Today I have Katherine Howe back on my blog with an extract from her latest book, The Appearance Of Annie Van Sideren and a giveaway!!
It's July in New York City, and aspiring filmmaker Wes Auckerman has just arrived to start his summer term at NYU. While shooting a seance at a psychic's in the East Village, he meets a mysterious, intoxicatingly beautiful girl named Annie. As they start spending time together, Wes finds himself falling for her, drawn to her rose-petal lips and her entrancing glow. There's just something about her that he can't put his finger on, something faraway and otherworldly that compels him to fall even deeper. Annie's from the city, and yet she seems just as out of place as Wes feels. Lost in the chaos of the busy city streets, she's been searching for something-a missing ring. And now Annie is running out of time and needs Wes's help. As they search together, Annie and Wes uncover secrets lurking around every corner, secrets that will reveal the truth of Annie's dark past.
I ’ve been having trouble with time lately. But I must have been thinking about her even before Tyler said anything.
“Would you tell her to sit down?” Tyler hisses.
He’s squinting through the eyepiece of the camera that we’ve signed out from the AV department supply closet. It’s a 16 millimeter, so it’s not like there was a waiting list or anything. I’m not even sure they’d notice if we forgot to bring it back. In fact, it’s possible Tyler’s not planning to bring it back. Pretty soon they’re going to be collector’s items. I wonder what one would go for on eBay? A lot, I bet.
“What?” I whisper back.
“Her. That girl. She’s blocking the shot.”
“What girl?” I crane my neck, looking, and the hair on my arms rises. At first I don’t see who he means. It’s too crowded, and I’m too far back in the corner.
“Her. Look.” Tyler gestures for me to come look with an impatient crook of his finger.
The room we’re in is not much bigger than my bedroom back home, and crossing it without accidentally groping somebody is going to be tough. It’s packed with, like, twenty people, all milling around and turning off their cell phones and moving folding chairs to get close to the table in the center. Red velvet curtains cover the walls. It should be bright, because the picture window faces the Bowery, but the window has a velvet curtain, too. Even the glass door to the town house’s stairwell is taped over with black construction paper. There’s a cash register on a counter off to the side, one of those antique ones that rings when the drawer opens. And there’s a door to nowhere behind the cash register, behind a plastic potted plant. That’s where Tyler’s set up the tripod.
The only light in the room comes from candles, making everything hazy. A few candles drip from sconces on the wall, too. Other than that, and a cheap Oriental carpet latticed with moth holes, there’s not much going on.
I don’t know what Tyler thinks is going to happen. We’re each supposed to make our own short film to screen in summer school workshop, and Tyler’s determined to produce some masterpiece of filmic experimentation that will explode narrative convention and reframe visual media for a new generation. Or else he just thinks using Jurassic format will get him an easy A, I don’t know.
I pull the headphones off my ears and nest the boom mike against the wall behind where I’m standing, in the corner farthest from the door. I’m worried something’s going to happen to the equipment and Tyler will find a way to make me pay for it, which I cannot under any circumstances afford. I’m disentangling myself from headphone cords and everything and accidentally bump the back of some woman’s head with my elbow. She turns around in her seat and glares at me.
Sorry, I mouth at her.
I keep one eye on the microphone, as if staring hard at it will prevent it from falling over, as I edge around to where Tyler’s waiting.
The air in here has the gross, wet summer feeling of too many people all breathing in a room with no air-conditioning. My hair is slick with sweat. I can feel the dampness in my armpits, too, a fetid droplet trickling every so often down my side. I really hope I don’t smell. I didn’t start wearing deodorant ’til sophomore year of high school, when one of the coaches pulled me aside for a talk so mortifying I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.
It’s a more diverse group than I’d expected in this room. Mom types in khakis, a couple of panhandler guys in army surplus jackets and weedy beards, a girl with tattoos snaking around her neck and straight 1950s bangs, and at least one guy in a suit, like a banker. There’s a black guy in a Rangers jersey and saggy jeans. One really young girl with a hard-gelled ponytail, here with her baby. I’m surprised she’d want to bring a baby here, but there’s no telling with people sometimes. Some of them exude the sharp pickled smell that people get when they’ve been drinking for a very, very long time.
I’m climbing monkeylike around the room, trying and failing not to get in everybody’s way, and the woman sitting in the middle, who owns the place, gives me a sour look because I’m being so disruptive.
“The angle should be fine from where you are,” I whisper to Tyler when I reach his corner. “Yeah, no kidding, but she’s completely blocking the shot.” Tyler pops a stick of gum in his mouth, which he does whenever he wants a cigarette but can’t have one. Or so he says. I don’t think he really smokes.
“We’re going to begin,” the woman in the turban intones, and all the people start settling down and putting their phones away.
The camera’s on a tripod, angled down over the circle of heads, right at the center of the table. The table itself is like a folding card table, but everyone’s crowded around it, so at least a dozen pairs of hands are resting there. It’s covered in a black velvet cloth, and between the knotted fingers are a couple of crystals, one polished glass ball that looks like a big paperweight, a plastic indicator pointer thing from a Ouija board, a dish of incense, and some tea lights. The incense is smoking, hanging a haze over everything, like the smoke that drifts after Fourth of July fireworks.
It’s a total firetrap in here. I don’t know why I agreed to come. But Tyler was dead set on getting footage of a séance for his workshop film. I don’t know why we couldn’t have just staged one with some kids from our dorm. That would have been easier. And he’s not a documentarian, anyway.
Not like me.
“Spirits are fragile beings,” the woman in the turban continues in a fake-sounding accent, and everyone but us leans in closer to listen. “They can only hear us when they’re ready. When the right person goes looking for them. We must be very serious and respectful.” “Look,” Tyler insists, plucking at my T-shirt. The woman glares at him, but he doesn’t pay any attention. He comes down off the footstool that we brought and gestures with a lift of his chin for me to confirm what he sees.
“I’m telling you, man, I’m sure it’s fine,” I whisper as I step up on the stool and screw my eye socket onto the eyepiece of the camera. But when I look, a weird crawling sensation spreads across the back of my neck. It’s so intense, I reach up and rub my hand over the skin to get rid of it.
At first it’s hard to tell what I’m looking at. We’ve put a Tiffen Pro-Mist filter on the camera, for extra artistic effects or something, and my pupil dilates with a dull ache when my eye goes from the orange glow of the room to the softened pastel outlines in the filter. It looks like Tyler might have framed the shot too narrowly. He’s aimed the camera right on the woman’s hands in the middle, so it should be showing me her knuckles wrapped around a glass ball, next to a tea light ringed in halos of pink scattered light. But all I can see is what looks like a close-up of the black velvet tablecloth.
“Can we talk to, like, anyone we want?” the girl in the gelled ponytail asks at the same time that I say, “Dude,” while reaching up to readjust the angle. “You’re in way too tight. That’s the problem.”
“Bullshit I am,” says Tyler. “She got in my way.”
“Shhhhh!” One of the mom types tries to shush us.
“Who did?” I ask Tyler. I zoom out about 10 percent and then pan slowly across the tabletop, using the tripod handle like Professor Krauss taught us, expecting any second to stumble across one of the crystals magnified to the size of a truck. Tyler thinks he knows how to use this equipment, but I’m starting to have my doubts.
“I beg your pardon,” the woman in the middle interrupts us. “Are you boys almost finished?” “Just about,” Tyler says, raising his voice. “Thirty seconds.”
To me, he hisses, “Don’t screw up my shot, man. I’ve got it all set up.”
Like hell you do, I think but don’t say.
“Spirits who are at peace cannot be disturbed,” the woman goes on, trying to talk over our whispering. “Anyone we reach will have a purpose for being here. It’s our job to determine what that purpose is. To help them. Bringing them peace will bring us peace, too.”
“So we can’t just ring up Elvis, huh?” the banker jokes, and a few people laugh uncomfortably.
I’ve panned the camera slowly across what I thought was the velvet tablecloth, but I come to rest on a small satin bow. I pull my face out of the viewfinder and look up, squinting through the candlelight to find what the camera is looking at. But I don’t see anything. The table looks the same, crystals and Ouija thing and whatever. No bows anywhere. The person nearest the line of camera sight is the guy in the Rangers jersey, who’s bent over his cell phone and not paying any attention to us.
“But I, like, wanted to talk to my nana and stuff,” the girl with the gelled ponytail complains. “Huh,” I say.
“See her?” Tyler asks.
In the camera, outlined in eerie art-filter light, I find the satin bow again. I adjust the focus and zoom out very slowly.
The bow proves to be attached to the neckline of somebody’s dress, in the shadow of lace against pale skin. I adjust the lens another hairsbreadth. I inhale once, sharply, the way I do when jumping into the lake by my parents’ house for the first time at the beginning of the summer, when the water hits me so hard and cold that it makes my heart stop.
Tyler’s right—there’s a girl blocking the shot. A girl like I’ve never seen.
“I see her,” I say to him, covering my sudden irrational panic. “It’s not a problem.”
“We can reach her, if your nana needs to be reached,” the psychic explains with apparent impatience. “If she has something in this world holding her back.”
“Told you,” Tyler says to me.
“What, you saying my nana’s not at peace, and it’s my fault?” the girl’s voice rises.
“I’ll take care of it,” I say to Tyler.
“No, no,” the psychic backpedals. “That’s not what I meant.”
“You can trust Madame Blavatsky, sweetie.” One of the mom types tries to soothe the girl with the baby. “But you should let her get started.” The weird crawling sensation spreads across my neck again, but I can’t rub it away because I’m busy climbing back around the periphery of the room to reach the girl with the satin bow. She’s just standing there, not talking to anyone, looking down at her hands. My heart is tripping along so fast, I’m having trouble catching my breath. I don’t want to make her feel weird or anything. I also kind of hate talking to people. But more than that, she’s . . .
“Yes, we really can’t wait any longer,” the woman in the turban says. “Spirits only have limited time, once summoned, to resolve their unfinished business. If we don’t act quickly, we risk damning them to an eternity in the in-between.”
The medium’s starting to get pissed off. I’m not positive, but I think Tyler’s paid her for letting us film. Which we’re not supposed to do for workshop, but whatever. She sounds really annoyed. I don’t blame her. I’m kind of annoyed. At Tyler, mostly, for dragging me along to do sound when I could be working on my own film. Should be working on my own film, especially considering how much is riding on it. In fact, all I want is to be working on my own film. But I find myself pulled into other people’s stuff a lot. I get caught up.
“What do you mean, limited?” asks the guy in the Rangers jersey. “Like, they on the clock or something?”
Tyler thinks he’s going to be the next Matthew Barney. He’s doing an experimental film of people in what he calls “transcendental states,” using all different film stock and filters and weird editing tricks that he’s refused to reveal to me. I don’t think we’re going to see much in the way of transcendental states in a palm reader shop upstairs from an East Village pizzeria. But we already spent the afternoon with the AX1 filming drummers in Washington Square Park. I think he’s running out of ideas.
“Or something,” the medium says, and when she says it, a sickening chill moves down my spine.
The girl with the satin bow on her dress is standing on the opposite side of the room from the camera, not far from where I stashed the mike, looking nervous, like she’s doing her best to blend into the wall. She’s awkwardly close to the edge of the table. Nobody seems to notice her, a fact that causes my ears to buzz.
Now that I’ve seen her, I feel like she can never be unseen. She looks . . . I suck at describing people, and beautiful feels especially pathetic. But the truth is, I don’t understand how I haven’t been staring at her the whole time we’ve been here. As I edge nearer, my blood moves faster in my veins and I swallow, a fresh trickle of sweat making its way down my rib cage. I can feel her getting closer. Like I can sense where she is even when I can’t see her. She’s not paying any attention to me, her head half turned away, looking around at the walls with interest.
The girl is so self-contained, so aloof from all of us, that she seems untouchable. Watching her ignore my approach, I wonder how you become someone that other people make room for, whether they know it or not.
She’s wearing one of those intense deconstructed dresses they sell in SoHo. My roommate, Eastlin, is studying fashion design, and he’s got a sweet internship in an atelier for the summer. He took me to the store where he works one time and showed me this piece of clothing, which he said was a dress, which was dishwater-gray and frayed around the edges, covered in hooks and eyes and zippers and ribbons. I couldn’t really understand what the appeal was. To me it looked like something I’d find in a trunk in my grandmother’s attic. When he told me how much it cost I dropped the sleeve I was holding because I was afraid I’d snag a thread and have to take out another student loan.
I’m definitely afraid to touch this girl’s dress. Seeing how she wears it, though, I begin to understand what Eastlin’s talking about. Her neckline reveals a distracting bareness of collarbones. Her hair is brushed forward in curls over her ears in some bizarre arrangement that I think I saw on a few hipster girls in Williamsburg when Tyler took me out drinking there. She must sense me staring at her. Why won’t she look at me? But she’s finished her examination of the curtains, and if she’s noticed me approaching her, she’s not letting on. As I move nearer, near enough that I can practically sense the electrical impulses under her skin, she steps back, retreating from the edge of the table into the red curtain folds along the wall. I glance at Tyler, and he waves to indicate that she’s still in the shot, and I should get her to sit down already.
My heart thuds loudly once, twice. Up close, her skin looks as smooth as buttermilk. Milk soft. Cool to the touch.
I want to touch the skin at the base of her throat.
This thought floats up in my mind so naturally that I don’t even notice how creepy I sound. “Hey,” I manage to whisper, drawing up next to her. It comes out husky, and I cough to cover it up.
She doesn’t hear me. At least, she doesn’t respond. My cheeks grow warm. I hate talking to people I don’t know. I hate it more than going to the dentist, I hate it more than taking SATs or doing French homework or stalling a stick-shift car with my dad in the passenger seat. “When everyone is seated, we’ll finally begin,” the woman in the middle of the room says pointedly.
A few eyes swivel over to stare at me trying to talk to the girl, and my flush deepens. “Listen,” I whisper in desperation, reaching a hand forward to brush the girl’s elbow.
The instant my fingers make contact, the girl’s head turns and she stares at me. Not at me—into me. I feel her staring, and as the lashes over her eyes flutter with something close to recognition it’s like no one has ever really seen me before her.
Her face is pale, bluish and flawless except for one dark mole on her upper lip, and twin dark eyebrows drawn down over her eyes. As we gaze at each other I can somehow make out every detail of her face, and none of them. When I concentrate I can only see the haze of incense smoke, but when I don’t try too hard I can trace the curve of her nose, the slope of her cheeks, the line where lip meets skin. Her eyes are obsidian black, and when she sees me, her lips part with a smile, as if she’s about to say something.
I recoil, taking a step backward without thinking, landing my heel hard against the boom. The microphone starts to fall, and I fumble to catch it before it hits the girl with the gelled ponytail and the baby, and I nearly go down in a tangle of wires and headphones and equipment.
“Dude!” Tyler chastises me from behind the camera.
He’s laughing, and some of the people around the table are joining in. The guy in the Rangers jersey pulls out his phone and snaps a picture of me glaring at Tyler. The girl with the neck tattoo smiles at me out of the corner of her mouth and starts a slow clap, but fortunately nobody joins in and after a few slow claps alone she stops and looks away.
“It’s fine,” I mutter. “I’ve got it under control.”
“Whatever,” Tyler says, pressing his eye to the viewfinder and panning across the people’s faces. They’ve started to join hands.
Once I’ve gotten the headphones back on and the boom mike hoisted over my head, balanced unobtrusively over the table so I can pick up the soft breathing of all the New Yorkers in this second-floor room on the Bowery, I check to see if the girl in the deconstructed dress is still hiding against the velvet curtain.
I don’t see her.
The woman in the turban has blown out all but the candles in the sconces on the wall, plunging the table into an intimate darkness with everyone’s face in shadow.
In my headphones I hear Tyler whistle softly under his breath, and I imagine that the scene looks pretty intense through the softening filter.
“Now,” the woman breathes. “We shall invite the spirits to join our circle, if everyone is ready.”
I get a better grip on the boom, balancing my weight between my feet and settling in. The woman in the turban told us it would only take about forty-five minutes. But forty-five minutes can feel like an eternity, sometimes.
Katherine Howe is the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The House of Velvet and Glass, and Conversion. She has hosted “Salem: Unmasking the Devil” for the National Geographic Channel, and her fiction has been translated into over twenty-five languages. A native Texan, she lives in New England and upstate New York, where she teaches at Cornell and is at work on her next novel.
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