I reached under the counter for my camera as soon as I saw the bear coming up the sidewalk. Its rolling gait took it right alongside the cast iron rails of the patio, where a half dozen customers sat oblivious to its presence, and I thought the unusual sight warranted documentation. It's weird enough to see a bear downtown in the late afternoon, but this one had what appeared to be either a little man or an otter riding on its back. I'm not sure which, but he was definitely wearing clothes—probably buckskins, fancied up with beadwork and dangling fringes of coloured I'm-not-sure-what. Strips of cloth, maybe. Or yarn.
I managed to get off a couple of good shots before the bear ambled out of range, then I pressed my face against the plate glass and watched them until they were lost to sight. Straightening from the window, I switched my camera to its monitor function and checked its small LCD screen.
They weren't in either shot—neither the bear, nor its jaunty rider. There was only the outside patio with the street behind it.
I wasn't particularly surprised. While I could see these sorts of things on the camera's display screen when I took the picture, they never showed up in playback. It was as though they disappeared into some digital limbo between the one moment and the next, though the more logical explanation was that they hadn't been there at all. I'd think that I was imagining these sightings, but sometimes I could bring up a hint of the missing subject on my computer screen. I'd play around in Photoshop with various image adjustment modes until finally a pixilated ghost hovered there, faint, but discernable.
And at that point, anyone could see it. Or at least that ghost of it I had managed to bring into view.
"Cool," Andrew said, when he saw one of them on my computer screen a few months ago. "How'd you get that effect?"
I'd only shrugged, not even trying for an explanation.
"Could you do me a unicorn, Tom? With ocean waves for a background?"
Andrew used to be a line-backer in high school, but he has a thing for unicorns. Don't ask.
"I don't even know how I did this one," I lied.
"But if you figure it out..."
I'd nodded. "You'll be the first in line to get one."
I had a whole collection of shots taken through the big picture window of Java Jane's Café where I worked, as well as any number from when I wasn't at work. Most of them were just image files on my computer, carefully named for what I remembered seeing when I took the shot. When I did take the time to reveal what I called a ghost image, I printed those files and kept them in a shoebox.
So farthere weren't many photos in the box, but my apartment was filled with tons of reference books, print-outs from the Internet, and any other documentation I could track down on the weird and unexplained, including the odd tabloid newspaper. It made for a cluttered living space, but I knew where everything was.
"So do you do that a lot?"
I turned away from the window to see I had a customer waiting for me on the other side of the counter.
"I'm sorry," I said, stuffing my camera under the counter. "Can I take your order?'
"Sure," she said. "But you didn't answer my question."
"I was asking you if you did that a lot," she said. At my blank look, she added, "Take a picture like you just did, and then stare out the window as though there's something really interesting going by. Like a pig riding a unicycle, say. Or a parade of giant hamsters for Giant Hamster Pride Day."
I had to smile at the image that put in my head. Then I found myself wondering if maybe she saw the same strange things I did and I studied her for a moment.
I'd seen her come in earlier, but then I'd gotten distracted by the bear and its rider. She was wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt and camouflage cargos, and a pair of clunky platform shoes. Right now, the overhead lights in the café caught a hundred highlights in the mass of honey brown dreads she had piled up on her head like a Rasta beehive and her bright blue eyes contrasted sharply with her mocha skin, sparkling like a pair of sapphires. They were cheerful eyes, on the surface, but I could sense just a hint of some deep melancholy in them.
I knew about melancholy. It seemed my whole life carried an undercurrent of it, like the soundtrack to a slow-paced, serious foreign film. Seeing creatures that no one else could? That didn't help.
I wondered what my customer's excuse was. She didn't seem the sort of person to know the weight of too much sadness, but then you never knew, did you? I put her in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. Tall and slender, she'd navigated her way between the tables with a light grace that was a pleasure to watch, and she had a wonderful, open smile. But everyone has stories they keep hidden from the rest of the world. Everyone has secrets.
She was still waiting for my reply, so I shrugged.
"No," I said. "No hamsters or pigs. This was just a bear with a little man riding on its back. Though it might have been an otter. It was hard to tell."
Her eyebrows rose and she laughed. She had a good laugh—a kind of throaty chuckle.
"Oh-kay," she said, drawing the word out.
No, I realized then. She didn't see this sort of thing.
"So what can I get you?" I asked.
"Whatever you've been having."
I hadn't been sure before, but now it was obvious that she was flirting. I know a lot of places have rules against that sort of thing, but it's not like Java Jane's was some corporate coffee chain, with a head office handing down pronouncements from on high, and corporate managers making sure that said pronouncements were being followed. Duane McFarlane, who managed the café for the original Jane, was easygoing about...well, pretty much everything. He was good about making sure that the women who worked here didn't get hassled, and that they had rides home after a late shift, but how any of us interacted with the customers was our own business. Just so long as no one made a complaint.
But that wasn't about to happen right now, because there was no one here to complain. The flirting woman at my counter was my only customer, and Erin was out on the patio, bussing tables.
"What makes you think I've been having anything?" I asked. "Maybe I just have an innate ability to see things other people don't."
"I don't know," she said and then waited a beat. "Do you?"
Here's something I love: You can tell the truth, no matter how preposterous, and if it doesn't fit in with what the other person believes, they just think you're joking. But the nice thing about it—on the small karma scale—is that you don't have to lie when you're doing it.
"All the time," I told her.
"Like, what kinds of things?"
"You know that kid in The Sixth Sense?"
Her eyes widened theatrically. "You see dead people?"
"Not so much. More like weird people—or rather things that never were people. Fairies and goblins and things that go bump in the night. Though sometimes there are ghosts."
She took it all in stride, smiling as though we were sharing a joke.
"And how do you manage that?" she asked.
I smiled right back at her. "Do you have all day? Because I could bend your ear about it for hours."
She cocked her head for a moment—deciding something, I realized, when she reached out a hand to me.
"I'm Josie," she said.
Her hand was soft, but she had a firm shake.
"I'm Tom," I said. "Pleased to meet you, Josie."
"So what time do you get off work, Tom? You're allowed to date customers, right?"
I was enjoying this. It had been awhile since an attractive woman had actually paid any attention to me. It's not like I'm a total loser—though my friend Andrew might argue differently. I just hadn't had a date in awhile. Andrew says it's because I put out a "settled down" vibe, whatever that means.
"Are you asking me out?" I asked.
"What makes you think I would ask you out?"
"Because I'll be very disappointed if you aren't."
She gave me another one of those wonderful smiles of hers. "So, what time do you get off work?"
"See? You are asking me out."
"And you're avoiding my question again. Why is that? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?" She grinned. "Do you think I'm too pushy?"
"I'm single," I told her, "and we close at eleven, but I'm here until midnight or so. If you wanted to come by after eleven, we could talk while I'm cleaning up." I smiled and added, "And I don't think you're too pushy."
"I'll see you at eleven," she said.
"Don't you want your drink?" I asked as she started to turn away.
"Oh, right. I'll have a coffee and you'd better make it strong. I want to make sure I'm awake tonight."
A person could read all sorts of promise into a comment like that and be completely wrong.
I knew that. But as I watched her leave, weaving her way back through the tables with her coffee, I let the warm hope of promise fill me all the same. I didn't even try to take a picture of the little pack of spindly-limbed goblins I could see frolicking down the street when she opened the door.
And I didn't think again about that melancholy I'd seen so briefly in her eyes.
* * *
"So what do you?" I asked Josie.
She'd come back, just a few minutes before eleven, still wearing her cargos and black T-shirt, but she'd added a jean jacket against the cooling evening air. I hadn't been sure she would actually return, but I was happy she had. When she'd stepped in through the front door, I'd called a cab for Erin, letting her go home so that Josie and I could have the place to ourselves. Erin had left with a teasing wink, but she was happy to be able to leave early.
Josie looked up now from where she was helping out, putting the chairs up on the tables while I cleaned the espresso machines.
"I'm in a band," she said.
"Really? What instrument do you play?"
"I don't. Well, I play a little guitar and I'm trying to learn the fiddle, but in the band I just dance."
She smiled at my confused look.
"It's step-dancing," she explained. "We're a Celtic band and I provide the percussion for the dance tunes."
"I don't know anything about Celtic music."
"Don't know, or don't care?"
"Well, more like I don't care for what I've heard. You know, in the pubs around town where everybody knows the words to these songs that sound really lame. Though what's that group that played for the Pope?"
I nodded. "I heard an album of theirs with a bunch of Nashville singers and I liked it."
"Well, we're not the Chieftains, but you should still come and see us sometime."
"I will. What's the name of your band?"
"Ballyogan—we got it from a reel our flute player loves. What about you? What do you do when you're not making a most excellent coffee or—" She paused for effect. "Taking pictures of things that nobody else can see?"
"When you put it like that..."
"You know what I mean."
I suppose I did. But it was a question I never knew how to answer. I was content enough with my life, but it wasn't exactly a stepping stone to greater things. It just was. I went to work. I read. I watched TV. Went to the movies. Hung out with friends. Spent probably way too much time researching weird fairy creatures or sitting at my computer, playing with images files in Photoshop.
"It wasn't supposed to be the kind of question that would stump you," she said.
"I know. It's just...I don't have a glamourous life. There's nothing special about me."
"Everybody's got something special about them," she said. "For instance, I can tap my head and rub my belly at the same time."
I smiled. "I don't have any such useful talent."
"Well, what about these things you can see that no one else can?" She pretended a sudden concern and looked around herself. "Are there any in here right now?"
Since I'd already told her about them, I decided to keep on being truthful—even if it just made her tease me more. Truth is, I didn't really mind her teasing. When she did it, she was laughing with me, not at me. At least she was so far.
"I don't usually see them indoors," I said. "Unless I'm in a museum or a library. Or down in the subway stations. They seem to like old public places. Oh, and malls. I'm always seeing them in shopping malls. I guess they like to shop."
We moved to one of the window tables now, taking a break, though the clean up mostly done. She leaned across the table, her elbows on its surface as she cradled her chin in her hands. That bright blue gaze of hers settled on mine.
"So what exactly do you see?" she asked.
This was the moment, I realized. Up to now, it could all be put down to flirting and being silly. But this was the point where she would either think it was still charming, or decide I was a lunatic.
"Like I said before," I told her. "All sorts of things. Fairies and goblins. People that look like they're part animal and part human. Animals doing things that you wouldn't expect them to, like groundhogs riding skateboards, or a German shepherd on a bicycle. A giant once, but he was only fifteen or sixteen feet tall. I'd always thought they'd be bigger."
"Do you...see them all the time?" she asked.
"Only when they're around."
She sat back in her seat and nodded. "Of course."
This conversation wasn't going at all the way I'd expected it would. I'd rehearsed it a thousand times—not having it with Josie, just having it with someone, and it had never gone this far, or in this direction. Josie acted like we were talking about nothing more than the various customers who come into the café, or the people who live in my apartment building.
"So, have you always seen them?" she asked.
I shook my head. "No, only since I was around fifteen."
"And?" she said, making a "go on" motion with her hand.
"Did it just happen, or did something cause it to happen, or—well, what?"
I studied her for a long moment. "You really want to know?"
"I've never told this to anyone before."
"I'll tell you a secret, if you tell me yours," she said.
"I guess I can tell you."
Except then we just sat there for a few moments while I looked out the window and she looked at me. A skeleton in a white shirt and tie and a sharp black suit was walking by on the sidewalk. I'd seen him before and never could figure out how the bones all hung together.
"Are you just reluctant," she asked, "or can't you remember?"
"I can remember," I said, turning back to her. "It's not the kind of thing a person forgets."