It had been years since I’d last taken the drug and after letting the tab soak in my saliva for a minute, I swallowed the paper whole and felt almost immediate regret for what I’d done. The side of me that wanted to be comfortable with adventure and spontaneity, maintaining my cool in the publisher’s eyes, had seized the moment. But another side of me, my usual self that found comfort in cynicism, and doubt, and creative avoidance, told me that taking the acid was just another tactic I was employing to avoid the work that I so desperately needed to finish.
The publisher was looking out over the valley toward the distance where the sun was approaching the surface of the ocean. “Hell of a view, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I agreed, wanting to say more, but still uncertain I could say the right thing. The right thing being anything that would keep him from exposing me as uncool.
“When I was young, visiting my grandmother here, I would sit for hours and paint the valley in watercolors. Over and over. Like I could never get enough of the beauty.”
I wasn’t sure where his story was going, or if it was all he had to say, but I had an urge to speak up and so I went with a question. “Do you still paint?”
“Never anymore,” he said. “Somewhere along the way I stopped. I gave up really. Realized I would never get that beauty right. Every time I painted that valley, it was never perfect and never would be.”
“I feel that way about a lot of things,” I chimed in.
The publisher looked at me and smiled. He pulled a cigarette out from behind his ear and lit it, taking a deep inhale off the first drag. “Funny thing is, I found those paintings a few years ago, hidden in a box in the attic, and you know what? They were all perfect. Every single one of them. It had just taken the distance of my lifetime to realize it.”
His words had a calming effect, an antidote I didn’t know I needed. Inside myself, I could feel the tingling of the drug sparking and we sat for a while in silence. As the evening’s coolness rode in on a breeze, goosebumps sprouted, tickling on my skin. A burst of laughter erupted from the opposite side of the pool where my counterparts had huddled and mixed seamlessly in with the melodies of the birds which vibrantly populated and thrived within the garden and surrounding orchard. My eyes were heavy and then wide. The golden hour light carried the power of bringing everything to a superior life. Overhead, a family of stratocumulus clouds zipped by at an unusual pace, each stained its own pastel hue. Looking off and back again, the warm colors bled into the open sky which then settled into night.
Earlier that day, I had watched for the ghost in the upper bedroom window, willing it to appear. “Show yourself,” I whispered, knowing well that it would not. I’d been playing the role of a fool all week and this was no different. Waiting for ghosts was like waiting for my screenplay to write itself. Both inactions that I seemed adept at. Or, like my usual habits, the drinking, and smoking, and excessive masturbation. It was all the same. Distractions I employed to keep me from doing the work, which felt especially pressing in the moment, as I found myself nearing the end of a weeklong writers’ retreat during which I’d made none of the intended headway on my story.
Around me, the other artists who had been gathered here at the villa mingled and laughed, enjoying the fading warmth of the day, enjoying the company of one another. They had all made significant progress on the projects they had brought to work on here and so I imagined they did not share in my anxieties. They were all already accomplished professionals who I respected beyond my natural human instinct to feel jealousy. Amongst them, a regular contributor to the New Yorker, a debut novelist, and a fashion blogger who carried over a million social media followers on her back. I was a small-press movie critic with a screenplay in the drawer and hardly a notation on their scale. In turn, none of us compared to the grandiosity of our host, a revered American publisher who intimidated me to point in which I could barely form a complete sentence amidst conversation in his presence.
I threw back the watery remains of a whiskey I’d been nursing and stared off in the opposite direction toward the sun. From the back terrace of the villa, the western view was paralyzing. Situated atop a large hill, every time I took in this sight, my eyes needed a moment to comprehend if this foreign world was real or not. From where I had grown up in the flatlands of the US, there was no precedent to compare it to. The Italians had known what they were doing in erecting their village at such a great height. Looming above an expansive valley that stretched all the way to the ocean. I saw some peace in this, as I sometimes saw peace in imagining myself beyond the confines of my own body. A real half-glass empty point of view, though my glass was never far from empty, so I guess the perspective wasn’t that bad. I checked on the ghost again, but not even so much as a fluttering curtain presented itself.
A hand on my shoulder caused me to jump and I felt embarrassment warming my face as I turned to see the publisher standing over me. He seemed both tickled and shy about causing the surprise.
“The ghost,” he said, reading the direction of my attention. “You know it’s just a story.”
“I guess I’m curious,” I said, recalling the conviction in the publisher’s voice when he’d drunkenly revealed stories from past guest encounters over dinner on the first night.
He smiled and nodded an acceptance of my timid explanation then took a seat on the lounger next to me. I worried about what I would say if he asked about the work I’d been doing here. I couldn’t think of a way to spin it in which I wouldn’t disappoint him and could feel gravity pulling at my emptiness and the prospect that I would come and go and be forgotten by this renowned figure as if I were never there. But he did not pry about my productivity and instead looked up at the window I’d had my attention so keenly drawn to. Waiting for him to speak again, I entertained a secondary worry, that he would see the ghost instead of me. “There, there it is,” he would say, pointing, and I feared that I would look and it would be gone.
Even in his forties, the publisher had retained the best aspects of his youth. He was handsome and carried himself with a look of organized scruffiness, like he meant it, and in his green eyes I could see both sincere honesty and curiosity. What he, with all his wealth and accomplishments would find curious about me, I did not know. “Maybe you’re just outside of the right mindset for it,” he said.
The publisher reached his hand into the breast pocket of his button-down and removed a small leather pouch. Unsnapping a clasp, he eased the pouch open and carefully tapped two squares of thin paper into his palm. On the paper, the dulled image of a jolly Micky Mouse stared back at me. “Care to?” he asked. I didn’t hesitate, accepting one of the tabs from his palm and slipping the acid onto my tongue.
By dinner, I had reached the peak of my alternative state, more levelheaded than I’d expected, but untethered. The drug had a way of working on me that I had no appetite, yet nobody seemed to notice. Inside the villa’s dining room, with old stone walls and large wooden beams supporting the base of the structure’s whole, I couldn’t help but think that we were in the hull of a ship and occasionally I swore we were tipping. It was difficult to keep a smirk from my face. Everything seemed dipped in humor. Looking over at the publisher, it was as if he was in tune with my mind and could not contain his joy either.
As the evening stretched on, the limits of this new world continued to awe me. I sipped from my wine glass, but the liquid somehow regenerated. Looking at my phone, the depth of my screen seemed to stretch down through the floor and was awash with color, like a prism had bled over it. There was no immediate use for the device and so I tossed it away from me toward a recliner in the corner where it disappeared swiftly beneath a cushion. Everybody laughed. Great bellowing laughs and I could feel a battery in my chest recharging. This is home, I thought. This is love.
At a point later toward the end of the meal, I had a strange sensation that I could see beyond the confines of the room. Not outside of the space itself, but on top of it, like a translucent veil of a new room had been thrown over us, built purely on numbers. All 0s and 1s. I watched with amazement as the numbers appeared, almost see through, barely visible, stretching over everything and everyone. There was no way that I should have known what it meant, but still somehow understood this language thoroughly. The patterns were speaking and for a moment I knew life as only a combination of numerical figures, and each thing living or otherwise was simply a unique and shifting code, detailing its past, present, and future. I moved from one individual to another, fascinated with their patterns which were strong and spoke of vibrant lives ahead. But when I reached the publisher, there was something strange in the how the numbers shifted and danced before him. It was puzzling and then something to fear. A great sadness overcame me and it became impossibly overwhelming to keep my eyes open. In a blink, the numbers were there then dissipated and along with it, my knowledge of the language all together.
I stepped away to the bathroom to ground myself and when I returned, the publisher was gone. Outside, the patio was empty and so I followed a soft blue light down a winding staircase to the pool deck where I was greeted by the moon. I remained still and held my breath, considering the moonlight shining off the pool water, sparkling in the drops of evening dew which surfaced every leaf and flower growing around and above me. All was silent outside the usual chorus of nocturnal insects and critters, then a foreign noise drew my attention further into the garden. The soft crunch of footsteps. Through the thicket, I could just make out a light-colored shirt and the curly salt and pepper hair of the publisher, who was moving away from me, down a dirt path into the orchard.
For a reason I couldn’t pinpoint, it seemed important that I remain unseen, and so I crept behind him at a safe distance, making sure to always keep brush or a tree between us. At the edge of the field, beyond the billowing limbs of an ancient willow, I hid behind a large trunk and noted the direction in which the publisher was heading. A few steps away from him, there lay the remains of an old barn, dilapidated and overgrown with shrubs and vines. He stopped before it to light a cigarette and then turned his head to the side, as if he’d heard something. I half-expected him to call out my name, identifying that he knew I’d been following along, but he said nothing. My heart rate quickened, and I fought against a deep imbalance in my step, the effects of the drug still roaring through my system.
Overhead, the moonlight dimmed, and I could see that a bank of clouds had infiltrated the sky. As if on cue, shrouded further by darkness, the publisher moved on, disappearing behind a corner of the ruins. I began to count and then lost my focus and after what I guessed to be a few minutes and no sign of his return, stepped out into the clearing, and approached where the publisher had stood. I was careful with my steps and moved slowly about the ruined barn, expecting to find him around each corner until I was back where I’d started.
Before I could ponder what to do next, I realized I had a clear view of the villa, and there, in the upper bedroom window, was the unmistakable presence of the ghost. Barely visible. I froze in place. I could tell it looked out on me as I looked at it and was afraid that any movement might scare it away. But as I waited, the clouds moved through, making way for the moon to shine its spotlight once again, and without a doubt, it was clear that it was not the ghost I expected, but instead, the publisher, who remained for just a moment, then was gone.