Desire defines us all. Before desire, we kneel as helpless slaves or willing servants. It catches our breath with a slim, deft hand, and we howl like lovestruck wolves at a full moon. Desire makes us dumb. Desire makes us gods. Some wake still dreaming of sex, some money, some power, some freedom. We wake, and we act. Our desire writes the scripts of our daily dialogues. It sketches our friendships. It is our stage direction, the inflection of our voice, the secret of our subtext. Desire is a puppet master, dangling us on a sharp cliff edge. Logic stops us jumping off; you don’t want to die for desire, do you? And just as the sandstone crumbles beneath our feet to the seething, spitting ocean below, our rational mind saves us and we step back. Well, it saves most of us.
Some of us jump off. And that is a different story altogether. That is this story.
“More! More! Moooorrree!”
From the back of the small, crowded room – as anonymous and replaceable as the last five small, crowded rooms they’d recently been in – feet started stamping. A low thump-thump-thump, swelling in size, quickening in pace, growing in volume. Thump-thump-thump! An adrenaline rush of sneakers, a mini-earthquake of beat up heels. Jack grinned lazily. He loved this part. Loping back onstage, he lifted his hands high in a victory salute, and the little crowd of suburban kids who’d coughed up all of five dollars to see them play, cheered noisily.
“Oh, thank you so much,” he said into the mic. “You guys have been great and I hope to give each and every one of you a sexually transmitted disease later tonight.”
The two older women behind the bar raised their eyebrows. The girls down the front giggled: Jack wasn’t hot – ‘weird’ would probably be the word they’d use to describe the lanky drummer with the mismatched outfit of an eccentric hipster: 80s Batman shirt, neon green shorts and braces. But confidence. Now that’s a turn-on.
“Chlamydia, herpes, crabs – I’m a one-stop shop,” He found a pair of pink sunglasses in his pocket and put them on, affecting the voice of a born-again preacher. “I’m an all-you-can-eat smorgasboard of sexual depravity and I want you to deprave me.” He sunk to his knees. “Deprave me lord!! Oh sweet baby Jesus, deprave me now – ”
“Shut up.” Tristan stalked onstage and grabbed the mic off him, surveying the room. The girls down the front stopped giggling, instinctively holding their breath.
“You really want more?” Tristan met the gaze of the spotlight, gunmetal grey eyes seeming almost black. The crowd answered in the affirmative, and he shrugged, muttering, “Then your music taste sucks.”
As the blonde with the tattoos walked back onstage with her guitar, the girls down the front gazed at Tristan and sighed – five bucks was a bargain to stare at someone so unrelentingly bad for one whole hour.
Lita picked the puppy up out of the cage, fur soft like heavy matted silk. He cried out again, sharp and high, and across the room a Macaw parrot stirred, bright blue feathers flashing in the sliver of fluorescent light that spilled through the half-open door to reception.
“Shhh…” Lita whispered into the small, folded triangle of his ear. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
Standing in the middle of the darkened back room of the clinic, Lita tried to clear her mind. It was past 3am and most of the pets in StayWell’s 24-Hour Animal Hospital were dreaming, their thoughts swirling around her head in a mad mess of animal subconscious: the Siamese was pouncing pigeons, the old Staffy was running through a park, young again. A carpet python dreamt of digesting a large rat, marble eyes flickering with satisfaction under closed lids. Lita pressed her forehead up to the puppy’s, connecting. “What’s up?”
I just want you to hold me. I’m scared.
Lita smiled. “Sure,” she said softly. “I think we can manage that.”
The flat roof and blue-grey exterior of StayWell 24-Hour Animal Hospital was distinctly sober from the outside, but head inside and be greeted with colourful posters depicting grinning kids cuddling panting dogs, plastic baskets of bright packets of Real Chicken Meat treats and new copies of Dogs Life magazine: a cheerfully professional environment designed to calm the anxious owner. With the puppy already almost asleep in her arms, Lita sat back at the deserted reception; a ghost town of unringing phones and unread pamphlets. It was here, at this time of night with the empty, unlit streets unchanging beyond the windows in front of her, she would usually feel content. Tonight, something niggled. Something wasn’t adding up, but try as she might, she couldn’t work out what it was.
Applying for the job three months ago on a whim, the owner Mike – a nice man with a tidy moustache and a penchant for bowties – shook his head and sighed. “Business is bad, I’m afraid. It’s pretty much just babysitting the overnighters.”
“But you’re overqualified to work a night shift like that.”
“I know,” said Lita, regretting the slip about various university degrees.
Mike frowned, and waited for her to add something else – an excuse, an explanation. Lita learnt a long time ago the power of silence, instead, fixing him calmly with a quietly brilliant green stare.
Mike regarded the strange young girl before him, flashes of delicate, oddly beautiful features behind the shaggy haircut that made a moat between her and the world. A loose silk dress hid a thin frame; collarbones clear beneath translucent white skin. The thought of an eating disorder crossed Mike’s mind before he remembered he didn’t actually want to get caught up in a teen girl’s body issues – he was late for his other passion besides pedigrees: a group who built replicas of Star Wars figurines on Tuesday evenings. Tonight he was finishing C3PO.
“Alright,” he shrugged, his mind already in shiny space junk. “You can start Monday night.”
And Lita had simply smiled.
When the girl pushed open dressing room door, it took her a few seconds to see Tristan slouched practically motionless in an red sofa in the back left corner, facing the door. One leg sat resting on the other, side of ankle connecting to top of knee. One fingernail scratched absentmindedly at one eyebrow. The girl paused, unsure, quickly taking the dying potplant in one corner, the fading posters falling off the walls, the haphazard piles of the band’s gear, the overall sense of squalor and sweat. And sex. This was a room designed for rough, rock ‘n’ roll sex. Her pulse quickened.
“Being backstage excites you.” The observation was made with a hint of dark amusement.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Your body is releasing the hormone adrenaline, which it only does to prepare you for stressful or exciting situations. The adrenaline is causing your heart rate and blood pressure to quicken. Your pupils have dilated.” He paused, letting his eyes drift up and down her body. Honey-brown hair, damp from the sweaty insides of the windowless club, stuck to her forehead and neck in loose ringlets. He saw the light swell of her breasts beneath a tight singlet top, a handful of silver bracelets circling a wrist marked with the entry stamp to the club, legs covered in fine, pale hair. Feet stuck into sandshoes. Her skin was moist and lightly tanned; all the softness of a sixteen-year-old girl. He knew these bodies well; guessing (correctly) that the girl hated the soft mound of her stomach, the jiggle of her thighs, the puppy fat of her flushed cheeks and upper arms. But to Tristan this body was a thing of great and tragic beauty; a true work of art. Tristan, you see, was a collector.
The girl swallowed. This wasn’t the first time she’d made her way backstage on her own. It was time to take some power back. She turned and shut the door, locking it from the inside. Glancing back to him deliberately, she walked over to a small coffee-coloured bar fridge. Inside, the band’s rider: two six-packs of Forresters, a cheap local beer. She grabbed two, offering one to Tristan. He shook his head ‘no’.
Down the right-hand side of the room were three large mirrors with old-fashioned dressing room light globes around their top and sides. Most of them were broken making the light in the room patchy, uneven pockets of light and shade. A white tabletop jutted out on front of them, for performers to spread their blush brushes and fake eyelashes on as they gazed back at their own reflections, framed by a halo of light. She brushed a stray pack of cigarettes aside and hopped up onto this bench, settling back against the mirrors and looking down at Tristan with a cool eye. She opened the bottle and took a long sip. Cold beer burnt a fizzy trail down her throat. “You don’t drink?”
“I sometimes drink. But alcohol is a depressant. It numbs sensation. I’d rather feel…” he paused, thinking. “Everything. Everything you have to offer me.”
She laughed. “That’s a little presumptuous, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Tristan stood up, now taller than her. “You found me. You locked yourself in with me.”
Seeing him standing, staring at her in the low-lit room, the girl felt an intuitive flash of fear. There was something animalistic about his physical stillness yet mental alertness. He was breathing deeply through his nose, as if smelling something. The girl took another sip, the bottle clattering slightly from a tremor in her hand as she put it down. Tristan cocked his head and laughed softly. “Don’t be afraid.”
He took a few steps towards her, and she stiffened. He kept moving, leaning towards and then, at the last minute, past her, grabbing the pack of cigarettes from the bench.
“You live round here?” he asked, popping one in his mouth and patting his pockets for a lighter as he sat on the arm of the sofa. The moment was broken.
“A half hour away.”
“Big family?” He found the lighter.
She shrugged. “Three brothers, a sister. But we’re not close. Not really. What about you?”
“What about me what?”
He blew smoke out over her head, and jerked his head in the direction of the stage.
“But we’re really close. Like… blood brothers.”
She smiled. “That’s nice.”
“It’s really nice.” He smiled back. “It’s a shame you’re not close to your family.”
“Well,” she frowned. “It’s not that I don’t like them. We get along OK. We just don’t have that much in common, y’know?”
Tristan nodded slowly. “You know what brings families together?” he asked.
He stood up, coming to stand near her again, speaking with quiet intensity. “Floods. Sudden illnesses. Crime sprees, fires. In times of crisis, people – families – come together to help each other as they realise, ‘I need you, I love you’. It’s not until you take something away that you understand how much you need it, how lucky you were to have it.” He lifted one hand to run it lightly through her hair. Saliva pooled in his mouth. “Do you know what I mean, darlin’?”
The girl shivered, goosebumps spreading up her arms. “I guess.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” he continued, letting his other hand settle innocuously on the girl’s knee, now standing between the spread of her legs. His mouth hovered inches from her lips. “In times of great loss, comes renewal. From death, comes life.” His eyes had started to glow a dangerously brilliant silver, the colour of swirling storms, bright diamonds, shooting spaceships. “I think that’s beautiful.”.
“You’re beautiful,” whispered the girl, as he leaned in to kiss her neck.
It wasn’t until she felt something hot and wet running in rivulets down her body that she realized something was wrong. But by then it was far too late.
“Kick pedal, kick pedal – there it is. Um, cymbals – where are my cymbals? Guitars are over there,” Jack counted off their gear list on his fingers, scattered. “Shit, how are we gonna get all this to the car?” He glanced over at Tristan. “Dude, turn your shirt inside out.”
Tristan giggled, running his fingers down the bloodstained front of his t-shirt, smelling then tasting them. “Inside out, back to front, upside down,” he sung to himself, giggling again.
“Tristan!” yelled Jack. “Get your shit together man! Help me pack this shit up!”
Tristan sunk further into the sofa, putting his sunglasses on and mumbling, “C’mon now, don’t go freaking out on me Jack-Jack-Jackie boy…”
“I’m freaking out!” Jack yelled back, running his fingers hard through his hair. “I’m totally fucking freaking out! This is bad Tristan, and not in a Michael Jackson way in a – I don’t know, a totally fucking bad way. You know we’re not gonna get paid.”
“Who’s not getting paid…?” The blonde with the tattoos appeared in the doorway. “What the hell…”
“Tristan.” Jack pointed instantly at the spaced out singer in the corner. “Not me.”
Two of the three mirrors were smashed, bloody handprints stamped all over them. More blood was smeared on the white bench, still dripping slowly onto the stained carpet. The body lay under the mirrors, eyes still open is curious, sad surprise. There was a deep gash in her neck, about the size of a small apple.
“Oh my god,” breathed the blonde. “Oh my god.”
“Good. Someone’s finally as stressed out as me,” babbled Jack, pacing nervously. “Some of the guys out there are big. Like, old-growth big. I mean, I could take them but they were definitely on the Hulk-esque side.”
The blonde marched over to Tristan, ripping his sunglasses away to reveal glowing silver eyes. She let out a short hard laugh. “He’s completely wasted. He can’t even drive.”
“Cherry. Baby -” Tristan reached up to her but she smacked his hand away.
“Don’t,” she warned. “You’re a selfish, stupid prick Tristan. You said,” Her voice almost broke, but she wouldn’t let it. “You said this wasn’t gonna happen this time. You said we could stay here a few weeks.” She gestured towards the stage, voice rising. “There’s still half a roomful of plebs out there! Did you think about that?”
“Wait, I’ve got a better one,” interrupted Jack. “‘The guys are there are so big, they make The Terminator look like he needs changing’. Get it? Cuz like, The Terminator is so not a baby…”
Cherry cut him off. “We’ll have to leave the body.”
Jack gaped. “Dude, are you crazy?”
“I am not the crazy one here,” She found her guitar under the upturned potplant, eyes darting round for the case. “I’ll help get Trist to the car, you get the gear. What you can’t get there in one run, we leave here.”
“But – our stuff. The pay,” blinked Jack. “I like pay.”
“Abandon ship Jacko. If we don’t motor now, we’re dead,” She shot him a wry smile. “You know – moreso.”
Minutes later Cherry and Tristan slipped out the back entrance and began heading across the large, mostly empty carpark to the gas-guzzling green Valiant they’d won in a poker game a few months ago. The cool night air was sobering, and Tristan was starting to feel blissfully, wonderfully buzzed. He liked it here. He liked who he was, right here right now. The drama of leaving was being played out like a pleasantly familiar TV show he was only half watching – the gear they wouldn’t take, the scrawny handful of bills they wouldn’t get – none of that really mattered. They’d get new gear, steal more money. It wasn’t hard. Everything would work out just fine. Of this, he was sure. He watched Cherry stride ahead in front of him: she was so cool and calm and kickass under pressure – no one could mess with her. He loved that. He thought for a second about the taste of her lips, moving on top of her in the backseat, getting some cheap beef jerky from a gas station. He smiled, feeling completely at one with himself and the night. Life was just so easy right now.
Jack was throwing equipment haphazardly in the boot when they reached him.
“Hello and welcome to your emergency exit.” Then, taking in the absence of, “Cymbals. OK, tell me you have them, but you’ve made them invisible.”
“I’m sorry, we didn’t have time…”
Jack threw the keys to her. “There’s always time for cymbals!”
“Jack!” Cherry yelled after him.
“Two minutes, then we’re so outtie!” he called over his shoulder. The sight of the wiry Jack doing his chicken-leg-helter-skelter dash across the carpark almost raised a smile in Cherry. Two minutes, then another cross country all-nighter, another day in a cheap motel stiffening at the sound of sirens, another hair change, another band name, yet another life. She caught herself watching Tristan lean back against the car, staring up at the stars, transfixed. Even after all these years, he still had the ability to wholly fascinate her, in the way a beautiful artwork can feed the soul forever. Whether that was some slightly hypnotic quality he emanated naturally, or simply as a result of their relationship – whatever that was – she didn’t know. She scratched some dry blood from his arm, touching it to her lips. “Jesus, I must be some kind of sucker to stick with you.”
“You’re angry with me?” He grinned, grabbing her round the waist.
“But you’re so cute when you’re angry.” He nuzzled her neck, growling playfully. “I could just eat you…”
“Tristan, stop it,” she giggled, trying to wriggle out of his grasp.
“Hey.” He wrapped his arms around her, pale as driftwood. “Aw, sugar. You know you’re the only sugar for me.”
She wanted to simply believe him, to melt against the strong comfort of his chest and fall back into the dream-like black hole of their lives, unquestioning. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. “So why always the prettiest ones?”
He licked his lips. “Because they’re the ones that taste like strawberry sprinkles and ponies.”
“What? What difference does it make?”
“I don’t know, I guess I’m jealous or something,” she muttered, flushing with embarrassment. ‘Harden up,’ she thought to herself furiously.
He took a step back, regarding her curiously. “It was a meal made of someone whose greatest life achievement would’ve involved scrapbooking and underage pregnancy. Why would you be jealous of that?”
She pushed back out of his arms. “I guess I’m in love with you,” she said, meeting his eyes defiantly, then glancing away. “I guess that’s why.”
Tristan laughed, confused, before clearing his throat dramatically to recite: “‘Love is for wimps. Love is an illusion used to sell greeting cards’. I’m quoting directly here.”
“Don’t be a jerk, I was 18 and stupid!” she snapped. “People grow up. They form attachments, that’s normal.”
“I hope this isn’t going to come as shock, sweetheart, but we’re not normal and we’re not ‘people’,” he replied. “Besides, I happen to agree with those sentiments. I thought they were rather eloquent.”
“What if… what if we compromise?” A tear slipped down one cheek. “No more making out with the girls before you… Or I choose the girls… Or…”
“Well gee honey, could you pick out a tie for me to wear to work every day too?” snapped Tristan sarcastically. “The human race is hardwired to destroy itself. If helping it along involves getting laid, so be it!”
“So you don’t love me,” she whispered. “Jesus, you really are a monster.”
Tristan flashed her a dark, angry smile. “It’s actually something I pride myself on.”
“Guys!” Jack’s voice rang out in the distance.
Cherry cupped Tristan’s face in her hands and spoke urgently, tears streaming down her pale cheeks. “Forget about compromise, OK? Just… Look. I love you Tristan. OK? I fucking love you. And I know that underneath all of everything, I know you love me. Tell me. Just now, just once, that’s all I need.”
He searched her eyes. “Or else?”
She smiled sadly, shaking her head. “Or else I can’t do this… any of this… anymore.”
“Guys!” Jack yelled again, running, now halfway to the car. “Start the car!”
Feet pounding towards the car. More than one pair.
“Cherry!” Tristan pushed her aside as he realized Jack wasn’t just running – he was being chased.
“Start the fucking car!” Jack screamed, but it was too late. In a second one, two, three enormous, muscle-bound boys, faces screwed in hateful anger, had caught up with Jack, shoving him to the ground. He flew forward, chin and elbows taking the brunt of his weight as he smashed into the concrete, before two of the boys began kicking him hard in the stomach with hefty steel-capped boots.
“You!” yelled the tallest, pointing a great fat finger at Tristan. “I seen what you did to my sister. I seen it! I know what you are!”
Tristan’s words came calm and fast. “Cherry, get in the car.”
She went to run to the driver’s door, but tall boy grabbed her. Cherry cried out, twisting like a mad thing but even with her strength the huge monster of a boy gripped onto the tiny blonde girl.
“Hey, hey!” yelled Tristan. “Jack!”
“Coming,” wheezed Jack, flipping to his feet and headbutting one of the boys deftly, accidentally breaking his nose in the process.
The tall boy squeezed one hand around Cherry’s neck and she gasped.
“Let her go man, it’s got nothing to do with her,” Tristan took a step forward.
“You stay there!” screamed the boy, manic with fear and rage. “I know your kind! The devil’s in you!”
Jack ducked the second boy’s punch, aiming a swift kick to his shin, splintering it with a dull crunch. He squealed and dropped like a stone, head smacking onto the concrete.
“Tristan…” gasped Cherry. “I can’t…”
“Let her go!” Tristan yelled again, suddenly and unusually afraid.
The boy pulled something from a pocket. “The devil’s in all of you!” he screamed again, crying hard as he plunged the stake into Cherry’s back, and everything fell away into dreamy slow motion.
She pitched forward from the blow towards Tristan, who was looking down at her with wild eyes she hadn’t seen before, and he’s saying, “Baby? Baby?” but she heard it as if underwater and played at half-speed; out of focus and strangely distant. She’s feeling light, as if her body doesn’t weigh more than a feather, and now the pain is going. A smile drifts onto her lips as she’s in a sandbox as a fat baby in a sundress, squealing happily and dumping sand over her crying baby brother. The hot muscle of a horseride, aged seven. The bliss of shiny new shoes, aged ten. She drifts through laughing hysterically in a high school math’s exam, high on cheap acid with her first boyfriend, and the feeling of freedom escaping the violence of family with a plane ticket and one plastic bag full of clothes. Nights wrapped in smoke and shot glasses. Tristan. A better life. Renewal. Complete power. And now….
“Cherry!” Tristan felt her back, pulling out the crude wooden stake that had pierced her skin. Bloodied, it fell noiselessly through his shaking fingers to the ground.
“Tristan…” smiled Cherry, and he’s the last thing she saw before the night closed in forever and she slumped gracefully into his arms. Her flawless ivory skin lost its perfect pale sheen, aging in a flash before his eyes. Her eyes lost their brilliant rich chocolate-brown glow, fading now to normal, unremarkable brown eyes, and she became mortal once more.
The tall boy looked on, speechless and stunned, before tripping over his feet as stumbled back, turning to run towards the club, yelling, “Hey! Y’all get the cops out here now! Hey!”
Jack limped towards them, blood running from his broken nose, whimpering. “Oh shit, man. Shit!” He stuck his hands in the dead girl’s pockets.
“What are you doing?” Tristan’s voice was strangled and weirdly high as panic rushed through him like a tidal wave. He was having trouble breathing.
Jack pulled the keys out, limping towards the car, “Trist, we gotta go. We gotta go, Trist.”
“But…. but…” Tristan started crying, rocking the limp slip of a girl uselessly. “Cherry? Baby?”
The motor roared to life like an animal in pain. In the distance, a siren started whining. “Now man!” Jack yelled frantically. “Leave her! Let’s go, fuck!”
Backing away from the lifeless body, hard in shock, Tristan fumbled for the door, slamming it shut as Jack smashed the car forward. It bounced off the curb, and as his foot slammed on the accelerator, they skidded and swerved and sped off into the night.
At 5am, Lita kissed the puppy goodbye, passing pleasantries with the rosy-cheeked nurse Ella was taking over her shift. The day was on its way but the night was still alive with secrets – now was the time for Lita to become one of them. Home – the current one, anyway – was an easy twenty-minute walk, but the temperature of the air told her she had over an hour before sunrise. With the right kind of eyes, there’s so much more to see at night that brash daylight burns away.
Noiselessly, the girl slipped between the sleeping, darkened houses – leaping lightly over hedges, getting her knees dirty as she crawled under fences – feeling the waves of emotion from inside. The faded redbrick on the corner with the fairy lights strung up radiated a fresh, young love – newlyweds, she guessed. The wooden terrace with the shuttered windows shot sour spitfires of jealously and resentment. An old man in the apartment block covered in graffiti feels undervalued. A child on the third floor feels afraid. She read the houses like books, flipping through so many stories her mind spun like a top.
Her hands glowed a bluish silver in the cool moonlight as she swung easily through a building site, swinging up and up between metal beams, high above the ground where the earth’s guts were ripped up and exposed. An urban jungle gym for night-walkers. High at the top, she lay on her back to absorb the energy of the stars, blowing smoke rings at rolling planets. She waited for a shooting star, but tonight, the stars were still; fading. Somewhere, a bird was calling. The dawn was coming.
Sometimes, the way a particular shadow fell or the certain pitch of a distant siren squeal would jolt her back to a time when she wasn’t a part of the night, a quality of its darkness and its danger. A time when a young girl would be wise to hurry home on a well-lit street boasting big yards with children’s playthings rather than slip down short-cuts with bad reputations. But then the siren would fade, the shadow change shape, and that distant memory would disappear like the snatch of a dream almost remembered then forgotten. Then Lita was back. Back to being something feared, rather than something the feared could make afraid. But despite this comfort, something was still amiss. “I think,” she thought to herself. “I feel… lonely.” Strange fruit in her mouth. Strange, but true.
The marijuana was one of those random lucky finds, Jack’s fingers finding the screwed up aluminum foil as he searched the glove compartment for stray sweets. ‘Ah, that’s right’, he remembered happily. He been given it weeks ago from – where? The buck-toothed Spanish boy who was dressed like a cowboy – no wait, it was the girl who played violin who was obsessed with lemmings and Paul Simon and movies about dogs who could talk.
The car was parked on the side of an anonymous highway that stretched dead straight in either direction. Where they’d come from was exactly the same as where they were going. Here was as good a place to stop as any. The only sound splitting the utter stillness of the night was the sound of Tristan starting to dig. Jack’s nose was no longer broken.
Jack leant against the car and lit up, watching idly as Tristan shoved their trusty red-handled spade into the tough earth, shoveling it into a black plastic garbage bag. They hadn’t spoken since leaving the club, and that was over five hours ago. A few hours ago he tried briefly to connect to his thoughts, but it was like coming up against a huge, heavy concrete wall, as tall as it was thick. Impossible.
“There’s some tequila in the glovebox,” offered Jack, ambling over towards the digging Tristan. “Dull the pain the Mexican way?”
Tristan ignored him.
“I like the word ‘arriba’,” continued Jack. “Arriba. Areee-ba.” He rolled the word around his mouth tastily. “I was in Mexico one year for the Day of the Dead.”
Tristan remained silent, so Jack decided to answer the question his friend had failed to ask. “Oh, it’s like this big, crazy holiday where they celebrate the dead, because in the Mexican culture, death is the beginning of a new stage of life.”
An owl hooted somewhere nearby. Tristan stopped digging, throwing the shovel in the direction of the car. He grabbed the bag of dirt, grunting, and began dragging it to the car.
The pot started loosening his imagination. “I mean, who knows what the afterlife – well, the after-afterlife – holds,” continued Jack lucidly, trailing Tristan to the car. “Maybe Cherry is sucking back margaritas in a big cantena in the sky…”
Like lighting, Tristan turned and slammed the surprised Jack up against the car by his neck, the joint falling from his lips. Tristan’s voice was low and menacing. “Don’t say her name. Ever. Again.”
Jack blinked, afraid, and nodded. Releasing him with a shove, Tristan leant into the boot and pulled out Cherry’s pale pink suitcase. Running forward a few steps, he threw it over his head with both hands, hurling it far into the inky mass of the bush. Jack thought briefly about mentioning the many things they may find useful in that suitcase – some forged passports, a few good mix CDs – but decided against it. They heard it crash into the undergrowth, then some small animal scampering away from the unexpected noise.
Tristan opened the driver’s side door, heaving with emotion, and slammed it again like a gunshot. He opened and slammed it, over and over again, as hard as he could, kicking the door, beating the side of his car with his fists until his knuckles were ripped and bloody. Finally exhausted, he let out a strangled cry and collapsed against the side of the car. Jack watched in awkward silence, clueless as to what to say or do.
After not more than a minute, Tristan straightened up, and silently got back in the car. Jack hurried to get the spade and dirt into the boot, before sliding into the passenger seat. Wordlessly, the two boys continued driving into the night.
Vamp attack! screamed the headline in large garish letters. The two words took up about a quarter of The Daily Truth’s busy front page, which, as usual, looked like it had been designed by an agoraphobic speed freak. The headline was splashed above a single grainy photograph of a wild-eyed country boy who could now answer the question that for most people would only ever be a hypothetical tossed around over drinks after dark, ‘Could I kill someone?’ Yes. He could. He did. Underneath the photograph: Kid claims ‘vampire’ killed his sister!!! Despite the disinterested, gum-chewing photographer’s suggestion he look “defiant, and y’know, pissed off”, he held the stake out almost questioningly towards the camera. The eyes that until now had seen the world with hard-edged boundaries defined in black and white, were reeling painfully with the sick unreality of the whole situation. You could see in his stunned expression his mind frantically trying to stretch, to expand in order to process the enormous blackness he had become a part of. His past, present and future had been split wide open, handfuls grabbed at haphazardly like a food fight; no order, no underlying rhyme or reason. In the background of the photo, a police officer was looking up to the crowd of curious, confused punters from the club who were gathering behind the photographer’s flash, heads spinning with stories, mouths gaping at the telltale white sheet that concealed a dead body – a real one, yes it is, there, right there! Streaks of grief, fascination and delight ran through the aftermath’s little audience, all trying to grab the best snatches of gossip to rule workplaces and playgrounds with in the coming daylight – they were a biker gang, a cult, he says they were vampires, they were all on ice, he killed his sister, it was rape, it was revenge, it was set-up. In a matter of minutes, the stake stained in the blood of the ‘unidentified female’ would be discreetly removed (evidence never to be seen again), statements taken (then filed as Highly Confidential), the assurance of follow-up phonecalls as part of the investigation made (a lie). The state’s charges against the boy would be mysteriously dropped (‘unequivocally, an act of self defense’). All details would be kept jargonistic and vague, responsibility handballed unpredictably between departments. When the grief-stricken family would visit the small local station, they would simply be told – again – to please be patient, ‘we’re doing all we can’ (yet another lie). The other stories featured on that edition of The Daily Truth’s front page were ‘Alien invasion ruined my birthday!’ and ‘Are werewolves taking our jobs?’. Starsigns page sixteen. This was the only newspaper whose shock-jock reportings of incidents of such ‘highly unusual circumstances’ were ordinarily permitted – some might even say encouraged. But because there was a body – a 26-year-old blonde covered in tattoos reported missing seven years ago, a 26-year-old eye witnesses at the gig had uniformally described as a teenager – that particular issue of The Daily Truth would be destroyed. Before it could even leave the printing press, all 20,000 copies were collected, bound and pulped. A modest payoff was agreed upon. Arrangements, you see, had already been made.
No way. No way. I mean, she’d heard about it. Everyone had heard about it – the rumours had been circulating since forever. But now there was proof. Here, in her hands, in newspaper form. And if it was in the paper, then it was definitely, absolutely true, she knew that much. Excitement ticked up her body, and her eyes began widening at the sheer number of possibilities. No freakin’ way. “Check it out, check it out, check it out!” Mira gasped, flipping a copy of The Daily Truth down and swatting Bastion with it, hard. “The Shoe Warehouse is closing down. For good. For good as in forever. Look what it says in the ad. ‘Huge reductions on all stock. Everything must go’!”
“I see you’ve started with volume control,” frowned Bastion, squinting through his glasses at the ad.
“There are these red, like, kitten heel things with strappy straps I’d kill babies to get my hands on,” she said, eyes widening. “I’m serious. I’d drown them if I had too. I’d just get in there and drown them.”
“You can only kill a baby if it’s possessed by an evil spirit,” Bastion handed back the paper. “That ad is two weeks old.”
The redhead checked the date – Bastion, predictably, was right. Well, who knows – maybe it was a really long sale. Maybe they had just dumped a whole bunch of perfectly good shoes out the front before closing up shop. Maybe she could keep the ad and the next time she bought a pair of shoes she could pretend they were from the sale just to prove – well, just to prove something. She started ripping the page out, causing a look of raw alarm to break over Bastion’s face. “What are you doing?”
“Nailing the cure for cancer.” A punky looking Japanese kid with a mo-hawk and a Xanadu t-shirt strolled past the pair, glancing briefly at the cute redhead with a pretty great rack being stared at, incredulously, by a nerdy-looking amigo.
“Put it down, put it back…”
He grabbed uselessly at it but Mira snatched it away, giving him a withering glance. “It’s a newspaper, Bastion.”
“It’s not your newspaper.”
“Theoretically information belongs to the people.”
“In reality it belongs to the owners of Ship Sticky.” Bastion swallowed nervously, light caramel-coloured eyes darting to the receptionist to his right, a brunette with fashionably short pixie cut and a bluebird necklace, who had just swiped the Japanese boy’s credit card and was tapping her pencil on the booking form, nodding a tentative ‘yes’ to something he was asking. “C’mon Mira. Please?”
The pair were sitting side-by-side in the reception area for both Ship Sticky and Trojan Studios, which was really just a couple of fold-out chairs running alongside the wall of the few feet between the top of the stairs that lead up from the street, and the actual receptionist’s desk, which faced the entrance. To right of the reception were another flight of stairs leading up to Trojan Studios – the slightly dingy if relatively cheap rehearsal space upstairs. If he craned his neck to the right of where he was sitting, Bastion could just glimpse the messy, busy open-plan office that spread out to the left of the entrance beyond the partition that created the sort-of hallway they were sitting in – the edge of a small desk piled with CDs and a messy whiteboard a man – probably 40s, slightly balding – with his back to Bastion was finishing scrawling ‘New deadlines!’ to which someone was saying in a sarcastic drawl, ‘It’s not a magic board Rich’. Music blared from slightly tinny speakers over phones bleating like demanding robotic sheep. The chaotic world of Ship Sticky. Where they were waiting, back issues of the magazines were piled next to a few boxes of unwanted free CDs and a rubbish bin that needed emptying about a week ago. The deliberately cheerful logo painted on the dirty white wall above explained it as Music. In a Magazine. Someone had drawn a penline through those four words and a series of alternatives were scrawled underneath in different handwriting: A magazine: contrary to popular belief; Music: Only suckers pay to see it, A magazine; Who needs free time? and Music: Cuz coke got too expensive.
Mira rolled her eyes, letting Bastion carefully take the paper no one seemed to care about anyway. “Whatever Chicken Little. Are we done proving humans can function without spines? We’re gonna be late.”
Sweaty hands had begun to smudge the resume and cover letter in his lap. They’d been sitting there for close to ten minutes while he ‘checked it over’. His heart started beating faster. Panic started slowly awakening inside him. He felt sick. “Oh no.”
Mira had her own problem – black ink smudged on fingers. Solution: the smoky-eye look. They were in a music magazine office after all – DIY, baby.
“Mira,” Bastion was saying in a low voice, “I think I’m having a panic attack.”
“You’re not having a panic attack.” Using the shiny side of one of the free CDS, she began smearing her eyelids with the cheap sticky ink.
Bastion swallowed hard, his voice rising. “Shortness of breath. Chest pain. Urgent need to urinate….”
Mira examined her reflection the CD, tucking messy loops of red curls behind her ears to check up the bang-up makeup job. The result was a cross between Avril Lavigne with a hangover and a badger. Not bad.
“Abdominal discomfort,” Bastion was sweating profusely. The receptionist was now eyeing them with a mixture of bemusement and concern, leaning towards the latter. “Definite abdominal discomfort!”
“Hey. Hey!” She slapped his face, the sharp sound rather than the sensation jolting him out of a hypochondriac spiral. Mira grabbed his shoulders. Sandy blonde hair – always in need of a haircut – flopped in his face; open, sweet and, despite his 18 years, prepubescent and puppyish. “Here’s how it’s gonna go down,” she ordered. “I’ll go stick a housemate ad upstairs at Trojan, you get over there and bust out, ‘Hello, my name is Bastion Winters, I’m leaving my resume for the staff writer position’. Deal?”
Bastion breathed out slowly. “Deal.”
“You don’t wanna be a lawyer,” Mira reminded him.
“I don’t wanna be a lawyer.” The thought of sitting through another desert-dry first year law tute was enough to snap the boy into a non-hyperventilation stage. This was it. His future. It had to be.
Mira checked her mobile. “Well feel the need, the need for speed, cuz we gotta be at Charlie’s in ten to meet our first victim.”
A woman in her early thirties with a hint of a smoker’s cough and hair a botched bleach job the colour of new pennies, was giggling with the receptionist as Bastion shuffled forward. “Hello,” he said to himself, as if curiously pleased to make his own acquaintance “Hi, hello. I’m Bastion Winters… I’m Bastion Winters…”
The girls’ gossiping broke through his reverie. “It was just awful, how do I explain it?”
“Tell me,” laughed the pixie cut girl.
The penny-hair woman coughed. “It was like my clitoris was a mistake he was trying to erase.” She demonstrated with her hand, which resembled a bird furiously pecking at the ground. The receptionist giggled some more. Her bluebird necklace looked like it was flying as she leant forward on her elbows, “On the plus side, he probably would’ve been great at removing stubborn stains. A week with this guy and my bathroom? Completely mould free.”
“Reggie!!” the receptionist shrieked, emitting a little scream of high-pitched laughter. Bastion froze. The parts of his brain that told his legs how to do the walking thing were reacting in motionless hysteria to hearing the word ‘clitoris’ said, out loud, in public, just like that. With the misguided good intention of a flustered mother offering an in flagrante offspring condoms, Bastion’s brain scrambled to show him a picture of a clitoris, some hideously lit full-colour image he’d first seen online some years ago. It leant more towards the medical than the porno, and consequently turned desperate horniness into frightened bewilderment. This was not sweet lady bits, this was some kind of wound. The unwanted taboo image brought him sharply back to earth with the pop of a bucket of ice cold water. He stumbled back a few steps, spinning on his heel – but what he hadn’t seen was the too-thin girl with the guitar case slung on her back coming down the stairs from the rehearsal studio behind him. As he turned to leave, so was she. A split-second of split-end hair streaming around her, before the top of the guitar case slammed into the side of Bastion’s head with a sickening thud. A cluster of bright pink spots, then bang! Blackness.
Pleasant pokey jazz music played on an unseen scratchy record for the couples who shuffled round the dimly-lit dancehall in pairs. The light straining through the stain-glass windows was sepia and gently sad. Bastion looked down at the girl he has his hands resting politely on, but her fringe – sangria red like Mira’s, but that’s not Mira – hangs in her face and he can’t see her eyes. Her skin feels refreshingly cool; a late sea breeze sweeping through a sticky afternoon. Across the hall there’s a soft thwack of someone playing darts – a boy, his back to him, in a plain black t-shirt. He takes aim with confidence. At his feet, an enormous dog the size of a wolf lies sleeping. Thwack. The girl’s body is so slight under his fingers it’s as if she could float away on the breeze like flower seeds. Thwack. A stumble, and he loses his step, and the girl’s drifting away from him – but did he ever have her? – and the music skips, and seems to start fading. Thwack. The wolf-dog lifts his head, sensing a threat, a low growl strangling his throat. Thwack. The wolf-dog bares its teeth, wet with sour smelling saliva. The wisp-of-smoke girl is gone. A fox darts over his feet. The boy glances up, through the couples, directly at Bastion. Silver eyes glitter as he raises an arm, takes quick aim and throws a dart hard and fast and straight at him, Bastion yells, terrified, and…
An angel floats above him in fragments, her face gently shifting like a hall of mirrors. White light passed through translucent skin, and it glowed a starry pale. As Bastion brought her into focus, the angel smiled. A million secrets darted behind eyes the colour of a forgotten forest, and something hot and electric spilled through his body, activating. Evergreen eyes. Jungle eyes. For a moment he seemed to freefall into them, feeling a rush of moist air densely fragrant with plantlife, the sound of running water, something rustling in the undergrowth, an owl’s urgent cry, twisting through tangled roots, the smell of soil, being watched, being hungry, being hunted, being the hunter, before Lita stood up, and Reggie turned to the receptionist, raising her eyebrows indifferently. “Not dead. You owe me a strawberry slushie.”
Bastion took a moment to register his position flat on the floor of Ship Sticky’s reception. Bemused, unfamiliar faces bobbed in and out of view. He was lying on the floor. And he was there because of the word ‘clitoris’. A tsunami of embarrassment cut through the pain that throbbed from the side of his head. He fumbled to sit up, and the world whooshed around him unsteadily. Where was she?
“Hey – wait,” he called out, squinting through his glasses at the people milling about for the angel with the guitar case and the pale pearly skin. But she was gone.
“You probably have concussion.” Mira inspected the small bump above Bastion’s eye with the expertise of someone who’s seen their fair share of TV medical dramas. “I’d say definitely.”
“Maybe I should have another Panadol,” Bastion thought aloud.
Mira took a sip of wine thoughtfully. “How many have you had?”
She nodded. “Have one more.”
The young post-work crowd had already started filtering into Charlie’s, filling up the spaces the gangs of students drinking cheap jugs of peach iced tea had left. The sky was darkening overhead, visible in the small outdoor courtyard strung up with faded Buddhist flags and the odd bit of tinsel. A painted tropical island sunset covered one wall. New media professionals and online graphic designers who worked in nearby open plan offices with artfully designed plastic red furniture sunk into the second hand sofas and ordered shots. The transition from sunny afternoon hang to busy little night spot with all the cozy charm of a private party had begun. Bastion and Mira spent way too much time here.
“Bastion?” The question came from a guy in a cheap suit and a nasty attempt at a goatie: the guy you don’t keep in touch with after high school.
“Steve? Hi.” Steve offered his hand to Bastion, who, always behind the eight-ball with such rituals, took a second to stand to shake it just as Steve was starting to sit down, so Steve stood up again. Mira had pretty much made her mind up about Steve by the time the boys finished their awkward see-saw handshake. She tapped her glass. “You wanna get a social lubricant?”
“I bought my own from the bottleshop.” He produced a beer from his shoulder bag, twisting the top off with a satisfied smile. “Half the price of buying them here, mate.”
“That’s extremely resourceful of you Steve.” Bastion took a swallow of chocolate shake and smiled nervously, hoped to God the androgynous-but-hot waitress in the Frankie Says Relax! t-shirt dress hadn’t clocked Steve’s DIY attitude to café culture.
“That’s really weird,” said Mira.
The threesome eyed each other, unsure for a second on who was interviewing who.
“You’re at law school, right?”
Mira perked up. She was one of her favourite topics. “First year, but the funny thing about it is…”
“Well, you know what they say about law school kids?” interrupted Goatie Boy Wonder. “You all expect to graduate and start saving the world the next day.”
Mira rolled her eyes. “A Few Good Men is just a movie – yeah, I get it…”
“The law’s about money and red tape. You’re not gonna save anyone.”
Mira bristled. “Look, I’m in it to make a difference…”
“And that’s gonna happen working in corporate law?”
“I’m not going to work in corporate law.”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, right. Trust me – you guys just end up making millionaires billionaires or changing careers when you’re 30. No offense or anything.”
Anger charged at Mira like a bull: direct, bald, vicious. “And what about you, Steve–”
“Yeah, why are you, ah, why are you looking for a room?” Bastion interrupted. “Ex-girlfriend a total psycho-bitch and kicking you out?”
“Brother you’re singing my song.” Steve offered a high-five, impressed. “Up here.”
Bastion slapped a white-boy high-five, flinching. Mira shot her chair out from underneath her.
“Where are you going?” Bastion was close to pleading with clear ‘Please don’t leave me alone with evolution’s mistake’ subtext.
Mira smiled blithely, suddenly a ’50s housewife high on the happiness of vacuum cleaners. “I’m gonna shoot up some heroin so I’m catatonic for the rest of this superfly interview.”
The redhead charged off towards to bar. Steve belched and admired her ass. Bastion broke out in a light sweat, and had the sudden desperate longing to be watching Monkey Magic reruns alone. Steve leaned back in his chair, playing CEO to Bastion’s mail room hopeful. “So Bastion. What’s the deal, man?”
“Oh, this?” Bastion gestured the bump, “I just got hit in the head and then applied for a job at Ship Sticky –”
“Are you, like, together?”
“You and Red.”
“Really…” Steve’s mind did mathematics. “She’s pretty hot – if you’re into that whole crazy bitch vibe.” He moved forward like a spider. “They might be a handful with their clothes on, but in the sack…”
“Ship Sticky,” Bastion said loudly. “It’s a street press magazine – it comes out weekly, covers the music scene – interviews and reviews. It’s a great job, I mean, it’s my dream job, you know, if we’re ruling out time travel and shape shifting…”
Steve nodded. “Well, you know what they say about music journalists?”
“Something insulting and derogatory?” Bastion guessed.
“They’re all just wanna-be musicians.”
Bastion gazed at Steve, wondering briefly if he could ever kill a man, and if – under some circumstances – it’d actually be his civic duty. “That’s a really good point Steve.”
From nowhere Mira slid back into her seat. “So rad to meet you Steve, and I am totally gonna dial your digits – and not just about our groovy chill-pad if you hear what I’m saying, bro – but we got someone else to shoot the shit with so it’d be gnarly if you made tracks, like pronto.”
Bastion turned a choke of laughter into a cough.
“Okay…” Steve glanced between the two, uncertain.
“Sayonara.” Mira’s eyes glittered, enjoying it.
“Sayonara Steve,” said Bastion.
“Well,” said Steve after he drained his beer, turning to leave, “I’ll think about it.”
“First time for everything.” Mira smiled optimistically after him as he left before bringing her gaze back to Bastion. The two friends shared a look. It wasn’t as if they considered themselves elitist, it was just that everyone that’d answered their ad so far made amoebas look like intellectuals living full and interesting lives. ‘Flatmates are personality extensions – they say as much about you as your shoes,’ Mira once told Bastion. Both knew Steve was the equivalent of taping plastic bags to your feet.
“If we leave now, we can probably still catch Shallow Grave on cable…” Bastion began, standing up.
“Dude, sit, stay,” Mira shooed him back down. “There really is someone else. She just got my number from the rehearsal place.”
Bastion blinked. “Her? Who?”
“Hi”. Lita sucked her lower lip nervously and Bastion forgot how to breathe.
The sizzling neon sign named it as Jolly Joe’s Famous Bar and Grill! but inside was about as jolly as a baby’s funeral. The white of the blue-and-white interior was stained a dirty brown from cigarette smoke and greasy fat spat from the grill. An overweight trucker stared soulfully at an ancient porno mag while a couple of strung-out girls with big hair and long lacy gloves were stuck in a drugged, circular argument about someone named Horse and the money he owed them. A jangly surf-rock song played on repeat on a near broken jukebox that someone kept kicking. Jolly Joe’s Famous Bar and Grill! trading on cheerful 60s retro was as ironic as millionaire models trading on heroin chic. Tristan and Jack sat side by side at the long counter, smashing bloody Death Warmed Up burgers (‘we kill the cow, you get a burger’) and sucking back oversized watered-down Cokes. An unimpressed waiter with an Elvis-style coiffe that bordered on cartoonish counted their scrappy handful of change. He cleared his throat deliberately, and jiggled the coins in his hand. It wasn’t enough.
Tristan ignored him, still lost in the same dark world he’d been in for days.
Jack made a show of patting his pockets down. “Golly gee willikers. That’s all we’ve got.” He let just a hint of a threat colour an otherwise innocent stare. The waiter regarded the two boys in front of him. They really look that strong but what mattered was just how far they’d go to get out of paying a few clams for a cheap burger. Drop-outs – addicts probably – in dirty clothes flecked with – well hell, that looked like blood. The waiter sighed, pissed – unpaid meals came out of his paycheque. His sister was right. He should go back to school.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Jack, watching the waiter back off back to the grill.
Tristan’s eyes remained blank.
“Hey, T-Bird.” Jack snapped his fingers in front of Tristan’s face. “Game plan. Let’s hear it.”
“Land a job with a good super, get into BBQ-ing, bird-watch on Sundays.”
“I have always wanted to see a yellow-breasted dicky bird in the wild.” It failed to get a smile out of Tristan, who simply glanced at Jack then resumed staring ahead at nothing at all.
Jack was good at shoplifting, great at Guitar Hero and excellent at ‘keeping things casual’. Making plans? Not exactly his strong point, but choices – like menu options at Jolly Joe’s Famous Bar and Grill! – were limited. “Well, I guess we crash in that motel across the road for now?” he began tentatively. “The outskirts look empty. Lick of paint, cheery curtains, a house becomes a home…”
Tristan shook his head ‘no’. Without looking at Jack, “We gotta keep moving.”
Tristan stood up, looking around the diner as if he’d only just realized where they were. “You done?”
“Keep going? Are you… Why? How?” Jack’s voice broke in equal parts frustration and alarm. “We got no cash, the car needs things to make it work like a car, and I say this with no sign of a hard-on whatsoever, but after a week on the road, the combination of you and a bar of soap is wildly exciting right now.”
Even the trucker looked up from his titty mag to take in the scene: funny-looking kid getting all riled up at the tough-looking one.
Tristan shrugged, and in a voice as quiet and emotionless as ice simply said, “I don’t need you to come with me, Jack.” And then he turned, and left the diner.
The contents of Jack’s army-green duffel bag were as follows: three second-hand t-shirts; a black sleeveless one dominated by a large golden-brown hawk with icy blue eyes, one with a kitschy print of a loved-up Mickey giving Minnie a posie of flowers, and a gaudy pink one with a picture of a grinning shark wearing sunglasses and holding a beer saying ‘I totally got ripped on the Gold Coast!’. A long-sleeved purple and black flannelette shirt with a gray hood. One pair of designer electric blue jeans, recently stolen and thus in pretty good shape. An oversized gold hoodie. Assorted socks, jocks and sunglasses. A dog-eared Chuck Klosterman paperback (half read). A trick deck of cards (for hustling) and a regular deck (for playing). A girl’s toiletry bag containing a mostly used deodorant stick, a toothbrush, half a bar of soap, a comb, some tissues, and an assortment of slightly sentimental ticket stubs and laminates. European, American and Australian fake IDs. A packet of Red Rope Licorice, unopened. A small wad of cash. Various maps. A black beanie (for the odd hold-up) and a checked cotton scarf (for shoplifting in supermarkets). An antique silver switchblade. Black and grey fingerless gloves. A PSP. A sealed plastic bag of soil. The weed from the glovebox and a packet of rolling papers. An iPod, stolen from a gym and consequently full of high-energy work-out tracks of little interest. A large plastic fish he’d named Kenny. A small mirror-ball from a disco in Prague. Some antique rose gold jellewry (stolen). A half eaten bar of chocolate (also stolen). Another non-descript backpack contained a mini esky filled with standard issue bloodbags. The supply of these had been diminishing since that night at the club but suggesting a live kill somehow seemed in bad taste, and put simply, Jack was afraid to do so. Including the clothes on his back, these were all of Jack’s worldly possession.
He watched Tristan as he unlocked the car dispassionately.
“I’ll, um, send you an email,” offered Jack. “So you know where I am if…”
Tristan glanced up at him with a brief, almost imperceptible flick of the eyebrows.
“I’ll, um, see you round hey?” continued Jack, fidgeting with his braces. “Don’t eat anyone I wouldn’t.”
“Sure thing,” replied Tristan, adjusting the rear-view mirror and turning the key in the engine. The sight of the keyring – a gold Eiffel tower Tristan had taken as a souvenir off a slimy French promoter they’d both kicked the crap out of after the jerk tried to rip them off – triggered something huge and deep and painful in Jack. How could it end like this? And then, what the hell was he going to do now?
“Wait!” he found himself saying but it was drowned out by the engine roaring to life; roaring, then spluttering, choking, screaming again, before dying altogether. Jack blinked. Tristan turned the key again. Nothing. Again. Still nothing. The car sat as silent as a stone, and with its one key purpose removed, revealed itself to be nothing but a burden; a heap of broken parts. In the distance, an owl hooted.
Everything about the hotel room was cut-price and threadbare with the exception of the enormous painting, which hung directly across from the single bed. Jack sat cross-legged on the rock-hard mattress absentmindedly shuffling his cards and gazing at the garishly amateur picture. In it, a bullfighter dressed in the traditional white-cropped jacket, tight white pants, cape and hat was in the process of whipping an expanse of red cape up and over a charging bull’s head – the hand not holding the cape held high over his head in a dramatic salute. The bull’s head was low, tail high. Several swords were stuck deeply into his back. Blood flowed from the wounds, blood the same deep red as the cape. A sense of movement had attempted to be created with wild sweeps and flecks of bright colour – orange, pink, white, even blue – slashes painted in a crazed, circular way around the bull and his killer. Jack stared at the picture. He could hear the roar of the frenzied crowd and fatigued grunts of the doomed bull, smell the stinking heat, see the swish of the blood-red cape, feel the white-hot adrenaline, the sense of victory and fear. And he could taste the sweet, salty blood that flowed so freely.
The sound of the whining shower stopped and moments later Tristan emerged, buttoning up his jeans up, wet hair slicked back, torso still damp. In the unflattering fluorescent light care of the single bare bulb ahead, Jack could see the galaxy of scars that criss-crossed Tristan’s body; as fine and silvery as spiderweb. Even though both boys were almost identical in their build – and absence of body fat – for some reason Jack always thought of Tristan as being better built. Tristan tossed the thin, cream towel over the back of the single chair tucked into a small table in one corner, and began sprinkling a border of soil around the largest patch of floor, which was next to the one window and the bed. The heavy orange curtains on the window were closed. Neither boy had bothered to check the view.
“You can have the bed,” Jack said helpfully.
“Floor’s fine,” replied Tristan flatly. “You always had the floor when…”
He trailed off, words hanging in the air like smoke that refused to fade: when Cherry and I had the bed. Jack looked back at the painting. That was strange – the bullfighter seemed to be gazing back at him, out of the corner of his eye. His head was tilted more towards the room than he remembered. Without noticing he found himself leaning in towards the picture, suddenly making out the bullfighter’s secret, sly smile, the ends of his mouth twisted up in grim amusement. Had the bullfighter always been smiling? Smiling at what? Unnerved, he grabbed at the remote and switched on the TV. The Flintstones instantly lit up the screen – Bam Bam crying, holding a parrot, then Fred and Wilma consoling him. Jack tried very hard to relax.
Tristan finished with the dirt, wiping his hands slowly on his jeans. “Where’d you put the…”
“Oh yeah – head’s up.” Jack tossed Tristan a plastic bag, and he dumped the contents onto the table: two women’s purses, one brown leather wallet and some pieces of chunky silver jellewery. Tristan pulled the cash out of the wallets – not more than a measly $20 in each. Of course. Of course there’s no money in the wallets that had actually proved difficult to procure. Why would anything start working out for them now?
Jack pointed to the wallets in turn. “Uh, fat guy, kids, hot chick.”
Tristan checked the personal photos. “Dog, kids, hot chick.”
Jack whistled, pleased. “Hells yes! That shit is sweet!” He flipped his hand up to slap Tristan’s, but Tristan just let the wallets fall from his fingers, sighing. On the TV, Fred was hit over the head with a stone tablet newspaper. Jack concentrated on Wilma and Betty shaking in closed-eye laughter and not at the bullfighter whom he was sure was now looking straight at him.
“Hungry?” Jack asked tentatively.
“Not in the mood.”
Tristan shook his head ‘no’.
The last resort. “Cash?”
Tristan lifted his head. Cash. Cash could be good. The act of getting said cash could also be good. The bullfighter continued to smile at Jack but now he didn’t seem to be mocking him; now it was a smile of delicious anticipation at what was about to occur. Jack grinned. “Yabba dabba do.”
Copyright Georgia Clark January 2008