Santi is lost.
He stands in the middle of a busy shopping street, a stone in a river of staring people. He knows what a year of rough sleeping has done to him: the haunted eyes, the tremor, the nervous tension that makes people keep their distance. But he knows that’s not why they’re looking. Being the center of the world is exhausting. He wishes, sometimes, that they would just stop. Look at someone else, he wants to say, but the problem is that everyone else is perfectly transparent: even if they all lined up in front of him, it would be as useless as trying to hide in clear water.
He’s not sleeping rough these days. He has a place in the hostel now. That’s where he was trying to go. But the streets of this city lead back on themselves, knot and tangle into dead ends. He reaches into his jacket for the talisman of his grandfather’s knife. The key, he thinks, is to know who you are. Only then will you know where you’re going.
He picks a street, follows it with his eyes half-closed. It leads him true: he comes out into the open green of the park with the sense of worlds abruptly ending and beginning, clumsily jointed. Wind chases the leaves past him, the city sliding away under his feet. As he crosses the park, flashes of sunlight break through where the mosque gleams, green space on one side and the post-industrial sprawl of Ehrenfeld on the other. The sun mingles with another light: heavenly fire, blazing invisibly bright at the corner of his eye. He takes the main road into the neighborhood’s heart. The landlocked lighthouse by the train tracks taunts him with a meaning he can’t grasp. A revelation is coming. Santi looks up at the sky, clouds fleeting across it like impossibly swift ships, and feels it building, inside him and out.
At the door of the hostel, he fumbles for his card, but his pocket is empty. He swears. He forgot: he lost the card this morning, in the courtyard next to the clock tower. One moment it was falling from his pocket onto the grass. The next, it had vanished. He combed the ground obsessively for an hour, but it was gone, as surely as if it had never existed. He imagines the card slipping out through a hole in the world and feels sick with vertigo. He presses the buzzer.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice, compressed by the intercom.
The hairs on the back of Santi’s neck stand up. “Hi. I—I lost my card.”
“Okay. One second.” The buzzer vibrates, and the door clicks open.
The woman behind the desk looks up as he walks in. Bleach-blond, short-cropped hair; stark blue eyes. “I guess you’ll be wanting a new card,” she says. Santi is about to tell her his name when she says, “Are you Santiago López?”
His skin prickles. “How do you know my name?”
“Oh, I—I’ve been looking through the files.”
His eyes drift to her desk, where only his file lies open in front of her. His life, distilled down to a few pages: the essence of him, the blueprint for all the Santis there could ever be.
She closes it hurriedly. “Give me one second,” she says, and wheels her office chair over to the card printer.
She’s humming under her breath, a tune Santi knows. His eyes pass over her desk. A starscape mug filled with strong tea. A photo of her with her arms around a smiling woman.
“Here you are, Mr. López.” She hands him the new card. “I’m Thora, by the way,” she adds. “Thora Lišková.”
He closes his eyes. “Fox.” She coughs. “Excuse me?”
“Your name.” He opens his eyes, watches her face for clues. “That’s what it means.”
“Yes.” She half-smiles. “The other staff—they told me you like to know what things mean. So you speak Czech?”
She frowns. “Your name means Wolf.” She blinks, confused. “I—don’t know how I know that.”
Santi feels the world shift under his feet. “What are you doing here?” he says softly.
“I’m a trainee social worker. I’m new here, I just started this morning—”
“No.” He cuts her off. “What are you doing here?”
“I . . .” She’s familiar, everything about her is familiar: the washed-out blue of her eyes, the frankness of her gaze. She’s about his age, although he knows he looks older. Life has been kinder to her, this time.
“You,” he says with sudden understanding. “You’re part of it.”
Her expression shifts to wariness. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean.”
“You do.” The conviction burns him: she is the revelation, and she knows it. He slams his hands down on the counter. “Tell me,” he shouts. “Tell me what’s happening to me.”
“Take it easy.” She reaches under the desk for the panic button. He has seconds to get through to her. He leans across the counter, stares into her eyes. The words come to him as if he has
said them before. “Don’t leave me alone in this.”
He sees something change in her face as the resident assistants pull him away.
Back in his room, they sit him down for a talk. They tell him he can’t threaten the staff, or he won’t be allowed to stay here anymore. They explain to him that one of the features of his illness is a tendency to see meaning everywhere, that his delusion about recognizing Thora is just another in a long list of symptoms.
He lets them think he understands. After they leave, he takes the knife from his jacket and slides it under the pillow: an old habit he can’t sleep without. He lies on his side on the narrow bed and stares at the wall, searching for patterns in the cracks until he falls asleep.
In his dream, he’s running through the hospital, endless branching corridors all leading to darkness. It’s a normal dream, routine even, until he sees her, pink-haired, standing in an impossible shaft of sunlight. Even in the dream, he knows it’s not right. The woman he met was blond. This is a different Thora: older, gentler, scarred by sorrow.
She looks as surprised as he is to find herself in his dream. “Mr.
López,” she says. Then, hesitantly, “Santi?”
The ground shakes. Santi falls. A tearing like the universe breaking in two. A rip opens up in the floor. Thora is on the other side. He reaches out, almost meeting her grasping fingers. Gravity takes them, and they fall apart, two planets pulled by the force of separate suns.
He opens his eyes to a cracked white wall. He has no idea where he is. Panicked, he searches through a kaleidoscope of remembered images: sun-yellow curtains, an open window, the cornice of a high-ceilinged apartment. Finally, it comes: he’s in the hostel. He reaches for his notebook, finds what he scribbled half-conscious as he woke. A lightning-shaped hole, two figures falling.
He sits up, feeling the old pain in his neck that he puts down to his year on the streets. He turns to face the grid of images on the wall, linked with pinned-up lines of red string. The ruined clock tower in the old town; a time-lapse photo of a starry sky, constellations blurred into streaks; the imprint of a bird on a window, ghostly feathers on glass. Together, they form a map that he hopes will one day lead him to meaning.
He looks down and starts to draw: image after image of Thora, old and young, her hair all the colors of the rainbow. The ruled lines of the notebook cut each picture, interference on a transmission coming from impossibly far away.
He tucks the notebook into his jacket and follows the rising sun outside. His shoulders tense as he passes through reception, but the person behind the desk isn’t Thora. He stops to pet the skinny black cat that haunts the hostel door. She meows at him plaintively, as if she’s trying to remind him of something important.
He begs a slice of burek from the Turkish café across the street. He eats half and keeps half for later, dropping the crumbs for the parakeets. The birds are talking in the trees, muttered fragments of conversations he’s heard before. This world is overlaid with itself, parts reused to patch up what is worn out. He wonders if he is made of fragments too: if somewhere he can’t see, his skin flashes feathers. If he jumped from the top of the clock tower, would a fragment of feather be enough for him to fly?
He walks on, into the city’s tangled heart. Sooner than it should, the cathedral looms, a vision of darkness against the sky. Santi still remembers how his throat went dry the first time he stepped inside: how the space between him and the vaulted ceiling gave him the illusion of movement, as if the whole thing were about to lift off and carry him to the stars. He should have taken it as a warning, not a promise. He should have left the city then, while he could still afford to. Now, he’s stuck in the labyrinth, wandering in circles until he finds a thread to lead him out.
He walks on across the Hohenzollernbrücke, averting his eyes from the padlocks. Inside the Odysseum, he holds up his hostel card until the clerk waves him through the turnstile. A tremor of meaning follows him into the room of false stars. The museum is quiet. One other person stands next to him on the gantry, staring up at the velvet dark studded with random lights. He knows before he looks that it is Thora.
There is a message here, a code for him to decipher. As usual, he can’t concentrate hard enough to understand. Thora stands next to him without looking at him, following the unwritten rule of public spaces. Santi savors the asymmetric knowledge it gives him. Alone, together, they look up at the map of a cosmos that never existed. Her hand moves as if to catch hold of the glowing lights.
“Why are you with me?” she says quietly.
Santi’s heart jumps. Then he sees the phone cradled in her other hand, hears a woman’s voice on the other end. He listens, eyes fixed on the stars.
“I mean, what did I do?” Thora asks. “When was the moment you decided—this is it, it’s working, I’ll stay?”
Santi hears the distant echo of an answer. Whatever it is doesn’t satisfy Thora. She turns, paces away from him. “There must have been a moment. There must have been something I did that made it different.” A pause. “Not different. I mean . . .” She puts a hand to her head. “Sorry. I just—I had a really weird day yesterday. Yeah. I’ll tell you about it when I get home. Okay. Love you.” She hangs up. She breathes into her hands, then lifts her head to the velvet sky.
Santi can’t hold back any longer. “You’re a stargazer too.” She turns. When she recognizes him, he sees fear in her eyes.
“Mr. López. I—didn’t know it was you.”
He realizes: she thinks he followed her here. Something in him responds by wanting to reassure her. “I come here a lot,” he explains, although what kind of explanation is that?
“Do you now,” she murmurs.
He can tell she doesn’t believe him. It brings a different emotion, belonging to a different person: anger, at how dismissive she can be. He hears his voice adjust, a stranger speaking through him. “What are you doing here?” Because he has to know, has to unravel this before it unravels him.
“They gave me the day off, after—yesterday. This place calms me down, when I feel—” Mid-sentence, her attention snaps back, as if she’s just caught sight of herself. Every second of this interaction is another stain on the carefully controlled relationship her job requires them to have. If she were anyone else, Santi would expect her to walk away. But he has already learned that his expectations are no map for her territory. “I shouldn’t have done that,” she says. “Guessed your name, told you what it means. They—they told me that’s one of your triggers. Thinking people know more about you than they should.”
Her words let another ghost in to possess him. This one is wry, certain, her equal. “But you do, don’t you?”
She takes a breath. “I don’t want to lie to you,” she says. “I do find you—familiar.” She meets his eyes with frank annoyance. “But that doesn’t mean you’re right. All it means is that this kind of delusion can happen to anyone.”
It’s so unexpected, so off-script, that he laughs. “Why did you tell me that? You’re supposed to just tell me it’s all in my head.”
She looks at him seriously. “I want you to trust me.”
He doesn’t know what to say. But what comes out, surprising him as much as her, is the truth. In all the different versions of him she brings out, there is one constant. “I do.”
She nods, looking away. Visibly, under her breath, she says,
Fuck it. “Can I get you a coffee?”