Lucy Doucette made the six blocks in just under four minutes. It might have been a record. On the way she outpaced two SEPTA buses and just barely dodged an SUV that ran the light on Eighteenth Street. She'd been dodging traffic since she was three. It didn't slow her down a bit.
The address was a three-story brick building off Cherry Street. A small plaque next to the door identified it as Tillman Towers. It was hardly a tower. A rusted air conditioner hung precariously overhead; the steps leading up to the door looked to be leaning at a ten-degree angle to the right. She looked at the bottom of the plaque. It said entrance to 106 around back. She walked down an alley, turned the corner and saw a small door, painted red. On it was a symbol that matched the symbol on the card, a highly stylized golden key.
She looked for a buzzer or doorbell and, seeing none, pushed on the door. It opened. Ahead was a long dimly lit hallway.
Lucy started down the corridor, surrounded by the smells of old buildings - bacon fat, wet dog, fruity room deodorizers, with top notes of soiled diaper. She had long ago developed a keen sense of smell - it was something that really helped in her business: sometimes some really funky things lurked in the craziest places in hotel rooms, and being able to root them out and dispose of them, by any means necessary, was a real plus.
When she got to number 106 at the end of the hallway the door was slightly ajar. She knocked on the door jamb and, out of long- ingrained habit, almost called out 'Housekeeping.' She stopped herself at the last second.
She knocked again. 'Hello?'
She took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
The space was small and cramped, with stacks of old leather-bound books in the corners reaching nearly to the ceiling. In the center were two upholstered chairs of differing style and vintage. In here she tasted long-boiled coffee on the back of her tongue.
'Hello.' The voice came from behind her.
Lucy spun around, her heart leaping. Behind her stood a compact man somewhere in his forties or fifties. He was of average height, but lean and wiry. His white shirt, which had yellowed around the collar and cuffs, appeared to be a few sizes too large. His navy blue suit coat was shiny and worn, his shoes dusty. But what struck Lucy most were his eyes. He had the dark, shiny eyes of a fierce terrier.
'Hello,' she replied, the word coming out squeaky. She hated it when her voice did this. 'I'm Lucy Doucette.'
In contrast to her own, his voice was soft and assured. Lucy had the feeling that he had never shouted in his life.
He took her hand in his but didn't shake it, not like an ordinary handshake. Instead, he just held it for a moment, not taking his eyes from hers. For a moment the rest of the room dissolved away, like something glimpsed through a shower curtain. His lack of physical size belied this powerful touch.
He let go of her hand, eased his own hands back down to his sides.
'What should I call you?' Lucy asked as everything now shimmered back into focus.
The man smiled a thin smile, a light that didn't fully reach his eyes. 'My name is Adrian Costa,' he said. 'You may call me Adrian or Mr. Costa, whichever makes you more comfortable.'
He gestured to the large upholstered avocado chair. Lucy saw the dust on the arms. She wanted to vacuum it.
'I'm of a mind to call you Mr. Costa for now,' she said. 'If that's okay.'
'As you wish.'
Lucy sat down. The chair was a lot more comfortable than it looked. It looked a little spring-busted, if the truth were to be told. Lucy had grown up with third-hand furniture, living in drafty rental houses and second-floor apartments situated above everything from bowling alleys to taverns to Chinese restaurants, places where none of the furniture matched, where nothing ever sat level on the floor. Lucy never knew whether it was the floors that were out of whack or that the tables and chairs were short-legged, but she recalled always having to put a matchbook or two under the table legs so her pencils didn't roll off when she was doing her homework. She also remembered many nights when she and her mother would walk the streets of her hometown on the night before trash day, looking for usable items with which her mother could furnish their house, or try to turn around and sell or trade for drugs. They used to call it shopping at Lawn Mart.
'What do you know about hypnotism?' Mr. Costa asked.
Lucy didn't have to think too long about this one. She didn't know much, just the things she'd seen in spooky movies, or the comedies where people got hypnotized and walked around like chickens. Lucy truly hoped she wasn't going to walk around like a chicken. She told Mr. Costa just that.
'Don't worry,' Mr. Costa said. He steepled his fingers. Lucy noticed that there were indentations on six of his fingers, as though he had recently taken off six rings. 'What I do is give you the skills you need to achieve your goal,' he added. 'Do you have a goal, Lucy Doucette? A purpose in coming to see me?'
If you only knew, mister. She tried to answer with a calm, measured response. 'Oh yes.'
'Good. Here we focus on subconscious behaviors and see how they influence your conscious life. The methods I use are tried and true. They go back to Victorian times.'
'So, the acting-like-a-chicken business is definitely out?'
Mr. Costa nodded. 'The stage hypnotist wants to give the impression that the subject is out of control,' he said. 'What I do is just the opposite. I want to give you back control. Control of your life. The way I do that is to help you to relax as deeply as possible so you can enter a suggestible state, a state where your memories - things you may have forgotten - can be recalled with ease, and therefore be understood and dealt with.'
'Okay,' Lucy said. She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. 'But there is something I need to know before we go any further. If that's okay.'
'How much is all this going to cost?'
There. She'd just blurted it out. By the time she was five or six years old she had already learned to shop at the grocery store and drug store, to talk to the people from the phone and electric companies, usually wielding her little-girl charms to forestall a shut-off of services.
Mr. Costa smiled his nick of a smile again. 'You won't owe me anything for now. Let's see where the road takes us. Then we'll talk about the toll.'
Lucy was more than a little surprised. 'Well, Mr. Costa, I appreciate this, I truly do. But I'm a girl who doesn't like surprises. Never have. I'd hate to get to the end of all this and find that I owe you thousands and thousands of dollars or something. It wouldn't be fair to either of us. I couldn't pay you and you'd be really mad.'
Another pause. 'Firstly, I never get angry. I've never found it to be productive. Have you?'
The truth was, she never had found it to be productive. Of course, that had never stopped her. 'No. I suppose not.'
'Secondly, when we have completed our third and last session, if you find then that you are satisfied with my services, that you have received true value, I want you to pay me whatever you feel is right.' He gestured to the room around them. 'As you can see, I live a modest existence.'
Lucy looked closely at the walls for the first time, at the cobwebs near the ceiling, at the thin layer of dust everywhere, at the crosshatched lines in the plaster. Once again, her desire to start cleaning was nearly physical. Then she looked closely at the photographs mounted haphazardly on the walls, dozens and dozens of them, many in chipped enamel frames, some staggered behind cracked and spider-webbed glass. They all seemed to be snapshots of similar subjects - travel-type pictures of pavilions and gazebos and gingerbread exhibition halls, places that appeared to be small-town centers, ringed by vendors with brightly colored carts, public benches sporting ads for local concerns. One frame featured a band shell in the shape of a large pumpkin. Another showed what might have been a Civil War re-enactment in progress. A number of the photographs were pictures of a younger Mr. Costa, holding a violin.
'Have you been to all these places?' Lucy asked.
'I have indeed.'
Mr. Costa crossed the room to the far wall, the wall opposite the window. There was a velvet curtain there that took up most of the width of the room. He reached behind the right side of the curtain, took hold of a frayed golden rope and pulled it gently.
Behind the curtain was a large booth, perhaps six feet wide and just as tall. It had no window, like a typical booth you might see at a carnival or in front of a theater, but rather a single door crudely cut into the front, a door with a red crystal doorknob. Above the door was a carved scroll, painted to resemble a dark purple sky with billowy clouds. Peering out from behind one of the clouds was a silvery autumn moon, with just the hint of glitter. Down each side of the booth, next to the doorway, were the words The Dreamweaver. Across the door, over what looked to be a round portal which showed only darkness, was another legend, this one in a gilded script:
What do you dream?
'That's pretty cool,' Lucy said. And it was true. Lucy Doucette was a small-town girl, one who'd grown up terribly poor. Her entertainment, when her mother was sober enough to take her places, and many times when she was not, had been small-town entertainment - county fairs, local home days, carnivals, parades, festivals, sometimes even wakes if they were held in the park. If there was no cover charge, and it was bright, loud, and festive, Lucy's mother would park her daughter on a bench, returning every so often a little drunker, or a little more stoned, with a corn dog, elephant ear, or funnel cake in her hand. Many times these treats were cold, half-eaten, and it wasn't until years later that Lucy figured out that these were probably items of discarded food. Somehow that knowledge did not make them taste bad, even in retrospect. When you're four years old, cotton candy, even someone else's cotton candy, was the best thing in the world.
Mr. Costa closed the curtain, crossed the room, sat down across from Lucy. 'Shall we begin?'
'Sure,' Lucy said. She took a deep breath, tried to relax her shoulders. It wasn't easy. There was a tension that had settled upon her when she was small and, although there were days when she felt it was easing, it had never gone away completely. She looked up at the Dreamweaver, at his bright little-dog eyes. 'Let's begin.'
'Today, in our first session, we are going to go back to a specific time in your life. The time you can't seem to remember. Okay?'
Lucy felt her hands begin to shake. She knit them together in her lap. 'Okay.'
'But you are not going to re-experience this event. There is no need to be concerned with that. Instead, it will be more like you are observing it.'
'Observing? Like, watching it?'
'Yes,' Mr. Costa said. 'Exactly. Like watching it from above.'
'Like I'm flying?'
'Like you're flying.'
'Very cool,' she said. 'What do I do?'
'You needn't do anything except close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice.'
'You know, I have to tell you something,' Lucy began. 'In fact, I was going to tell you this when I first walked in.'
'What is that?'
'I don't really think I'm the kind of person who can be hypnotized.'
'Why do you say that?'
Lucy shrugged. 'I don't know. I think I'm too intense, you know? I hardly ever sleep, I'm always nervous. Do other people ever say that?'
'I'm sure that there are some people who just can't seem to—'
Mr. Costa held up a finger, stopping her. The finger had a ring on it. In fact, all of his rings seemed to be back. All six of them.
When had he done that?
'I hate to interrupt you, but I'm afraid our session is complete for today.'
Lucy wasn't sure she understood. 'What are you saying? Are you saying—'
Lucy took a few moments, letting the news sink in. She had actually been hypnotized for a while.
She stood up, grabbed her purse, walked toward the door, feeling a little dizzy. She held onto the doorjamb to steady herself. Suddenly Mr. Costa was next to her again. He was light on his feet.
'Are you all right?' he asked.
'Yes,' Lucy said. 'Kinda.'
Mr. Costa nodded. 'Shall we say tomorrow, then? Just at midday?'
'Sure,' Lucy said, suddenly realizing she felt pretty good after all. As in really good. Like she'd taken a brief nap.
'I believe you made some progress today,' Mr. Costa said.
'Yes,' he replied. He took off his bifocals, slipped them into an inside pocket of his suit coat. 'I don't believe it was anything like a breakthrough - that may never happen, I'm afraid - but you may have opened a door. Just the slightest bit.'
Pipe smoke and apples.
'A door?' Lucy asked.
'A door to your subconscious. A portal to what happened to you nine years ago.'
Had she told him it was nine years? She didn't remember doing that.
Mr. Costa put his hand on the doorknob. 'One last thing for today,' he said. 'Does the hotel in which you work have notepads in the rooms?'
'Notepads with the hotel logo. For the guests.'
'Yes,' Lucy said. She'd only placed a million of these pads - two inches from the left edge of the desk, pen at a forty-five-degree angle across the center.
'Excellent. Please bring one of these pads with you next time,' Mr. Costa said. 'Can you do that?'
'Sure,' Lucy said. 'I'll bring one.'
Mr. Costa opened the door. 'Until tomorrow, my dear Lucinda.'
On the way through the door Lucy glanced at the small picture on the wall next to the casing, just above the grimy light switch. She only saw it for a fleeting moment but that was long enough to see that it was a photograph of another gazebo, this one a rather dilapidated pergola overgrown with ivy. It was only after she'd stepped through the doorway and the door had closed behind her that she realized she knew the house in the background of that photograph, the wreck of a bungalow with its slanted porch and rusted gutters and broken brick walk.
It was the house she had grown up in.