On Milligan Street

I met up with Manny Valez at Rocco’s Irish Tavern in Somerville, a bar that had been a hangout for our group of mutual friends back when we were in college, mostly due to the bar’s lax policies on carding. It had been a rancid, skanky dive back then, but it had since gone into a decline. In the murky light, the world-beaten old patrons sat and drank their sad old beers from dirty glasses while staring up at the giant TV screen showing the Red Sox getting their asses kicked by the Blue Jays.

            “I love this place, Dorothy,” Manny said, as I slid into the booth opposite him. “It’s like entropy personified.”

            “It’s a bar,” I said pedantically. “It’s not anything personified. How are you doing, Manny?”

            “Just great, Dorothy,” he said, then grinned.

            He did not, at first glance, look as if he was doing just great. Fifteen years of abusing his body with just about any kind of substance he could come across had not done wonders for his physique. Always a wiry sort, he now looked thin enough to be tied in a knot, something I was sure someone had paid him to do at some point. His skin was patched and mottled, and his hair was sparse and limp like thin wet noodles.

            And yet there was an air of vitality about him that was new, a sense of life in his active brown eyes. He reminded me of an ascetic monk that had starved and mortified his body and had thus achieved enlightenment. If he had managed to achieve peace with himself and the world, I would be sorely disappointed as up to now he was one of the few friends I had for whom I could tell myself that at least I wasn’t doing as badly as them.

            “You look good,” I said, exaggerating only somewhat.

            “Thanks,” he said. “Been clean for two years now.” He raised his glass which I now saw was full of ginger ale.

            “Congratulations, Manny,” I said. “That’s fantastic. Though I’m honestly not sure I can imagine you not being drunk or high on something.”

            He laughed in an unexpectedly deep and throaty way. “Me, either. Even after two years, I’m still adjusting to unfiltered reality. But at least I’m alive, which I wouldn’t have been elsewise.”

            “Great,” I said. “It won’t be a problem if I have a beer, will it?”

            “Knock yourself out,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys in recovery who thinks everyone else is a potential addict.”

            Getting my beer from the bored bartender who preferred to flash her cleavage at the drunk middle-aged man at the counter than serving me (to be fair, I’m sure he tipped better) proved to be something of an ordeal. Flash forward to me bringing said beer back to our table and sitting back down opposite Manny.

            “Dorothy, I’ve got something to say that will blow your mind,” he said.

            Wait, I should probably flashback here and give you the précis of our relationship up to this moment. Not (I hasten to add) that we ever had a relationship relationship. He had never shown any interest in that sort of thing with me, or with anyone else, actually. The rest of us all figured he was asexual, though at one point when he was pilled or mushroomed up he claimed he was Pan-sexual, meaning he was only attracted to horned, goat-legged nature gods. I for one was not convinced he wasn’t being serious.

            Manny was the college friend that had mysterious connections that allowed him to get all sorts of things. Mostly that meant drugs, but not always. Once, I was bemoaning the fact that I was pretty much failing all of my classes and was in imminent danger of getting kicked out of school. (Not that I’m a stupid person, far from it, but I just always found classes to be the least interesting part of college life and was hard-pressed to give them any more attention than was absolutely necessary.) Anyway, he told me, “Hang on. I’ll get something for you.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but within twenty-four hours he reappeared with a small figure carved in blue stone, only an inch tall, that looked part human and part crocodile. He said it was a good luck talisman from a tribe in — well, I forget where, to be honest (I was pretty drunk myself when he gave it to me). Somewhere in Africa, I think. Or maybe South America. The point is from that moment I started doing much better in my classes and managed to glide my way through the rest of the academic year without getting the boot. I kept the talisman with me for the remainder of my undergraduate life and I credit its influence with getting me through the entire four-year program in only five years.

            I would have kept it forever, but it disappeared in the seven-day bender that followed my graduation.

            Manny never accepted any payment for his gift to me, something that I always appreciated. I did feel indebted to him, and so over the ensuing years I would continue to meet with him and treat him to dinner and drinks, despite the fact that my continual series of dead-end jobs meant that I was consigned to a life of not-so-genteel poverty. However badly I was doing, Manny was always below me on the socio-economic ladder. For all his gifts at dealing and scrounging, he could never stay unstoned enough to keep his head above the water. He should have kept that little good luck charm for himself.

            Over time, our meetings had dwindled, and it had now been several years since our last meeting. Indeed, it had been a good deal of time since I’d even thought of him, as my primary focus these days was to keep from starving to death in a gutter with the phantom of my mother hovering over me, saying “I told you to apply yourself more!” (My mother was not in fact dead, but that would not have prevented her from projecting her spectral presence over my dying body.)

            But this morning I’d gotten a text from him: “Dorothy. It’s Manny. Things going better, clean now. Have much to tell you. Rocco’s at 9:00 tonight.”

            It was typical of Manny to just assume that I had nothing else going on and would be happy to meet up with him on such short notice, and it was typical of me that his assumption was 100% correct.

            And now here we were, across from each other at a dirty table in a dirty bar.

            “You know, Dorothy,” he said. “You were always my favorite friend from college. All those others, they were just interested in the drugs or the girls I got them. They didn’t care about the really important stuff. The metaphysical shit.”

            “Did you say you supplied girls to people back in college?” I asked. “Please don’t tell me you were some kind of pimp.”

            He ignored me. (Well, to be fair he did indeed not tell me he was some kind of pimp.) “You were the only one who wasn’t just interested in getting trashed every weekend, studying just enough to get your degree, and then getting the most high-paying but soulless job you could find.”

            “Yes,” I said, “and oh how I wish I had been like that so I wouldn’t be making slave wages at a furniture store at the age of thirty-three. Look, stop trying to butter me up. You obviously want something from me, so spit it out.”

            He just grinned a big Cheshire Cat grin. “That’s where you’re wrong, Dorothy Delaware,” he said. “I don’t want anything from you. I want to share something with you. What would you say if I told you I was about to discover the secret of my life? The reason I was born? And that I could help you find out the secret of your own life?”

            “I don’t know. I’d probably say that it sounded like you were still tripping balls.”

            “Not an unreasonable reaction,” he conceded. “But wrong. What I’ve told you is true; I’m not getting mashed on drugs or booze any more. I’m getting mashed on something so much better. Knowledge.

            “Well,” I said, “it’s the information age…”

            “Not information,” he said. “Knowledge. That’s something completely different. It’s not something you can Google or get from the Web. It’s not something you can learn about in schools or read about in respected journals.”

            “I’m pretty sure schools are all about teaching knowledge,” I began, but he rolled right over me.

            “You know I’ve always had a knack for befriending odd people with odd secrets. Well, once I got straight, I found myself hungering for knowing things. The real things, the truth behind the truth. I started searching out mystics, gurus, renegade scientists, defrocked clergymen, latter-day alchemists, people who’d had visions that had driven them mad, and people who’d had visions that had driven them sane. I talked to backwoods philosophers and urban street preachers. Retired physicists and untamed child prodigies.

            “I soon discovered there’s a whole subculture out there of people who know things, things that are kept out of the news, that respectable, intelligent people would never believe, but things that are more true than 1 + 1 = 2.”

            “Uh-huh,” I said. I found myself a little disappointed with Manny. Some part of me, and it wasn’t a small part, had hoped that he had in fact stumbled onto something, a secret that might lead him — and me, too — out of the wilderness of poverty. But now he was just sounding like a ranting conspiracy theorist. What was he going to tell me: that JFK was killed to cover up the fact that the Moon landings were faked by the guys who did the inside job on 9/11?

            “You think I’m full of shit,” he said.

            “Pretty much,” I admitted.

            “Well, what if I told you that I’d uncovered the secret of the biggest mystery that no one has ever thought about. The mystery of the unknown key.” He sat back, a lopsided smile stretched across this face.

            “The what now?” I slid my glasses down my nose and peered over the tops of the lenses, a maneuver I’d developed to convey profound skepticism. The idea was to give the other person such a withering and icy glare that they would quickly grow abashed and drop the line of crap they were peddling. I must admit that it generally had no such effect, and certainly not now with Manny.

            “The unknown key that everyone has. I want you to try something. Take your keys out of your purse.”

            “I don’t have a purse.”

            “Well, take them out of wherever you have them.”

            Part of me didn’t want to play along, thinking he was being smug and insufferable, but a larger part of me was getting curious. Curiosity, I’m sorry to say, is my true weakness, and it kills me every time. I fished my keychain out of my pocket.

            “Okay,” he said. “Now, tell me what each of those keys is for.”

            Playing along, I counted off. “This one’s for my apartment, this is for my apartment complex’s front door, this one’s for the main door of the furniture shop, which I never really have to use. This one here is for my mom’s house in New Hampshire, and this one is for my mom’s house on the Cape, and this one…” I stopped at the last key. “Sorry, I don’t remember what this one is.”

            “Aha!” he said. “That’s the one. That’s the mystery key. That one key you’ve got that seems to have no purpose. It’s just there.”

            “It’s not that big a deal,” I protested. “It’s probably from one of my old apartments; you know how often I move. Or from one of my old jobs; I’ve had a lot of those, too.”

            Manny leaned forward, his eyebrows beetled up. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

            Well, of course I did. Didn’t I? I took a look at the key in question, a slender copper-colored implement that looked about as ordinary and uninteresting as any key could be.

            “I’ve got one, too,” he said, pulling out of his pocket a chain that had about twenty different keys on it. He picked out one that looked nothing like mine, being silvery with a round head.

            “A year or so ago, I was hanging out with a few fellow metaphysicians when I noted, just as a way to bridge a lull in the conversation, that I had a key that I couldn’t remember the purpose of and that it was irking me. One of the others said that he had such a key, too, and then everyone present was checking their keys, and finding one that they had no recollection of ever using.

            “The others all laughed it off, considering it just a trait of human nature to always hold onto a key long after we’ve forgotten what we need it for. But I realized I’d stumbled onto something. I didn’t believe that it was all a coincidence. If we each have such a key, then somewhere there’s a lock for it to open. That is, a place where for every human being there’s a lock waiting for them.” He sat back with an air of importance as if he’d just uttered something profound.

            “Okay,” I said, humoring him. “Do you mean a different place for each person or one place where there’s a lock for every different person on Earth?”

            “A good question! I thought it was the former, at first, as I couldn’t imagine a place where there are seven billion locked boxes or locked doors or whatever. But I realized I was thinking too rationally. Whatever is supplying us with these keys is not bound by natural law. If you fold dimensions together, you could fit an almost infinite number of boxes or rooms or whatever in a very confined space.”

            “Okay,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

            “But of course I knew I shouldn’t assume anything. So I researched. I dug through old moldering books. I talked to people who knew people who knew people. At first, I got nowhere. No one had ever looked into the issue of the unknown keys before.”

            “Not surprising,” I muttered.

            “But then I found a few odd references in my reading, and a few whispered words in dark underground rooms. People who said they knew nothing, but would slip cryptic notes into my pockets as they turned and walked away. Strange words chalked on my door in the middle of the night. And from all of this, I began to hear of a place called Milligan Street.”

            As he said those last two words, a little chill began a mountaineering expedition up my spine.

            “Ever heard of it?” he asked me.

            “No.”

            “But you reacted when I said the name. You stiffened up a little. It meant something to you.”

            “I’ve never heard of it,” I said forcefully. I suddenly wanted to get up and leave, to say goodbye to Manny and his disconcerting smile forever.

            But I didn’t.

            “Milligan Street is, so I have been told, a place where reality and unreality meet. Where the laws of nature have been revoked. Where Rhyme and Reason go off and get drunk together, and then suffer a major case of the DTs. It’s a dream place and a nightmare place.

            “I’ve heard dozens of stories about the place,” he went on, digging out a grubby little note pad and flipping through it; each page was filled with his wild, almost unreadable handwriting. “Some of them are so crazy that even I don’t believe them, like the guy who claimed he’d gone there and saw Aleister Crowley buggering John Calvin under a street lamp. I have very few actual first-hand accounts; mostly I’ve heard from people who said that friends of friends of theirs have been there.”

            “But where is this street?” I asked. “What city is it in?”

            He had clearly been waiting for me to ask that question just so he could lean back in his seat, give me a superior smile, and say, “Ah, that’s the amazing thing. It’s not located in any city. That is to say, there’s a way onto the street in nearly every major city, quite a few minor ones, and even a handful of tiny backwater towns. But the street itself belongs to none of these. It’s its own municipality, as it were. It makes its own laws, including the laws of nature.”

            “And how do you get there?”

            “Ah, there’s the rub!” he said, leaning forward again. “I’ve heard many different stories about that all from people who haven’t been there. It’s not easy, you know; for every hundred people who try to get there, only one succeeds. Going to Milligan is as much an exercise of self-deception as anything else. You have to get there without trying do get there, if you know what I mean.”

            “I don’t,” I said. “I really don’t.”

            He shrugged. “No matter. Perhaps your lack of understanding will actually help when we make our own attempt to get there.”

            “Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Step back there a little, Chester. What’s this ‘we’ stuff? I have no interest in joining you on your little jaunt to Nowhere Street.”

            “Oh, you have to go,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It should be simpler to get there with two people as opposed to one. By focusing on another person, it’s easier to distract yourself when the street is trying to block your way.”

            “But I have no interest in going to this street with you or anyone else.”

            “Dorothy,” he said. He reached forward, and I instinctively drew my hand away. He appeared not to notice. “Dorothy. Tell me something. Are you happy?”

            “Happy? Of course I’m not happy. No one’s happy in this world except for kids and crazy people.”

            He smiled. “People aren’t happy in this world because they don’t know who they are. Their identity is a mystery to themselves. You don’t have a clue who you are, Dorothy Delaware. Neither do 99.9% of everybody else. People try to find out through therapy or drugs or money or sex or religion or power or art or, God help them, through work. But that never works. They’re looking in the wrong place.”

            “And you’re saying the right place is Mulligan Street?”

            “Milligan,” he corrected me. “And yes, bizarre as that may sound, that’s where the answers are. That’s where you’ll find the lock that fits your key. Literally. What do you think?”

            “I think your brain hasn’t quite recovered from your years of tripping.”

            And yet, despite it all, I found myself getting a bit hooked. His words were getting under my skin. On the one hand, I didn’t really believe a single thing he was saying, but on the other I was so fiercely angry at how I was living my life now that there seemed nothing to lose.

            “Is there anything dangerous there?” I asked him. “On the street, I mean?”

            The corners of his mouth inched outward, a spasmodic smile that indicated that he knew he’d hooked me. “Oh, I’m sure. There are dangers on every street. But with two of us it’ll be that much safer.”

            “And do you have a plan for getting us there?”

            “Not yet. I have to do some research, and some thinking. But there is a way to get there from Boston, I’m sure of it. I should know more in a week. I’ll call you then.”

            “Okay,” I said, not sure when I agreed to all of this.

            “Beautiful. I’ll be in touch in a week or two. Say, do you mind picking up the check? I’m a little light right now.”


            In fact, it was only five days later that he called, late on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I had had the morning shift at work, and I was now back in my apartment, sipping chai and idly making a list of things I could do to improve my life, in alphabetical order:

            –Alcohol, drink slightly less amounts of

            –Arguing with Mom, don’t betray emotions when

            –Boss, avoid rolling eyes when getting lectures from

            –Boyfriends, don’t take to bed before third date with

“It’s Manny,” said Manny when I picked up. “Can you come now?”

            “Now?” I said. “I’d like to, but I’m already booked to have tea with the queen.”

            “You don’t fool me. It’s after 4:00 already. Do you want to get to Milligan Street or not?”

            “Well, I’m not sure. Does it have to be now? Can’t it wait?”

            “No, it can’t wait. These things are highly time-sensitive. If we don’t go in the next couple of hours, we might not have another chance for years.”

            I wanted to ask him why, but I realized he’d give me an answer that was nonsensical or bullshit or both. I also wanted to say no, go without me, but I looked down at my sad little list and decided I had to take a chance.

            “Okay,” I said. “Where do I meet you?”

            “Come to the Government Center T stop. I’ll meet you there.”

            “What should I wear?”

            “Wear? Anything. What does it matter what you wear?”

            “Well, I have no idea what this place is like and have to look suitable. I mean, if I wear jeans and a T-shirt, are people going to look at me and say, ‘How déclassé’? Or should I wear something more evening gown-ish?”

            I could hear him sigh with exasperation. “It doesn’t matter. Wear anything you want. No one will care. I’ll see you in half an hour.” He hung up.

            Well, that wasn’t very helpful. What should you wear when you open the vault that contains your raison d’etre? I decided to go casual but tasteful — my second-best pair of jeans and a red and blue blouse. For shoes, I went with my brown slip-ons. The tough part was selecting which glasses to wear; I finally chose the ones with the square plastic frames. They emanated a studious air that seemed appropriate for one coming to grips with the nature of one’s existence.

            It was in truth nearly an hour later when I emerged from the Government Center station, under the frowning gaze of the bleak fortress that Boston calls a city hall. The plaza there was filled with people, many of them tourists. Not far away, a guide in woman’s colonial garb was talking about the Boston Massacre to a crowd of intent adults and bored children. A little further off a handful of teenagers were messing about on skateboards.

            Manny was there, waiting for me. He seemed more relaxed than he’d been on the phone and cheerfully waved off my apologies for being late.

            “I’m just glad you’re here,” he said. He was wearing black jeans and a fringed jacket that must have been hot in the summer sun. “Are you ready?”

            “Not really,” I admitted. “Can you give me some more details on what to expect?”

            “Nope!” he answered happily. “There’s no way of knowing what will happen until we’re actually there. Come along, come along.”

            He grabbed my arm and led me first down State Street, then off one side street and then another, narrow ways with neck-achingly tall buildings towering over us. We had entered the business district, which on weekends was a ghost town. No tourists or shoppers came here. Common sense told me there were weekend workers in nearly all of the buildings we passed, but I had an unsettling feeling that we were the only people here and that the grim concrete office buildings resented our intrusion on this, their day of rest.

            The feeling was mine alone, as Manny was in good spirits. He seemed to know exactly where we were going and hummed and chuckled to himself as we trotted along the empty sidewalks. This was quite literally the happiest I’d ever seen him; I realized that he looked much healthier and livelier than he’d been just five days previously. It was more than a little creepy.

            “Where are we going?” I asked to break the silence more than anything else, as I knew he wasn’t going to give me an answer.

            “It’s just ahead,” he said, and abruptly turned a corner. We were now in a small street with a deli (closed, of course) on one side and a parking garage on the other. Continuing to hum non-melodically to himself, Manny led me past the deli and into a tiny alley just beyond, lying between the deli and an old brick warehouse that looked as if were auditioning to be the site of a slasher film. In the alley was an overloaded dumpster and not much else.

            “It’s here,” Manny said.

            I gave him a look that was five parts incredulity to two parts disdain. “What, this place? This is Milligan Street?”

            He sighed. “Dorothy, for a smart woman you can be astoundingly dumb sometimes. No, this isn’t Milligan Street, but it’s from here that we can get to Milligan Street. If my sources are accurate.”

            “Uh-huh. And what sources might these be, actually?”

            He grinned a supremely punchable grin. “Sorry, can’t tell you. I don’t reveal my sources.” He stopped grinning. “Mostly because of what they’d do to me if I did. Now, I’m going to ask you to be quiet for a few moments, difficult as I know that is for you, while I scope things out.”

            He turned his back on me and walked to the brick wall of the deli. He began to tap at random bricks at various levels, crouching down or stretching up to reach them as the case might be, like a detective in a trite old mystery novel trying to find a secret passage.

            As for me, I was strongly inclined to turn around and leave his sorry ass there by himself. Much of this feeling was due to his general dickishness and another large chunk was because I still didn’t really believe in his idiotic story anyway. However, a not insignificantly-sized third portion of this feeling was due to my being afraid that his story was all too accurate, that if there was a Milligan Street, then perhaps there was a reason why travelers were discouraged from going there.

            I found myself thinking that I could still salvage the day by slinking away while Manny was obsessing with the brick wall to return to my shitty little apartment and spend the rest of the day watching reruns of “My So-Called Life.” Just as I was thinking that maybe I should go with “Party of Five” instead, Manny interrupted my chain of thought by saying, “Ah! I’ve got it!”

            I looked over, prepared to see the bricks parting to reveal a hidden doorway, but no, it was still nothing but solid brick, no different from before my mind went a-wandering. The only difference was that Manny’s smug smile was now a few centimeters wider.

            “What have you got?” I asked.

            “The way to Milligan Street!” he waved at the wall behind him. “Through there!”

            “Through the bricks? What is this, some kind of Platform Nine and Three-quarters thing?”

            “Oddly enough, that’s not far off,” he said. “You have to stop thinking about the wall in order to pass through it. Here, take my hand.” He held out his hand, and I for some cause beyond reason, took it in my own.

            “Now,” he said. “Just think of a song. Any song, the first one that pops into your head. Don’t tell me, just think of it.”

            It was “Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves. Don’t ask me why, it just was.

            “Now, close your eyes, and start humming that song to yourself.”

            Don’t listen to him, fool, I thought to myself as I did exactly as he asked.

            “Now,” he said, “We’re going to start walking. Don’t think about anything else but the song in your head. Try to remember where you were when you first heard it. Who were you with? What did you feel about it? What do you think the song means? As you think about it, we’ll start walking, but put your legs on automatic, and concentrate on the song.”

            I obediently set my feet to walking and thought about the song, which I’d first heard when my roommate Gloria had played it. I wasn’t expecting to like it because country is not my usual thing, and country pop is practically my un-thing, but the song was funny and catchy and inspiring in a girl-power kind of way, and I asked Gloria to play it three or four more times, and why the fuck am I thinking about a Kacey Musgraves song at a time like this? Why am I letting Manny of all people — Manny, who can barely keep his own shit together — tell me what to do like I’m some kind of backwards toddler? The hell with him, I’ll open my god-damned eyes if I want to.

            “Okay,” Manny said. “We’re here. You can open your eyes.”

            I opened my eyes.


            Milligan Street was not what I had expected.

            Well, of course it wasn’t. I mean, what I had expected was that Manny would admit that the whole expedition was just a grand exercise in yanking my chain, and that after he fessed up to being a bald-faced bullshitter, we’d go off and I’d have a beer and he’d have a ginger ale and he’d chuckle about what a gullible feeb I was, and I’d laugh too, to show I was a good sport, and then I’d take pains to never see him again.

            But Milligan Street was not what I had imagined.

            From the brief little prospectus Manny had outlined, my brain had conjured images of what this impossible street might be like if it actually did exist, and what denizens I might find there. I had visions of open markets where bronze-skinned vendors haggled with turbaned men in brilliantly colored outfits over the prices of bottles containing mysterious smoky liquids. Of shops where antiquated booksellers proffered antiquated books containing magic spells that could summon up monstrous demons. Of sidewalk cafés where attractive men with Errol Flynn mustaches sat drinking cappuccinos, ready to invite you to join them on great days of adventure and wild nights in bed. Of terraced gardens where masked women in slinky outfits plucked white roses to wave under their noses before tossing them aside for their panting pale-skinned admirers to scoop up.

            Milligan Street had none of these.

            It was about twenty feet wide, paved with pieces of flat white stone, closely joined together. Looming over the street, on each side, were large hulking buildings, attached to each other like brownstones. They had differing appearances — some were made of brick, some of granite, and some of concrete — but for all that they might have all been part of only two gargantuan structures, one on each side of the road. They stretched up high enough that it was difficult to tell from the narrow street just how many stories they had. They had doors, all of which were closed, and windows, all of which were shuttered. There was no sign of life. It was as unwelcome a place as could be imagined.

            “What do you think?” Manny asked.

            I jumped at the sound of his voice, which disrupted the still quiet of the forbidding street. It sounded almost like a provocation.

            “This place gives me the willies,” I said, which was an almost laughable understatement.  There was a coldness to Milligan Street, which was partly literal — it was at least twenty degrees cooler here than it had been back in Boston (assuming we weren’t in Boston anymore) — but spiritual as well. The street emanated an air of indifference if not downright hostility towards us.

            “All right,” I said. “I admit you were right. Milligan Street, if that’s what this is, does in fact exist. But I’m not getting the sense that this is the place where either of us is going to find the purpose of our lives. Honestly, I’m willing to throw in the towel now and head back home.”

            At that, he laughed out loud, a laugh that echoed hollowly in the empty street. “Oh, come on, Dorothy. Where’s your sense of adventure? You’re in a place where very few people have been. Don’t you want to explore a bit?”

            “Not really,” was what I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to exhibit such total wussification before Manny. So instead, I said “Sure” and “Why not?” and “I suppose there’s no harm in it” like a complete idiot.

            Plus I did have an urge to check the place out. Like I said, curiosity is what gets me into trouble.

            “Great,” he said. “Follow me.” He began to walk up the street.

            “Wait,” I shouted after him, having to fight the urge to keep my voice to a whisper in this tabernacle of a street. “Shouldn’t we mark where we came in, so we know where to go back?”

            “Already done!” he called back. I turned and saw that on the wall behind me there were indeed words scrawled out in chalk that just said “WAY BACK.”

            Manny had not done that, at least not in the few minutes since we’d arrived here. I had a sudden realization: he’d been here before.

            “Come on!” he called after me.

            I ran to catch up with him and began peppering him with questions. “What are these buildings? Who built them? Does anyone live here now? What are we looking for, exactly?”

            He interrupted my torrent of verbiage with a lordly wave of his hand. “You’re asking the wrong questions,” he said. “Milligan Street has its own rules. No one ‘built’ these structures as such. You might say they just grew, like Topsy. And no one lives here, but there are those who spend a good deal of time here. We’ll meet some of them in a moment.”

            “How the hell do you know so much about this place?” I asked. But he ignored this question and continued to walk quickly; I trotted after him because what the hell else was I going to do?

            As we hurried our way along, I pulled out my phone to check to see what kind of signal I could get. Somehow I was not surprised, though a little dismayed, to find that it was completely dead; I could get nothing more than an empty black screen even though I had charged it not long before leaving home that afternoon.

            “Phones don’t work here,” Manny called back to me, having somehow surmised what I was doing though he hadn’t turned around.

            “Of course they don’t,” I muttered to myself as I shoved it back into my pocket.

            As we continued to trot along, I looked around to see what there was to see. I noticed that some person or persons had scrawled messages on some of the building walls. Sometimes it was only a single word: “Unattach” or “Jahannam.” Others were full sentences, though these were scarcely more understandable: “Meet me on the underside” and “Stop before the first step” and “Avoid the phantom army.”

            On the white stone wall of one structure, someone had written an entire quatrain. I stopped to read it.

            Blessed is the star that tumbles

            Blessed is the tongue that lies

            Blessed is the age that humbles

            Blessed is the child that dies

            This made no more sense than the other graffiti, but something inside me found it deeply unsettling. A little shiver passed through me. ‘Blessed is the child that dies’ indeed!

            “Delaware, what’s holding you up?” Manny called back. “Hurry up. We don’t want to be late for this.”

            “Late for what?” I wanted to call back, but didn’t. I knew I wouldn’t get a straight answer from him. And why was he calling me “Delaware?” I was always “Dorothy” to him, or else the full “Dorothy Delaware” if he was making some kind of pedantic point, or “Dot” if he was trying to piss me off, but he’d never just called me “Delaware” before.

            Every instinct I had and every particle of rationality in my brain were telling me that nothing good was going to come from my being here. I couldn’t remember the last time my reason and my gut were on the same side of an issue, and in this case, they were joining forces with good old common sense.

            In the face of this yammering army of argument, I ran after Manny down Milligan Street. Because I just had to know.

            Curiosity. I’m telling you, goddam curiosity. It’ll get you every time.

            I only caught up with Manny when he’d stopped in front of a structure made of what looked like blocks of sandstone like an Egyptian tomb. It had a door, incongruously made of stainless steel, that was as smooth and blank as a botoxed forehead. There were no handles or keyholes on its glassy gray surface. I could tell that Manny was waiting for me to ask him how he knew that this was the place we needed to be just so he could ignore me, so I didn’t give him the satisfaction. Instead, I asked:

            “How do we get in?”

            “We knock.” And he knocked, his knuckles producing a dry, hollow sound on the metal door.

            Run, I heard a voice in my head say. Run now.

            “Did you say something?” Manny asked.

            “No.”

            He knocked again.

            The door opened, sliding smoothly into the wall. Facing us was a tall and cadaverously thin man dressed in faded jeans and a Sonic Youth t-shirt. His outfit looked out of place in this pale city, but I would be hard-pressed to think of any clothing that wouldn’t. He peered down at us through eyes that had never known softness and spoke with a mouth that had never smiled. He reminded me of every waiter who ever thought I wasn’t good enough to eat at their restaurant.

            “You’re here,” he said. The subtleties of the situation had obviously not escaped him. “Show me the keys.”

            Manny turned to me. “Show him the key.”

            The key? The key! Amidst all the weirdness of Milligan Street, I’d forgotten the ostensible reason I was there. I fished my keys out of my pocket and, with only a moderate amount of clumsiness brought on by being stared at by the grim waiter (I could now not think of him as anything else), extracted the Unknown Key. I started to hand it to him, but he said sharply: “Don’t give it to me. It’s your key. Just let me see it.”

            “Just show it to him,” Manny added, providing unneeded reiteration. He had his key in his own hand, but the waiter seemed completely uninterested in it.

            Given that the grim waiter was about two heads taller than I, the task of showing him my key was not as straightforward a process as it might seem. I lifted it up above my head, and he angled his own tête down to peer at it. “Hmm,” he said. I was waiting for him to pull out a jeweler’s glass to screw into his eye, but instead he just raised his head and said, “Come with me.”

            The words were not filled with warmth and welcome, and I might have finally decided to give in to the Voice of Reason after all and flee the premises had not Manny grabbed my arm and pulled me through the door.

            “Come on,” he said. And then, “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”

            I ask you now: Has there ever been any time in your life when a man has told you “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right” and your heart hasn’t sunk like a rock in a koi pond?

            But before I could squawk he’d yanked me past the door, which slid back into place behind us.

            “Don’t ever yank on my arm again,” I growled at Manny.

            He smiled at me. “Listen, this is for your own good.” (That’s even worse than “Don’t worry.”)

            “Why did he look at my key, but not yours?” I asked.

            He shrugged. “Ask him.”

            We were now in a narrow hall, lit (not very well) by some flickering incandescent lights mounted in brackets on the walls. The grim waiter was walking up ahead of us. Manny and I followed behind.

            “Tell me the truth, for once,” I continued talking to Manny as we stumbled along. “You’ve been here before, haven’t you? Who is this guy? Where’s he taking us? What’s really going on? And if you say that I’ll find out soon, I’m going to kick you in the nuts. Twice.”

            “You’ll find out soon,” he said.

            “Asshole,” I said, but I did not kick him in the nuts, something I was soon to regret.

            The stone-walled corridor continued onward. Its tunnel-like appearance combined with my latent claustrophobia gave me the feeling that we were traveling underground, though I knew that was nonsense. (Or was it? Manny had established that natural laws were different here.) I could do little now but keep walking, staring at the back of Manny’s neck, which I noticed sported a tattoo that I had never noticed before: a knife or dagger with bright red drops dripping from it. As tattoos go, this did not inspire much confidence.

            After a time (how much time it was difficult to say) the halls widened out into a room. It resembled what a castaway on a desert island might construct if she missed her days at the insurance agency and tried to cobble together what she could to make a shadowed replica of her office. There was a desk that was not much more than a collection of random planks nailed together and a chair that was really more of a box. On the wall were notices and posters that were too dim to read, as the only light came from one of those shaky light bulbs, hanging by a string from the ceiling.

            Seated on the box/chair behind the desk was a magnificently hideous man. Now, I don’t want to come across as lookist or anything, but this person’s repulsiveness was almost awe-inspiring. His wide mouth was filled with uneven, mismatched teeth that looked like they were collected from the jaws of several random carnivores. His nose was upturned to such a degree that I had a splendid view into the depths of his hairy nostrils. And then there were his bulging eyes, covered with crackly red veins. If my phone had been working, I would have snapped his picture just to reassure myself later that this had not all been a dream.

            Nostril guy stared at Manny through squinting eyes, and then did the same to me with a look that I would almost call hungry. I was reminded of a person trying to pick out which lobster in the tank was the one he wanted, and then wished like hell that I had not been so reminded. He then said something to the grim waiter in a low, guttural voice. He did not speak in English or, if he did, it was not any English I’d ever heard.

            “Give him your hand,” the waiter told me.

            For a moment, I had the crazy idea that I was supposed to chop off one of my hands and pass it over to Nostrils (using the one remaining). Then I realized what he meant and laughed at my own skittishness. The little guffaw sounded strained and artificial in this decidedly uncomical place and I quickly stifled it. The three men were all looking at me intently. I could sense the imminent arrival of the maître d’ with the net to fish me out.

            “What does he want with my hand?” I asked Manny.

            “It’s just a formality,” he said, unreassuringly.

            “A formality for what? Will you please tell me what I’m doing here?”

            “You’re fulfilling your dreams.” It was the nostril man, smiling as benignly as he could, which wasn’t very. He was speaking English now, but with a strong yet indeterminate accent. “You are going to find and read your soul-script, which will reveal to you the definitive reason you were put on this earth, a privilege very few are allowed.” He grinned a little wider, exposing more of his alarming teeth. “I can sense you are in an unsettled mood. Perhaps my colleague and I are not what you imagined would be the agents of your salvation. But you must not mistake the mask for the person. Now, please, let me have your hand for a moment. I assure you that I will not do anything to hurt you.”

            I shot a glance at Manny, whose face was stone. Then I shrugged and offered Nostrils my open hand. What’s the worst that could happen?

            I really did not want to know the answer to that question.

            He leaned forward to study my hand at close range, though he did not (I was relieved to note) touch it. His gaze was intense, as if he were trying to find the answer to the mystery of life right there in my palm.

            After what seemed to be a long while (I was losing all sense of time, which seemed to pass at a different rate here on Milligan Street) he pulled his head up. “And may I see the key, please?”

            I reached into my pocket and once again produced the item in question. Nostrils looked at it for only a second or two before saying, “It is acceptable. She may go in.”

            I looked over at Manny. “What about you? Don’t you need to show him your hand?”

            “We’ll take care of you first,” he answered a bit too smoothly. “Then it’ll be my turn.”

            Ignoring us, Nostrils picked up a small bell that I had not noticed before and gave it a small shake. I could barely hear the soft tinkle that it produced, but almost before it had even registered, a door back in the dim depths of the room flew open and a woman emerged.

            She looked about twenty-five with her hair cropped very short and dyed pink. From one ear dangled a chain that ended in a little gold pentagram. She wore baggy pants and a silvery blouse.

            “Gretchen,” said the man behind the desk, “take them to Warehouse 23.”

            “Sure thing,” she said, her voice as silvery as her shirt. She turned to Manny and me. “Ready to head out now? It’s a bit of a walk. Do you want to eat anything first?”

            “No,” I said. I was not hungry at all. Nor, for that matter, did I need to pee. Which was strange, because it had been — an hour? two hours? five hours? — a good deal of time since we’d arrived on Milligan Street, so you’d think I’d have an empty stomach or a full bladder by now. Was my metabolism being held in stasis? Was that something I should freak out about? I decided it was not, as there were so many more obvious things to freak out about.

            Gretchen beckoned us over to the rear of the office where there were several metal doors similar to the one by which we’d entered the building. As we approached one (it may or may not have been the one she’d come through) the door slid aside and Manny and I followed her down another dim corridor.

            “Let me tell you what will happen when we get there,” Gretchen looked back at me as we trotted along. I found her friendly voice and open face quite disarming — not to mention the fact that she was the only person I’d met today who was willing to tell me anything useful. “Think of the warehouse like a huge bank vault. Thousands and thousands of little drawers, like safe deposit boxes. One of them is yours, just for you, that only your key can open. Depending on where it’s located, it may or may not be easy for you to get to. But once you’ve unlocked it, you’ll find all you’ll ever need to know. It may not be what you expect, but whatever it is, it’ll turn your life around.”

            “What about you?” I asked. “What did you find in your magic box?”

            “Oh, I haven’t opened mine yet. I’m not ready for it. Once you’ve opened it, you can’t stay on Milligan Street any longer.”

            “Really? I hadn’t thought of it as being such a lovely piece of real estate.”

            She laughed, a warm and reassuring laugh. “Oh, I know. But I’m going to school here.”

            “School? On Milligan Street?”

            “Oh, yes. It’s kind of an underground school in metaphysics and practical philosophy. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve learned. Granted, it’s not much of a party school, but we all have to make sacrifices.” She glanced over at Manny as she said that.

            I found myself liking Gretchen a lot. Now, on any given day I’m pretty much 85% straight, 14% bi-curious, and 1% hello, Penelope Cruz. But with Gretchen I could sense those percentages shifting.

            On and on we went. On occasion we passed a door on the left or right, and on even rarer occasion Gretchen led us through such a door and down another corridor. There were no markings anywhere, but she never hesitated or backtracked. She continued to talk as we went on, telling me about her youth in Bangor, Maine. Meanwhile, Manny said not a word, walking at the back, his face caught up in an expression of almost painful intensity.

            “How did you first hear about Milligan Street?” I asked Gretchen. “And how did you get here?”

            “Oh, there’s a passageway to here from Bangor,” she said. “Though you can only open it in March or September. I think. Anyway, I was at the right place at the right time.”

            “But why did–” I began, but she cut me off.

            “Here we are.”

            We were in front of a door that was like every other one we’d passed. But when it slid open, it revealed a room as large as a city.

            Or so it seemed to my fevered eyes. In truth, it was hard to say how big it was as the scraggly lights provided as much shadow as light. Looming directly in front of us was an immense block of metal, thirty feet high, twenty feet wide, and God knows how long — it stretched down the room for as far as I could see in the anemic light. I could make out another block beyond this one, and another beyond that. Despite their regular, cuboid forms, they seemed to me to be vast living creatures, steel titans that were currently asleep, but might rouse themselves at any moment.

            “This is Warehouse 23!” Gretchen announced. “Here’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

            She marched ahead with the same unhesitating confidence as before and Manny and I fell into step behind her. Our footsteps echoed thinly in the vast emptiness of the room. I looked upwards and could barely discern the ceiling in the dim heights above.

            I heard a slight rustling behind me and turned to look. In the shadows, I thought I saw something move, just a flash of darkness against the somewhat lesser darkness in the depths of the room.

            “I think there’s someone here with us.” I could hear my voice shaking like a maraca.

            “Pay no attention.” Gretchen turned and clasped my hand with her own reassuring one. She unfurled a smile that lightened the gloomy room. “Nothing here can harm you unless we allow it.”

            I was simultaneously heartened by her words and subtly terrorized by their ambiguous threat. I realize that’s a contradiction and I must admit I don’t have the words to explain exactly what I was feeling. It was cognitive dissonance on a grand scale: I had complete trust in Gretchen while being absolutely sure that she was leading us to a fate most unpleasant.

            We walked past the ends of the looming blocks. Up close, I could see they were made of some kind of drab gray metal and that their surfaces were covered with little doors or drawers, each about a foot and a half wide and five inches high. They covered the entire surface of the blocks, meaning there must have been thousands upon thousands of these neat little drawers in this room. Here and there, leaning nonchalantly against the monumental structures, were ladders that were clearly used to access the more elevated drawers. They did not exactly inspire unqualified confidence as they looked rickety enough to fall apart if one sneezed on them.

            As we trod our way along, the rustling behind us grew louder as if more things were joining in the parade behind us. I debated whether it would be worth it to look back, whether the fear of not knowing what was behind us was worse than the fear of knowing all too well what was behind us. Just as I had decided on the latter, Gretchen looked back at me again and said, with a winning smile, “Have no fear.”

            I instantly felt a sense of calm settle over me, as if my body had released a great quantity of really bitchin’ endorphins. What did it matter who was behind us? Gretchen was with us, and she wasn’t afraid, so all was well.

            A tiny voice in the back of my mind said, “Why are you trusting her? You don’t know her. You don’t know what’s really behind you. You don’t know what kind of situation you’re really in. Face it, Dorothy Delaware, you don’t know jack shit.”

            Shut up, I mentally shouted back at the voice. We don’t want to go bonzo dog in front of Gretchen.

            “Will you listen to yourself?” the voice said. “Something’s very wrong here, and she’s at the center of it.”

            Before I could riposte, Gretchen herself spoke up again: “Down this way.” We had passed three of the colossal blocks; she was pointing down the length of the fourth. She turned and walked in that direction, and I toddled along afterwards. Manny, so very uncharacteristically silent, came after, and the nameless scuttling things trailed behind.

            “We’re almost there!” Gretchen said, her voice still cheerful in the gloom.

            “How do you know where to go?” I asked.

            She grinned back. “Because here’s where the D’s are, Dorothy!”

            We were now walking right beside the fourth block, and I could see the multitude of drawers close up. Each was embossed with a name in elegant but cleanly legible letters: Dominic Mark Sanders, Dominic Martin Vale, Dominic Mason LaRue…

            “Just a little bit further,” Gretchen said.

            The scuttling sound was following us down the row between the hulking blocks. It was definitely much louder now, due to either the scuttlers being closer behind us or there being many more of them. Neither was a welcome possibility, though again I found myself putting my faith in Gretchen’s goodness.

            “Don’t be an idiot!” said my inner voice.

            “And here we are,” said Gretchen.

            We had reached the Dorothys, row upon row of neat little drawers for Dorothy Michaela Wu, Dorothy Michelle Charles, Dorothy Minty Fresh (seriously?), Dorothy Mitchell Perez, and on and on.

            “So here’s where all the Dorothys in the world would have to come to find their purpose?” I asked.

            “Oh, no,” Gretchen said. “We don’t have all of the Dorothys. I mean, we don’t have everyone here in this building. Only certain ones, like you. You could fill up a warehouse like this just with all the Dorothys there are, you know, and still run out of room. But this is where you are.”

            “Where am I?” I said. I looked around wildly for my name.

            “Up there, I’m afraid.” Gretchen pointed her slender hand upwards. “Dorothy Ann Delaware would be towards the top of this particular column here.”

            “I’ll fetch a ladder,” Manny said. It was the first thing he’d said in nearly half an hour. His voice sounded thick, like he was fighting off some nameless emotion.

            “You know, I’m not really quite 100% with heights,” I said to Gretchen. “If you don’t mind, I’ll give you the key and you can climb up for it.”

            “I can’t open your drawer for you,” Gretchen said, smiling in a sad way.

            “Well, I’ll get Manny to do it.”

            “No one can open your drawer but you,” she said. “Your key won’t work for anyone else.”

            “Of course it won’t,” I muttered to myself as Manny returned with a ladder over his shoulder. It was very long and very narrow and did not in the least inspire confidence in the one who was about to boost her ass up its rickety structure.

            As Manny leaned it against the bulk of the metallic block, I looked back over the way we came. The rustling had stopped when we had ceased walking. I couldn’t see much in the dim light but the vast blocks and the ladders casting shadows on them. Some of the shadows seemed to twitch and shiver, but perhaps that was just my eyes playing tricks on me.

            “All right,” Manny said. “Up you get.” I couldn’t see his face clearly in the gloom, but there was a tenor in his voice I didn’t care for, redolent of both hunger and triumph. I didn’t know what it meant, but I didn’t like it.

            “You sure this is safe?” I asked Gretchen.

            It was Manny who answered. “Sure. We’ll hold the ladder steady down here. You won’t fall.”

            That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but I didn’t say anything. I just put my right foot on the bottom rung and began to climb.

            If you have never climbed a tottering ladder in a dingy warehouse in order to discover the reason for your existence (and I’m willing to lay odds that you haven’t) I can’t really begin to describe it. You’re probably imagining that it was a wretched and miserable experience, but in fact it was far worse than that. With each rung on which I set my foot there would be a painful creak, as if said rung were not quite sure it was ready to take my weight on its metaphoric shoulders. I would fully expect it to snap, but it would not, and I would lift my other foot to the next rung, and the anxiety would start all over again. I was quite convinced that the ladder was going to crack in two and send me crashing to the floor, thus disposing of my life at the very point of my finding out its purpose. Such irony!

            At one point I found myself wondering if there were any bats in the warehouse, but as soon as that thought surfaced I stomped it down again.

            Several times I considered saying screw it and climbing back down again. But having come this way, I reasoned, I might as well see it through. (Economists call this the sunk cost fallacy.)

            As I climbed, the nameplates on the little doors tripped backwards alphabetically: Dorothy Edwina Manders, Dorothy Edgington Sanderson, Dorothy Ecstasy Tribbins…

            Despite or (perhaps) because of my state of tension sweetened with pure fear, I found that in some ways I was thinking more clearly now than I’d been doing at the bottom of the ladder. I was mulling over the things that voice in my head had babbled about earlier and was now acknowledging that it had made some good points.

            What was I doing here? Did I really want to find out my purpose? Manny had been so adamant about it that I had fallen in line just as a matter of course without really considering what this meant. I wasn’t like me to be so passive. Well, maybe it was, but it shouldn’t be. Why was Manny so insistent? Why did seem to care so much more about me finding my purpose over him finding his own?

            I was having an uneasy feeling that Manny was keeping something from me. Well, come on, it was obvious he was keeping something from me. But I had been assuming that whatever was going on, he didn’t intend me any harm. I mean, this was Manny. Not the most stable individual, to be sure, but still essentially what my dad would have called a good egg. And he was certainly more stable now than I’d ever known him to be before.

            Did that mean he was less of a good egg, then?

            That was a nonsensical thought, totally irrational. But there it was. Could something have twisted Manny morally in the act of getting his shit together?

            I stopped my upward climb for a moment and looked down. I could see Manny and Gretchen down below, clutching my ladder and looking back up at me. They looked a very long way away.

            “Is everything okay?” Gretchen shouted up in her lilting voice.

            So, what about her? How had I developed such an instant girl-crush on her? From the moment I saw her, I liked and trusted her for no apparent reason. It was as if she emitted some kind of pheromone that made me all hot and giddy and willing to follow her anywhere. But now I was far enough away from her, I was free of its effects and found myself wondering just who she was and why she was so keen on my retrieving my purpose.

            “Yeah, everything’s peachy,” I called back. “I’m just taking a quick break.”

            “Okay,” she smiled back with her voice.

            I blinked. For a moment I could have sworn that there were more people down there, maybe a half dozen figures standing behind Manny and Gretchen. But when I shifted my gaze to them, they vanished — or, more accurately, they seemed to shift to a different location, back at the edge of my vision. It was like seeing a floater in your eye on a sunny day and trying to focus on it, but when you move your pupil it drifts further away from your vision. Without being able to center the things in my sightline, I couldn’t get much of a sense of what they looked like in the gloom of the room.

            “Is there someone down there with you?” I asked.

            “No,” Manny spoke up, too quickly. My heart started to beat a little faster. He had not said, “Are you crazy? Who would be down here?” He had not asked, “Why? Can you see anyone?” He had not said, “Yes, the Harvard squash team is down here practicing their short volleys.” He had not said any of the things any human being would naturally say if there was no one else down there. He had said “No” quickly and forcefully, as if he knew exactly what I had seen, and was taking pains to tell me I hadn’t seen it.

            I didn’t know what to do, apart from wishing I was back snug and safe in my bed at home watching crappy reality shows on my laptop while eating Cheez Doodles. But that wasn’t happening. So, I just started climbing again.

            Onward and upward. I was nearing the top now. It figured that my little drawer would be so far away from the ground.

            And yet there it was: Dorothy Ann Delaware, located right above Dorothy April Federson and underneath Dorothy Alison van der Linde, which was itself the topmost drawer in its column. Above it was only the broad flat roof of the block.

            I don’t know how long I perched there on my precarious ladder, staring at the stately letters that spelled out my name. Amid a sea of other Dorothys, I felt a bit lost in myself.

            “Did you find it?” Manny’s voice echoed from below. “Come on, Dorothy, you’re killing me down here! Did you find it?”

            “Yes,” I said, but it came out a whisper. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Yes.”

            “Okay, then. Open it up and get what you need, and then we can get out of here!”

            I nodded, though he couldn’t have seen. Open it up. All I needed was the key.

            And thus I had to contend with cramming my hand into the pocket of my jeans (which seemed unaccountably tighter than I remembered) to fish out the key, all while standing on a thin rung of a flimsy ladder in a dank, dark warehouse on Milligan Street. This is what my life had brought me to.

            “Well, at least now you’ll now what the meaning of your life is,” I told myself. I was unconsoled.

            Against all odds I managed to fish out my key without knocking myself off my little perch. It was only as I raised my hand to the little keyhole under my name that it occurred to me that it was only supposition and wishful thinking that made any of us believe that this was the actual key to my drawer.

            It took several tries for me to fit the key into the lock due to my hand being unaccountably shaky. But on the third or fourth go, it slid in with reassuring ease. Holding my breath, I applied a clockwise twist and was greeted with a reassuring click. Of its own accord, the drawer slid open and came within an inch of knocking into the ladder and sending it and me floorwards to be mutually shattered to pieces.

            After waiting for a moment to let my heartbeat return to something a little less than 500 bpm, I looked into the drawer. It was almost completely empty. The only thing inside was a piece of paper, about the dimensions of a smartphone in height and width, folded in half. I reached in, picked it up and unfolded it. On the paper was a mass of writing in cursive. In the meager light, I could make out very little of it, but I was able to pick out the words “harbinger,” “transformation,” and what might have been “marsupial” from the indecipherable bulk.

            “Did you get it?” Manny again. He sounded in agony.

            “Yes,” I shouted back down.

            “Well bring it down! Right now!”

            It was a command. I peered down at him and Gretchen, two gray figures in the gray world of the warehouse. There were even more of the gauzy, ghost-like figures down there, fifteen to twenty maybe, though again I couldn’t seem to focus on any individual one.

            “Who’s down there with you?” I shouted down at them.

            “I’m telling you, there’s no one,” he yelled back.

            “I can see them, Manny! What are they? Are they ghosts or something?”

            A slight pause. I swear I could hear his teeth clench. When he spoke, his voice was as cold as a polar bear’s breath. “Delaware,” he said, “Get your ass down here now.”

            For a moment I remained there, perched atop my ladder, looking down at this old friend whose voice contained no friendship. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could imagine them, and I didn’t like what they revealed. His mask had slipped and I got the feeling that things were about to go tits-up in a big way.

            I slammed the drawer closed and crammed the paper with my key back into my pocket, then climbed up the final few rungs of the ladder and hoisted myself up on the top of the block.

            “Dorothy!” That voice again, so full of anger and of desperation. “What the hell are you doing?”

            I didn’t reply, not least because I didn’t really know the answer to that question. After a moment to catch my breath, I began to sprint down the length of the titanic block.

            Like I said, I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was that Manny did not mean well by me, and that I had to get as far from him as I could.

            It was a hopeless situation, of course. Where could I go? Eventually, I’d get to the end of the block and have to get down again. I’d have to make my way past Manny and Gretchen and their ghost army, and then through the labyrinth of passages from the warehouse back to the main entrance, somehow slipping by the grim waiter and Nostrils (who I could only assume would have something to say about my trying to escape), ending up back on Milligan Street, from whence I would have to find the way back to Boston again. Just thinking about it made it clear how impossible all this was, so I immediately stopped thinking about it, and just kept running.

            My shoes made a hollow clunk-clunk-clunk sound against the metal roof of the block as I sprinted along. If I had known that I’d end up running for my life along the top of a ginormous file cabinet, I would have worn my gym shoes. Well, at least I wasn’t wearing heels. Thank God for small mercies.

            Just as I was noticing that the clomping of my shoes seemed to be raising a strange echo, I heard Manny’s voice again. “Dorothy! Stop! Just stop! I just want to talk to you.” It was coming from behind me now; he had obviously climbed up after me and was now running after me in hot pursuit. The voice was coming from a distance, but not enough of a distance to make me feel perfectly comfortable.

            “Dorothy! God damn it, just listen to me! Won’t you trust me?”

            What I might have said, if I were not running short of breath and if my thoughts were a shade more coherent, was, No, I won’t trust you, Manny, because you have clearly shown yourself unworthy of such trust, what with the keeping me in the dark about what’s going on, the bringing me into this hall of ghosts, and now the talking like a person on the borderline of sanity. The Manny I knew and loved (or at least liked a good deal) wasn’t exactly knit together all that tightly, but he was definitely not as unstrung as this caterwauling gargoyle hot on my heels.

            What came out of my mouth was something like “Gaugh rhee!” which probably meant something like “Go away!”

            My feet continue to plonk along the metal roof of the big block, and Manny’s feet continued to plonk behind me. I heard some other plonkings too, meaning he wasn’t necessarily alone. The urge to look backwards welled up in me, but on the whole I decided the cons outweighed the pros of that particular idea, so I kept my eyes in front of me and kept on running.

            And then, in an unfortunate development, one of my feet slipped and I found myself sprawling forwards. With an anguished cry, I threw my hands in front of my face as I fell down amidst a cloud of dust and dirty cobwebs. I skidded forward a foot or two and then stopped; my glasses flew off my face and into the darkness. With a cry of triumph, Manny was upon me.

            It’s not very often that I regret not listening to my mother, but this was one of those times. “Dorothy,” she told me once, when I was a surly teen, “a smart woman always makes sure she has pepper spray ready for use at all times.” She had a good point. I did in fact have pepper spray, but it was tucked away in my bedside cabinet at home and hence not exactly useful to me in my present situation.

            Manny had grabbed my arms and holding them behind my back, making it difficult for me to turn over, however much I twisted and swore. I tried to kick him, but he sat on my feet.

            “Dorothy, listen,” he said. “There’s nothing for you to be afraid of. All I want you to do is look at what was in your drawer. Just look at it. That’s it. Come on, we’ve been friends for fifteen years. Do you really think I’d try to hurt you?”

            “Why do you want me to read it?” I asked him. “What do you care?”

            “I’m just — I want you to have the joy of knowing why you’re here on this Earth,” he said.

            I laughed. “That’s bullshit, Manny, and you know it. You haven’t been honest with me once since this whole thing started. What’s your game?”

            “I don’t know what you mean,” he said. “I said I’d bring you to Milligan Street, and I did. I said you could find your purpose here, and now you have. How have I lied to you?”

            “I’m getting impatient, Valez,” said a voice that wasn’t mine. It took me a moment to realize that it was Nostrils. His tone was cold and dead and about as awful as can be imagined. It was a voice to freeze your heart to ice.

            “I’m handling it,” Manny said, again with the edge of desperation. “We’re almost there.”

            As he said this, I felt his grip slacken, and I quickly wrenched my arms out of his grasp and scuttled myself forward, dog-paddling on the metal roof. I flipped myself over onto my back and sat up just as Manny lunged for my legs. I could see Nostrils hovering behind him, surpassing expectations by looking even uglier than before as he glowered down at us with a gaze that boded very ill, very ill indeed. Gretchen stood next to him bearing an air of interest, the expression one might have while watching a TV documentary showing a leopard stalking an antelope.

            And behind the two of them was a host of ghosts, dozens and dozens of shadowy figures that seemed to drift in and out of the visual spectrum. They were enshrouded in spectral cloaks, diaphanous hoods covering their diaphanous faces.

            “Dorothy,” Manny rasped out, “please. Read your purpose. Please. That’s all you have to do. But do it for me. I can’t tell you what it means to me, but it means a lot.”

            I looked at him, at Nostrils, at the crowd of phantom, and then back at him again. “Why? I don’t get this at all.”

            “You’ll understand when it’s over. I promise.” He clasped his hands together prayerfully.

            “Somehow I fail to find that reassuring,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m going to understand it all too well.”

            He tried another tack. “Aren’t you curious to know what’s on the page?”

            “I am, but I’m not exactly dying to know, if you know what I mean. Why is it so important to you?”

            “Because…” he flicked his eyes over at the stone-faced Nostrils. “I made a deal, and part of that deal was that you have to find out your purpose in life.”

            That didn’t make any sense, but there was no use my saying that as it was pretty self-evident that it didn’t make any sense, and I could see from the look on Manny’s face that he knew very well that it didn’t make any sense. But further argument would be pointless as he was clearly not going to tell me any more.

            “Screw this,” I said. “I’m getting out of here.”

            “Maybe I can be of some assistance,” Gretchen piped up in her tuneful voice. She walked forward between Manny and Nostrils (I really did need to learn his actual name) and knelt down over me. “Dorothy, look into my eyes for a moment.” I did. “Now,” she said, “sleep.”

            I did.


            When I awoke again after an unknown stretch of dreamless slumber, I immediately knew things were not going well. I was still on top of the block, as were Manny, Gretchen, Nostrils, and the ghost army. I was in a seated position, but my body was completely paralyzed. My arms and legs were utterly immobile.

            “You’re awake!” Gretchen said in an inappropriately sunny voice, as if she were about to invite me into her kitchen and fix me waffles.

            But she did not invite me to her kitchen for waffles. Instead, Manny shoved her aside and knelt in front of me. Or was it Manny? There was nothing left of the goofy and sad old friend. The face before me was that of a snarling, angry, half-mad stranger.

            “You had to be difficult, didn’t you?” he yelled at me, two inches from my face. “You couldn’t just read your stupid purpose like a good girl. Well, we’re just going to have to do this the hard way, then.” He held up two objects in his hand. One was the sheet of paper I’d found in my drawer.

            “Did you dig that out of my pants pocket?” My voice, at least, was fully operational. “I don’t appreciate your pawing me while I’m unconscious, Manny Valez. It’s not–” I broke off when I realized that the other object he was holding was a very large knife.

            It was a particularly ugly specimen with a green pommel and a black jagged blade that had a slight kink to it. It looked like the sort of knife used in ritual sacrifices in cheesy old adventure movies. It was also clearly the model for the tattoo on the back of his neck.

            Manny had turned back to Nostrils. “Will it work if I read it aloud to her, as opposed to her reading it herself?”

            “It’s not ideal. But so little in life is, isn’t it? We would find that acceptable.”

            “All right.” He gave a sigh of relief. “All right, Dorothy, I’m going to read to you your purpose in life, and you are going to listen to me. And then I’m going to cut your throat. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. This would have been a lot easier if you’d just read it like you were supposed to and I could have done this without your foreknowledge. We’d have both been happier but you do have to be difficult, don’t you?” He held the paper up before him and cleared his throat.

            By all rights, I should have been a hot mess at that point with my brain screaming “You’re going to die! You’re going to die! You’re going to die!” and then proceeding to have a nuclear meltdown. And yet, while I was certainly terrified and absolutely sure I was going to shuffle off the old mortal coil within the next ten minutes, I felt oddly calm. Perhaps it was the fact that I was so completely and utterly screwed that made me realize there was absolutely no reason to get hysterical over it.

            Manny had only begun uttering the first few words of my destiny: “‘She who has the–‘” when I interrupted him.

            “Wait, wait, wait. If you’re gonna do this thing, and you clearly are, you’ve got to at least clue me in on what it’s all about. Why kill me? And why do I have to hear my purpose first?”

            Manny rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, Dorothy. The whole explain-the-plot-before-I-kill-you cliché? I thought you were better than that.”

            “She deserves to know,” Gretchen said. She smiled down at me, as if to say that she was doing me a great favor. As for me, I now no longer found her the least bit alluring and would happily have kicked her in her stupid smiling face. Sadly, that was not an option.

            Manny sighed. “All right, Dorothy, I’ll tell you. You’re not going to like it, and there’s no reason that you should, but maybe you’ll understand.

            “As you’ve guessed, this is not the first time I came to Milligan Street. I found the way here about two years ago. It took me a while to find the warehouse, with no one to point me the way, but I finally got here, and met Griff.” He inclined his head towards the ugly man.

            I found that knowing Nostrils’ real name did not, in fact, improve my attitude about the current situation one little bit.

            “And I found my life’s purpose. And it was– not what I was hoping it would be. In fact, it was a pretty miserable purpose. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of it, but let’s just say that the Universe created me to be kicked around by Fate. A life more and more miserable, leavened only by escaping through drugs and worse, until I die alone and forgotten.

            “I won’t deny that I had a bit of a breakdown then, and I came close to ending it all then and there. But then Griff told me a thing or two. It seems that you can screw capital-D Destiny. Or, more precisely, he knew some people who could screw Destiny for me. There are strings that might be pulled, you might say, in the weavings of the Fates. He wouldn’t tell me what this entailed, and I can only guess — prayers, bribes, incantations, black rites, white magic, threats, curses, blackmail, greenmail, indignant letters to the Times… Who knows? Only Griff.”

            Griff smiled toothsomely. “Some of those, yes. But mostly not. It was mostly by methods you don’t even have the words for.”

            Manny shrugged. “As you say. In this instance, I decided it paid not to be curious. Because it worked. A week after I returned from Milligan Street, I was able to kick the entire menagerie of monkeys off my back. Cold turkey, with no withdrawals. A week after that, I got a job writing copy for an ad agency. A week later, I get a government grant that I didn’t even apply for that gives me a hundred grand a year to research whatever the hell I want. I wish you could know how it feels, Dorothy, to have your life just fall into place, where everything just works out for the best after all, like a goddam Horatio Alger novel.”

            He paused for a moment with his eyes closed, as if savoring his beautiful new life.

            “But the thing is,” he said, popping his eyes open again, “there was a price. There always is, isn’t there? When the Universe gives, it has to take. It’s basic science. Equal and opposite reaction, am I right?”

            He paused as if waiting for me to respond, like I was going to give him that satisfaction.

            “I was given this gift, and I had to give something back. I had to give back to the Universe a life that was worth living. And, well, that would be your life.”

            That made me laugh, despite everything. “You must still be on something if you think my life is worth living.”

            “Oh, Dorothy, Dorothy,” he said. “You have no idea.” He looked down at the piece of paper on which was written my reason for being. “When you read this, your jaw is going to drop down all the way to Florida. All the way to Venezuela. I mean, it’s all moot now, but it’s still pretty amazing.”

            “But wait,” I managed to sputter out. “If you have to sacrifice my destiny to keep your own, I get that. It’s an assholish thing to do, but I get it. But why do you have to cut my throat? What’s that all about?”

            “There’s always a blood price,” Griff said. He made an effort to sound solemn, like an altar boy reading from the scriptures. “Always.”

            “Jesus, Manny,” I said, “I thought we were friends.”

            “Of course we’re friends, Dorothy,” he said. “That’s the point. It wouldn’t work if we weren’t friends. It has to be a real sacrifice on my part.”

            He stepped towards me, holding the malignant-looking knife outward. Things were getting desperate. I passed from Anger on to Bargaining.

            “Manny,” I said. “Come on, you don’t have to do this. Is this new life of yours so perfect that you’d be willing to have blood on your hands for it? My blood, specifically? It can’t be a perfect life if you have to live with the guilt of killing me. It’ll eat you up. Don’t do this, Manny. You’re better than this.” I hoped to God that was true.

            It was Griff, not Manny, who spoke up. “The gift has already been given,” he said. “The price must now be paid, one way or another.”

            “He’s right, Dorothy,” Manny said, almost apologetically. “The price has come due. If not through your blood, then through mine.” He began to lift the knife. “Maybe I will feel guilt after this. I probably will. But I think I can live with it.”

            “The soul-script,” Griff said. “You have to read her the soul-script. If you kill her before she’s complete, the sacrifice is worthless.”

            “Oh, right,” he said. He held up the piece of paper again and once more began to read. “‘She who has the name that is God’s gift of grace will–“

            “Wait a sec,” I interrupted. I had spent the last few minutes, as we’d had our nice little chat, frantically trying to move my arms and legs. I was starting to feel a little tingling in my fingers and toes, a possible indication that they’d be waking up soon, but not nearly soon enough to make a difference. I could only move what was above the neck, which didn’t give me a lot of opportunities.

            But there was one, at least. Maybe that was enough.

            “What is it?” Manny said, annoyed at being interrupted yet again. “It’s no use arguing with me, Dorothy. Nothing’s going to change.” Griff continued to look stony-faced, but Gretchen seemed amused.

            “I know,” I said. “I get that. I’m not happy about it, but I get it. But I’m willing to read my purpose myself now. I think it would be better that way.”

            He grunted. “Good. I’m glad you’ve accepted it.” He started to hand the paper to me.

            “Uh, genius, I can’t move my arms.”

            “Oh, right,” he looked a little embarrassed and I was small enough to enjoy his discomfiture. “Here.” He held the paper in front of my face.

            “I can’t read it,” I said. “The light here is too dim, and I lost my glasses. Hold it a bit closer.”

            “Okay,” he said, and he moved the paper forwards a few centimeters. “How about now?”

            “A little more,” I said, and he continued to inch the paper forward. “It’s so dark in here, it’ll need to be right in front of me.”

            “Fine.” He dangled the paper even closer. The truth of my ultimate purpose in life was now completely in my face, filling up my entire field of vision. I could now easily read it if I chose, but I didn’t. Instead, I lunged forward and grabbed the bottom edge of the page with my teeth.

            Manny gave a little squeal and jumped back. Had he had a firmer grip on the paper, it might have gotten away from me, but as it was I was able to snatch it out of his hand, such that dangled from my mouth. Before he could react further, I scarfed it up completely and began to chew.

            Dear reader, I don’t suppose you have ever been in a position where you have had to chew and swallow a chunk of paper before your erstwhile friend gets over his initial shock and comes to pry it out again. Let me assure you, it is no Sunday drive. My mouth was now fully occupied by a glob of pulp and spit that felt roughly the size of Cincinnati. I was quite sure that I was going to end up choking on my own destiny (yes, literally). The only pleasurable thing about it was watching Manny’s face turn a lovely shade of purple.

            “Jesus, Dorothy! What the hell did you do?”

            I didn’t answer because, (a) the answer was obvious and (b) my mouth was full of wet paper. All I could do was count the rivulets of sweat that trickled down his face, as he turned desperately to Griff (I found myself preferring to think of him as “Nostrils”) and said, “I remember what it said. Most of it, anyway. I can still tell her.”

            Griff, whose expression had not changed a whit, shook his head slightly. “It doesn’t work that way, Valez. It has to be the words from the page.”

            Manny turned back to me, eyes wide as Eggo waffles. “Please, Dorothy! Spit it out. Don’t do this to me. Please!” I could almost be sorry for him, if he weren’t a total douchebag who tried to have me killed just so he could have a nice life.

            I gulped down enough of the pulpy sludge in my mouth so that I was able to say, “Sorry, Manny. Too late.”

            “Yes,” Griff said. “Too late. Time to pay up, Valez.”

            For half a second Manny stood there with the fear of God in his big brown eyes, and then with an anguished cry he turned and ran back along the top of the block. This path took him directly through the mass of filmy ghosts, of which there now seemed to be a hundred or more. As he ran past them (or through them, it was hard to tell), they began to go into a frenzy or dance or some kind of unholy performance art. They circled around him as he slowed and stumbled, their edges merging with each other until there was nothing visible but a blurry whirlwind. I could just make out the vague outline of Manny, no longer moving forward but just waving his arms around and looking like a roach trapped in a Roach Motel. The only sound was his sad little voice.

            “No, please! Please! Dorothy, I’m sorry! Forgive me! You’ll save me won’t you?”

            I did not save him.

            His voice abruptly transformed into a scream as the vague form of his body vibrated like cocktail shaker. Through the haze of the whirling phantoms, I could see parts of him seem to shake themselves loose. I quickly closed my eyes so that I couldn’t see any more, but I could still hear his shrieking. And then, all at once, his voice cut off.

            I opened my eyes. The ghost horde/whirlwind had vanished. Now it was just Griff, Gretchen, what was left of Manny, and me.

            “Well,” Griff said. “That is that.”

            I was still gagging, both on the paper I’d swallowed and the experience I’d semi-witnessed. After clearing my throat to talk, I said, “What happens now?”

            It was Gretchen who spoke up. “Nothing. It’s all done now. You’re free to go.”

            “The blood price has been paid,” Griff said.

            I looked over at what was left of Manny, and then wished I hadn’t.

            “Quite an experience, wasn’t it?” Gretchen was smiling at me, as if we’d just had a grand night going clubbing. “You handled yourself very well.”

            “Um, thanks,” I said, standing up, and it was only as I was doing so that I realized the paralysis in my arms and legs was completely gone. I still felt wobbly on my feet.

            “I hope you don’t mind that I threw the paralysis jinx at you. Griff and I were obligated to help Manny in his task by the terms of his contract, but I was pulling for you the whole time. I had a feeling you’d manage to turn things around on him. You really are quite capable, Dorothy, when you put your mind to it. You should stick around Milligan Street,” she continued on. “Why don’t you join the underground school? You’d be an ace student, I can just tell.”

            “Um, thanks,” I said. “But I think I’ve had enough of Milligan Street for a while. I just want to go home.”

            Griff spoke up, as formal as he’d been before. “You did not get to read your soul-script, which you have been given authority to do. You may open your drawer again to retrieve it.”

            I gave him an odd look. “Uh, I just ate the thing. How can I get it again?”

            “The soul-script is eternal. If it is destroyed, it re-creates itself. If you open your drawer, it will be there again.”

            “Uh-huh. Well, you know what, I think I’ll give it a pass. After seeing what happened to Manny when he read his — well, I’m not sure I wouldn’t be happier to let it go.”

            Griff nodded his head slightly and turned away.

            “Come on,” Gretchen said. “Let’s get you home.”


            My memories of what happened next are more than a little fuzzy. The three of us must have climbed down one of the ladders, but all I can remember is being back on solid ground and following Gretchen and Griff back through the twisting halls. Manny’s body must have remained where we left it; what would happen to it I did not know, nor did I want to know.

            My glasses were back on my face. Had I retrieved them, or had Gretchen or Griff found them for me? I honestly didn’t know.

            I trudged along in a bit of a daze, like an overmedicated zombie, putting one foot ahead of the other because there was nothing else to do. I was too much in shock to ponder the meaning of all that had occurred, if indeed there was any meaning in it at all.

            And then we were in the office where we’d first met Griff. The grim waiter was there, standing stiffly in a corner like an ineptly-made sculpture. He turned his head towards us as we entered.

            “Delaware is going back,” Griff said. “Valez didn’t make it.”

            The grim waiter nodded, as if that were exactly the outcome he was expecting. “I shall escort her out, then.”

            “I can take her out,” Gretchen piped up. “She might need help finding the way back to Boston.”

            “Yes, thank you,” I said like a lost six-year-old child being taken by a policeman back to her mother, which is not far from what I was feeling.

            “Good day then, Miss Delaware,” Griff said, sitting down at his desk. “I don’t suppose we’ll meet again.”

            I caught myself from saying “I hope not,” and just nodded to him and to the waiter before following Gretchen to the front door.

            After God knew how much time I’d spent in the warehouse, even the murky veneer of Milligan Street seemed to dazzle my eyes. I blinked to bring the world into focus.

            “Ready to head back?” Gretchen asked.

            “Oh, yes,” I said.

            We retraced the path that Manny and I had come, some centuries previously. Gretchen walked along, humming cheerfully, as if all that had transpired had been an enjoyable romp.

            “Those ghostly things that, um, took Manny,” I said hesitantly. “What were they?”

            She stopped humming and looked at me. “I could give you a complete answer, but that probably wouldn’t make you happy. In fact, it might lead to your never being able to sleep again. Let’s just say that they are the ones that Manny made a deal with, and they came to collect what they were owed.”

            “Which was me, almost.”

            “Almost,” she echoed. “But not. Don’t think about it. If you like, I can erase your memory of the whole experience. You would almost be certainly happier.”

            It was tempting. “No,” I said. “This must have all happened for a reason. It will be better for me to remember, even it does give me nightmares.”

            Gretchen shrugged. “As you wish.”

            “I must admit,” I added, “I’m beginning to regret not looking at my soul-sheet thingie. Maybe it wouldn’t have corrupted me, like it did with Manny. He said there was some amazing stuff on it. I’d hate to think that I was missing out on an amazing life out of some principle.”

            “Do you want to go back?” She looked at me sharply.

            I shuddered. “Hell, no.”

            “I think that’s the right decision. For most people, it’s better not to know their purpose in life. It’s like looking the last chapter of a mystery novel before reading the whole thing. And anyway–” She broke off suddenly.

            “What?”

            “Well, I don’t know. You ate your soul-sheet. It’s inside you know. As far as I know, no one’s done that before. I think it might have an effect on you. You won’t know your purpose per se, but you might find that things are clearer for you. You’ll have a better sense of what to do.”

            “That would be nice,” I said.

            We arrived at the place where Manny and I had landed when we’d come in from Boston. The chalked words WAY BACK were still there on the brick surface.

            “You sure you’re ready to return?” Gretchen asked. “There’s so much more to see and do on Milligan Street than you can imagine.”

            “I’m sure,” I said. “But I don’t think I quite belong here. I’m quite happy to go home and never come back.”

            “All right, then. But I should warn you,” she grinned lopsidedly. “Milligan Street has a way of following those who have set foot on it. You may find it’s not easy to shake. You never know what might come creeping up on you when you least expect it.”

            “Thanks for those words of positivity and encouragement,” I said, and she laughed.

            “Okay,” she said. “Look into my eyes.”

            I looked into her eyes, which seemed to be on fire. For half a second I thought she was going to kiss me or maybe devour me, but instead she placed a hand on my chest. “Goodbye, Dorothy,” she said and shoved me.

            And there I was, standing in that alley between the deli and the parking garage, blinking stupidly in the afternoon sun.

            I pulled out my phone. Its screen flicked on, just as it normally did. I glanced at the time, shook my head to clear it, and looked again. The time was now 5:40. Only about five minutes since I’d first stepped through to Milligan Street.

            Unless it was twenty-four hours and five minutes? I looked at the date. July 17th. I was at least 75% sure that was the same date I’d gone through.

            As I walked back towards Government Center, wending my way through the tourists and shoppers, I felt a warm feeling welling up inside of me that I couldn’t quite explain. My life was in no material way better than it had been before, except perhaps by the subtraction of one false friend, and yet I somehow had the sense that things were just about to turn around for me, that I was about to launch myself into a brilliant new life. Perhaps it was what Gretchen had said, that the piece of my soul-sheet that I had swallowed was working some kind of magic on me. Or maybe it was just the natural relief of having escaped death or worse on Milligan Street. Either way, I’d take it.


            A half hour later, I was standing on one of the piers by the New England Aquarium, leaning against the railing as I stared moodily out on Boston Harbor, trying to decide what to do with the rest of the evening. I was feeling too juiced, too electric to just go home and spend the usual evening watching Netflix, which would be an anticlimactic end to the day in any case. I was torn between two options: I could grab my passport, take an Uber to Logan Airport, and grab the first cheap flight to anywhere in the world. Or I could go to a bar, have a few drinks, meet some guy, and take him home for a night I would deliciously regret the following day.

            But before picking one of these options, there was something more I had to do. I took out my keychain and pulled off the magic key, the one to my little drawer on Milligan Street. I paused a moment, feeling its small cold weight in my hands, then tossed it in a gentle arc over the restless waters of the Harbor until it came down in a gentle splash and vanished forever beneath the surface.

            “So long, you little bastard,” I called after it fondly. A few minutes later, I made my decision, and off I went.

About the Author

Peter M. Floyd

“On Milligan Street” is Peter’s first professionally published story. His play Absence has been produced in the U.S., Norway, Sweden, and Italy, and his short plays have appeared in two annual Best Ten-Minute Plays anthologies. He lives in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, with his wife Vinita and their cat Chloe.

Find more by Peter M. Floyd

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