the real thing.”
“Why, does he have his own talk show?”
“The guys at school swear by him.”
“Why are a bunch of mathematicians visiting psychics? Doesn’t that defy the natural order of things?”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a reading with this man? They say he knows specifics. Like your mother’s name, your secret crush, that thing you do with your shower head…”
“No one knows what I do with my shower head.”
“Look. I’m excited it’s your birthday. Twenty-eight is a great age. It certainly was for me,” Marty added with a smirk. “I wanted to do something special for you. Like a…” She paused, rolling her fingers in a fill-in-the-blank gesture. “…a rite of passage. Isn’t that what they call it in your neck of the woods?”
“Anthropologists will use anything as an excuse to drink. And it’s very sweet, Marty, but why would I need a psychic?”
“Everyone needs a psychic, Kate.”
“To see the future? To understand the past?”
“I live in the present.”
“And look how well that’s working out for you.” Marty made a chirping sound and checked at her watch. “Anyway, for the next thirty minutes, he’s yours. Use your imagination.”
Kate turned to look at the man again. Her whole body was beginning to tingle. The drinks must have been stronger than she thought.
The psychic glanced up at the sound of her approach but avoided meeting her eyes. “Quinn?”
“Hi.” Kate held out her hand, but the psychic ignored it. He drew a line through her name in the tiny notebook, the first in a column of meticulous penmanship.
“So how does this work?” Kate asked, withdrawing her hand. She didn’t see any tarot cards among his paraphernalia. No crystals. She suspected palm-reading was out.
“I will need something of yours. Something you often touch. Perhaps a piece of jewelry.” His words were not a response to her question so much as a recitation. She might as well not even have spoken.
“Do not say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ during the reading,” he continued. “If you think of something you want to ask, write it down. You should have something to write with, to take notes. Were you apprised of this when you set the appointment?”
He flipped to the back of his notebook, tore out three small pages, and passed them to her with the nub of his pen.
Kate laid her hand on the pages. As she moved, light from a hanging lamp flashed on the bracelet she was wearing. The psychic pointed to it.
“No,” she said, pulling her hand into her lap.
They sat for a moment in awkward silence, until Kate plucked at the gold clip that held back her bangs. “Will this work?”
The psychic waggled his fingers.
Kate unsnapped the clip and handed it to him, noting that he avoided any contact with her skin. He turned the clip over and over in his hands.
She watched his fingers, enchanted. They were long and graceful, darting over the angles of her barrette as if it were an instrument. As if he could make it sing.
He closed his eyes. Kate fidgeted with her hair. It had begun to dry under the hot lights, turning from dark auburn to light copper. She saw that a single strand of it still clung to the barrette. The psychic did not appear to notice. In his hands, her hair glowed like fire.
“You live alone.”
Lucky guess. Under the table, Kate’s fingers twisted in knots.
“You are closed. It makes reading difficult.”
“You are not honest. Not with others, not with yourself. You are unable to let others know how you feel, but it is imperative that you learn to communicate. Having a focus or a goal, being centered and committed will help you to break free from stagnation.”
The psychic’s voice was flat and impersonal. Perhaps he had recited these lines a thousand times—yet his knuckles were white with tension. He fell silent again for an uncomfortable length of time.
“I see you under lights,” he said finally.
Kate glanced up at the bright white lights over their table.
“On a stage, perhaps,” the psychic added, “but this was a long time ago.” His grip on the barrette loosened. “That is not your true place.”
“What is my true place?”
The psychic opened his eyes and, for the first time, met hers. A deep, penetrating blue, his gaze made her feel like she was falling.
No wonder he doesn’t look at anyone.
“You have a sister,” he said. “She has darkness over the center of her. She should see a doctor. She will be all right.” He put down Kate’s barrette and took a long sip from his beer.
Kate blinked. “Is that it?”
“What’s wrong with my sister?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“No. I’m not a doctor. I don’t presume to diagnose. I only describe what I see.”
“Is it a tumor?”
“I don’t know. Do you have any other questions?”
“You tell me.”
“That’s never funny.”
Kate rolled her eyes toward the black and white movie posters framed on the wall above their heads. “Don’t you have anything else? What about ‘tall, dark, and handsome’? Isn’t that a requirement?”
“Would you like me to tell you a fiction?”
“A fiction?” Kate scoffed. “Is that really all you get from me?”
“What if you touch something else? What if you touch my hand?”
The psychic took a deep swallow of his beer. “I’m sorry. Perhaps, if you have another object…”
“I have a purse.” Kate declared this more forcefully than she had intended, but suddenly it was very important that this man find something significant to tell her. She unzipped it, rifled through its contents. Tissues. Checkbook. A small canister of mace.
She withdrew a rubber key chain emblazoned with the University of Delaware logo: an enthusiastic chicken smiling inside a blue “U.” As soon as it was in her hand she knew she’d given him a clue that he could use to try to impress her, but there was no undoing it. Maybe he’d just assume she was an alumna. “I have keys,” she said lamely.
Or maybe he’d think she was a student. People often assumed she was younger than she was, with her button nose and light splash of freckles. “I use them every day,” she added. “Well, mostly. Most of them. Will that work?”
“Work keys,” he said. He flipped through the keys on her chain as if it were a waiting-room magazine. There were quite a few work keys. Reception. Office key. Dick’s office. Supply closet. Media. Archives.
“You are not challenged by your work. You should consider picking up a hobby.”
“Maybe I should take up psychometry.”
She saw a flash of dark blue beneath his lashes. “One of these keys is to a mailbox that isn’t yours anymore.”
Kate frowned at that, thinking. He was talking again before she could decide if he was right.
His fingers curled around the key to her Jeep. “When was the last time you had your tires rotated?”
“Most guys buy me drinks first.”
“These are house keys.” Still that bored, expressionless tone. “You pay too much, but you can’t bring yourself to move. A Middle Eastern man will be moving in next door to you by the end of the summer. You will be afraid of him, but you don’t have to be afraid. You have a cat.” He opened his eyes. “It doesn’t care for you.”
Kate stared. “What kind of quack are you?”
“Penguins don’t quack.”
Kate bit her bottom lip. The psychic regarded her, his piercing blue eyes fixed on hers. For an instant, she felt a heat far stronger than what burned in the overhead lights. It reached inside her, tentative, and then it was gone.
The psychic lowered his eyes and gently laid Kate’s keys on the table. “Some people don’t read very well,” he said. “It happens. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, that you have no future, that you’re about to die. Sometimes there just isn’t much to tell.”
Kate felt his words like a kick in the stomach. Deflated, she examined the small clutter of objects on the table.
The psychic cleared his throat. “If you like, you can call my receptionist’s line in the morning.” From the notebook on the table he withdrew a business card and slid it to toward her. “I can refund the sitting fee, minus the initial deposit.”
“It’s all right,” she answered.
Folding her hands in her lap, Kate felt the braided silver band around her wrist. She gave the bracelet a thoughtful twist. After a moment’s hesitation, she slid it off and pushed it across the table. “Try this.”
At first the psychic did not respond. He considered the bracelet, his look unreadable. Kate thought he would refuse. Her fingers closed in a fist that she hid in her lap.
When he picked it up, the psychic’s words came much faster than before. “Flowers. Roses, orchids. Lilies. Always flowers, but never romance. Never passion. A man with glasses. Mark. Michael?” His fingers massaged the silver coils, moving from clasp to plate and back again. “And a ‘J’ name. Possibly ‘G.’” One eyebrow rose in a question. “And never the twain shall meet?”
The psychic opened his hand and let the bracelet rest in the valley below his lowest finger joints. “Love,” he said, grimacing. “Common emotions have a texture to them. Love is oil, a…a sweaty palm. This thing is slick with love. But it isn’t yours,” he said.
Kate let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Of course it’s mine.”
Again the psychic looked her in the eye. Kate wondered what he was thinking, and why she suddenly believed he knew far more about her than he let on.
“What do you see?” Kate demanded.
He put the bracelet back on the table. With the tip of his finger, he pushed it away. “I don’t think I’m the one to help you.”
“I don’t think you’re trying very hard to earn your fee. Maybe I should ask for that refund.”
The psychic picked up his beer and brought it to his lips, but did not drink. He spoke to it. “It’s rare for a psychic to see something that isn’t already obvious,” he said. “It’s just that most people are unwilling to see the truth without having it pointed out to them.” He peered at Kate over the rim of the glass. “Most people cherish their secrets.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Sometimes a psychic is just an excuse to bring things out into the light.”
“I don’t need an excuse.” Kate’s voice felt rough in her throat. “I don’t have anything to… I’m not even the one who made this appointment.”
“What do you need?”
Kate shook her head. “I don’t…” She paused. “Well, I sure as hell don’t need to be brought into the light.”
Kate grabbed for the bracelet just as the psychic reached again for his beer. Their hands collided in the middle of the table. The psychic pulled back as if he’d been burned.
“I think you do,” he said. “But I can’t do it for you.”
“Well, what did he say?” Marty asked as Kate ushered her out of the bar. The rain had stopped, leaving the night cold and damp, but clear.
“I have to, um… I have to call my sister, Annamarie, in California.”
“The one with the rich husband? Why?”
“He says she’s sick. He says she’ll be all right if she sees a doctor, but…I should call her.”
“That’s fantastic. I mean, fantastic that he can see something like that. That’s good, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Did he actually say California?”
“I think so.”
“Fantastic,” Marty said again, tripping over the curb.
They were silent for a moment as Kate unlocked her Jeep and climbed in. She heaved her purse onto the passenger seat.
“Are you sure you’re all right to get home?”
“I’m fine,” Marty said, with an angelic smile. “Are you sure you want to go home? It’s still early.”
“I have to go.”
“Did you like it, Red?”
“Yes. Thank you,” Kate added, as an afterthought.
Marty paused by the open door. “What else did he tell you?”
Kate sighed. She turned the ignition a little too much, causing the engine to squawk in protest. “Tall, dark, and handsome,” she said.
“Perfect! So…happy birthday, hon.”
“Thanks,” Kate said.
Marty stepped back onto the sidewalk and waved. Kate shut her out with a firm yank of the door.
It’s hard to know what to do with a novel like To the Touch, which is probably why it’s still sitting here with me, brooding. Casting dark looks. Throwing back shots.
The main character, Kate, is not immediately likeable—she’s acerbic and standoffish, she lies, and she has serious boundary issues. Also, she talks to her dead father and she doesn’t take very good care of her cat.
To the Touch has something of an identity problem. It’s women’s fiction, sort of, about a single woman’s struggles with love, work, and family—but it’s also about heavy things, like grief. Trauma. Mental illness. But also it’s funny, if sometimes inappropriately so. Also, it’s a ghost story. Maybe. Weird things happen, anyway. So we’ll call it “interstitial.” Clear as mud.
To the Touch is a long book, but its 112,000 words don’t line up from start to finish. Kate’s story unfolds in bits and pieces, through flashbacks, hallucinations, and dreams, in a manner meant to leave the reader feeling, like Kate, a little unbalanced.
At heart, though, To the Touch is a novel about survival and hope. All the weird and dark stuff is heading…somewhere. Honest.
My influences include The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler’s Wife—heartfelt stories that combine literary intensity with genre elements such as magical realism and nonlinear storytelling. I could also point to darkly humorous fiction with flawed protagonists, like Anne Lamott’s Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series, or TV’s House. The drug-induced hallucinations and dream states of House’s fifth season are reminiscent of the surrealism I was going for with To the Touch.
This was an incredibly difficult novel to write, both because of the personal archaeology involved and because it took so long to get it right (eight years). It’s been hard, too, shopping it around in an impersonal market. Still, I consider its existence a victory.
I have faith that Kate will find her way.
Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook, Undoing Winter. Her writing has earned recognition by the Writers of the Future Contest and the Delaware Division of the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship for literature, and has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Persistent Visions, Pseudopod, Literary Mama, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. In between writing, parenting, and other madness, Shannon is also an officer for the Science Fiction Poetry Association, a poetry editor for Devilfish Review, and the founding editor of Riddled with Arrows, a literary journal dedicated to metafiction, metapoetry, and writing that celebrates the process and product of writing as art.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017