This story deals with sexual abuse, violence, and death. Our main character also likes to swear up a storm.
There is a place—or maybe there isn’t—an elegant little tea house, or maybe a shady dance club with who knows what going on in the back room.
Really, I suppose it all depends on who you ask.
Anyway it may be, you can always find it tucked away down some unexpected back alley, or in a place you thought long boarded up, or standing proud on some street corner where you haven’t a clue about where you are or how you got there, always announcing itself with a shaft of moonlight pointing inexorably to the front door.
Or maybe you will just stumble on it anyway.
If you cross its path, wander on in.
It’s your choice.
If you believe in that sort of thing.
And ignore all those people who always insist there is no such place except on the borderlands between waking and dream, or between life and death, even if they may be right, even if they think there’s a difference. Let’s face it, if they’ve never danced between worlds then they’ve never really lived, have they? So what would they know?
Come on in and have the best cup of tea you ever tasted, or if you need something stronger, you can get that too. You look like you’ve had one of those days that calls for an extra dry martini. Right. Make that bourbon, neat. This is the perfect place for that sort of mood, a place to let the cares of the world drift away until you find yourself groggy and in your own bed, the morning sun peeking in, and wondering how you got there.
Unless some bastard is trying to conquer the jukebox.
The bartender will leave you wishing you could sit there forever, watching her watching you, listening to her stories that are somehow always about you, but not really about you at all. And her hair always finding fascinating ways to obscure an impish face that refuses to tell its age before cascading down her shoulders like so much energy. Tell her your problems and she will listen with a sympathetic ear and a mischievous gleam in her eye.
Then, maybe things will get better, or maybe they won’t. That’s up to you really. I mean, it’s your life.
That is, if you believe in that sort of thing.
And maybe, if you’re really lucky…
I kicked open the door to my apartment.
The fucking lock stopped working months ago, not that you could tell by trying to open the thing. The landlord had offered to fix it in exchange for “services rendered.” I obliged the fucker with my knee. We didn’t really talk much after that. No idea why I even still have a lease. At least the beaten metal shit of a door still bolted from the inside.
It had been a shit day. Kicking in the door didn’t help. Kicking it closed even harder didn’t help. Another job in the shitter because another manager wanted to make me a fucking deal for a better shift. What the fuck is wrong with men? Can they smell my past on me, some weird, lingering scent that lets them know the shit I went through when I was younger and the things I did to dig myself out of the last fucking hellhole in my life? Suddenly, unannounced, not really unexpected, they descend like wolves, because doing things out of desperation or because you were too terrified to say no is the same fucking thing as being easy, right?
I kicked off my shoes. I tossed my pants on top of them, and then the really nice blouse I had bought in a thrift shop just for this job. It was fucking hot, I was fucking tired. I was clothed in sweat and stink, what did I need any more layers for? I topped the pile with an overpriced, undercomfortable bra meant to make me look all professional and shit and peered hopefully into the fridge for a beer with my dignity guarded by nothing but a pair of stained panties. There was one beer left. One better than my fucking dignity.
I changed my mind and dug a bottle of whiskey out of the cabinet. The beer would live another day. The whiskey bottle was still beautifully, mercifully almost half full. I quietly worshipped its saving graces with my lips on its beautiful neck. It had been a shit day. I was totally screwed, again. I was going to celebrate by getting fucking bent.
I swaggered out of the front hallway that doubled as my kitchen sucking on my bottle and into the only other real room in the apartment with a plan to sit on the couch and get wasted until I cried myself to sleep. Instead, there were two women sitting on my couch drinking tea from my mother’s old tea set. I nearly sprayed a mouthful of my precious ambrosia of oblivion all over the room.
No, women is the wrong word. One was a fucking creepy little Japanese girl with a disturbingly blank look on her face and perfectly black, perfectly straight hair cascading down over a perfectly white kimono that was sliced in two by a red obi made up of a twisted nest of ribbons like the elegant origami entrails of her recent kills. She was hard to look at for long.
The other looked like she could kill with a glance, small, with hair so black it glistened blue, carefully arranged around a face that was maybe Greek or something. Her clothes, prim, proper, and all in dark shades of blue and black, like feathers slicked back in the rain.
I greeted them warmly with some polite questioning. “Who the fuck are you? What the fuck are you doing in my apartment? How the fuck did you get in here?” I tried to find a way to hold the whiskey bottle as a weapon without spilling any of it.
If they were intimidated by a pissed-off amazon with her hair flaming around her, naked except for some dirty underwear, and an unstable whiskey bottle that couldn’t decide if it was a weapon or a drink, they didn’t show it. The raven-haired woman ever-so-delicately put down her tea cup and looked at me with more bitchiness in that single gesture than I could probably muster in my life.
“The lock on your door has been broken for 67 days, 5 hours, and 28 minutes, caused by your kicking it too hard while angry. Therefore, how we could possibly have gotten in here is not all that hard to surmise. As for the rest, you may call me Ray, this is Kit, and you are Kaiyo Chai. We are here to see you. We have small matter to settle with an old friend of our mutual acquaintance that will be resolved, I am sure, to your benefit.”
Then she gave me a look like that lame ass explanation somehow made everything fucking okay. It also said “or else” in a way I wasn’t about to argue with.
“Now be dear, get me a clean glass, if this frightful place has such a thing, and share the bottle, or you will find me most unpleasant to deal with.”
Somehow they talked me into not killing them. Well, Ray did. Kit never said anything. That may have been the most persuasive argument of all.
Instead they made me an offer. Or a request. Or maybe it was a dare. Okay, I don’t know what the fuck it was, or why I agreed. As soon as I said yes, it all became murky, like I had already polished off more of the bottle than I thought. Couldn’t have though, it was almost full.
What I do remember that she said was that there was a great change coming in my life, one that would get me out of this shit hole forever. Okay, maybe she didn’t call it is shit hole. Bigger, more pokite words like “predicament” and “situation” may have come up instead. All I had to do was go out and dance in the moonlight.
If that wasn’t fucking easy, I don’t know what was. The Moonlight was my favorite club.
So here I was walking down the street in a tiny black dress that I didn’t even remember owning, without any underwear because there was nothing clean and pride beats modesty any day, getting looks from all the fucking creeps until I got to the club. At least it was a tight dress, tight enough to ignore the wind that was kicking up. There was a storm coming, so close on my heels it felt like part of me.
The bouncer perked up when he saw me. “Hey girl,” he said loud enough and in just that way to make sure that everyone in line looked to see who was getting the special treatment.
I walked slowly to the front of the line, past all the glares, until I was framed in the crescent moon spot that announced the club. “Hey, Papa,” I said, and gave him a kiss on the cheek as he unhooked the rope for me. “Any time you want to move that kiss just a little bit lower,” he said with a wicked grin.
He didn’t get kicked.
I had paid my tolls with him, and was ready to pay some more, but the bastard didn’t think we would work out. “Girl, I’m supposed to be the gatekeeper,” he had said, as if poetry made dumping me any fucking better, “and there ain’t no gate I could ever keep you out of, even if I wanted to.” He said as long as I was trapped in my own stories, he was a dead end, whatever that meant. I protested. He said I was too good for him anyway. I said he was a fucking idiot. He said that only proved his point. I screamed at him. He walked out with his stupid, heart-melting grin still on his face. It had been a good year, but how could a piece of meat like that be such a fucked-up romantic?
I slid my finger down his chest until it hooked on the top of his belt. “Maybe,” I said, and walked into the club like I fucking owned the place.
As if on cue, the heavens opened up as the door was closing behind me and the rest of the line waiting outside began to scatter for easier shelter. Papa ducked in a little later when he decided the small awning over the door wasn’t going to keep him dry, and took up an intimidating position just inside.
But first he came over to me and asked me to give him his wallet back.
With all the money still in it.
For all his talk of it not working out, I could feel his eyes on me the entire night, and they burned in just the right way.
The floor was packed with a collection of creatures that probably passed as human during the day, but here were unmasked as creatures of pure motion, sensuality, desire, and too many drugs. Huey and the Mischief Makers had the stage. It was always packed when they had live music, and Huey’s drummers set the gold standard for fucking awesome.
The Baron was holding court in his corner booth, draped in beautiful creatures wearing even less than I was and all screaming fuck me with every move they made. Even in his dark corner fortress, the Baron never took off his damn top hat and black shades, and his nose was always filled with enough white powder to make it look like he had just given up and stuffed cotton balls up there to keep up appearances. Maybe he had. Otherwise, I don’t know how he wasn’t fucking fried by now.
The bar itself was almost empty, with everyone dancing, so I planted myself on a stool next to Aunt Nancy. Not that he was my aunt, I’d expect my aunt of mine to be packing a little less below the belt, but everyone called him that anyway. He was sitting elegantly in a clingy silk gown that oozed desire, nursing a tall drink that was somewhere between pastel and fluorescent, and fucking knitting. Hot hunk of meat that could wear a dress better than me and the only in and out he was interested in involved two little wooden sticks. He was a weird but wonderful person, always good for catching up on the news, and always willing to help me when he could.
He nodded in my direction, and kept knitting.
Pierre was tending bar. Pierre always tended the fucking bar. I don’t know if I ever saw him take a day off. When I would ask him about it, he would just point at a hat sitting high up on a hook, “Papa hung my hat up where Old Pierre can’t reach it, so where would he go?” Then he would laugh.
He hopped over on his one good leg, “Hey girl, what you be wantin’?”
“Anything I can beg for free.”
Pierre gave me a look of disappointment, shaking a head of hair so red it made mine look gray. “Fight with another boss, girl? Hope you didn’t injure them too bad this time. You ever maybe thought about sayin’ yes and then blackmailin’ the fuck out of them later? ‘Specially if they married.”
“Girl, your eyes scream anger so loud right now it make me wish Old Pierre had two good legs so he could cross them tight and protect his favorite leg of all, ‘specially if someone let you near a knife when you in a mood.”
He dropped two shot glasses in front of me and filled them both with his best bourbon. “Old Pierre will put out some feelers for you. You are his little girl, and he take care of you. Old Pierre still have connections you ain’t pissed off yet. Fact. He may know something that may even be opening up this very night. If it works out, bet you a ten Old Pierre can have you set up for it by tomorrow,” he said. Then we toasted the fucked up world and he poured me another.
After a third, I got up and tackled the dance floor. It was hot, and crowded, and downright electric, but my heart wasn’t in it. Somehow it didn’t feel like where I was supposed to be. I couldn’t even find the motivation to see if anyone had enough cash tucked away in some supposedly safe spot to pay my tab, though two girls straggling off the dance floor were confused as hell to find they were both wearing each other’s dresses. Don’t ask me how it happened cuz I won’t tell. Still, I guess I did what I supposed to do, so I went back to the bar.
More people had wandered over to the bar by then, so Pierre wasn’t free to chat, but the stool next to Aunt Nancy was still free, so I sat down and stared at the bottles behind the bar. Then for kicks I juggled a few shot glasses, made them disappear mid-toss and reappear hidden in my hand, not that anyone noticed. I put them down, feeling the gloom of the day settle back in.
I looked hopefully at Aunt Nancy, wrapped up in knitting, fucking knitting in a night club. “What you making?”
“Something important dear. Not much time to talk. It is a present for an old friend. It is important that I get it done, done tonight, done right with no loose ends or it could be bad.”
An odd friend it would have to be, because it looked more like a spider web than anything wearable.
“So no bedtime stores tonight?” I tried to give him my best puppy dog look.
Without looking up, he started speaking in a rapid clip, not quite sounding annoyed, more just on automatic. “Well, I could tell you the story of the Japanese girl who hid on an Indian reservation with her lover rather than report to an interment camp during World War II and how when they had a baby girl they named it Coyote Dancing because her lover reported seeing a coyote dancing under the full moon when their child was born, claiming it was a sign that great things would come from this child. Or I could tell a tale about how mother and child were torn from the father and deported for nothing but petty reasons when the government found out after the war.”
“Cute,” I said, just a little offended. “I can tell my own fucking family history. You could have just said no.” I turned away to stare at the bottles lined up behind the bar some more. Maybe some new ones had snuck in while I wasn’t looking. Things like that happen you know.
My great-grandmother had hidden, or been hidden, on the reservation by a Native American lover so they wouldn’t be separated during the war. When she was deported back to Japan, she listed her daughter’s name as Kaiyo. She struggled on her own to support her daughter until the day Kaiyo married.
No one in still traditional Japan wanted to marry a halfbreed child, so my grandmother Kaiyo, who I get my name from, ended up settling down with someone from India (those other Indians) who came there to sell the country on Indian chai, one tea drinking country to another. He never become a household word in Japan, but their little tea shop did well.
Their youngest daughter, a rebel who was never comfortable with being only one-quarter Japanese got wrapped up with an artist and the two of them fled to the United States to become a great artistic duo. He ditched her for a western girl within weeks, claiming that he was renouncing all things Japanese, including her, because they only slowed him down. After that he moved so fast that he died of a drug overdose within the year. And my mom, penniless, with no friends, and ashamed to return home, ended up turning tricks on the street. Brother Church bailed her out. Not out of prostitution, just off the streets. He knew how to market a good exotic treasure like her to upscale clients. In the bed and on the stage, she went by the name Bonny Chai. Brother Church insisted that I got every ounce of my beauty from her, and she may even held a little back on me.
My mom died in childbirth, leaving only one child behind her. Me. I am guessing the ginger hair came from my dad’s side, whoever he was. Brother Church raised me like his own daughter. That really just meant that fucking bastard charged top dollar to exclusive clients who liked little girls, especially exotic looking ones.
I suppose I should be more fucked up than I am, but he took good care of me, made sure I went to school, took care of my health, made sure there were no bad johns, and spoiled me when he could. He claimed he was setting aside all that money for me, but in the end he managed to fucking spend most of it on drugs and bling and shit. Still, when I turned eighteen he found the money to send me off to a new city where no one knew me and I could go to college in peace. There was even a small allowance I still got from him, showing up mysteriously in my bank account each month, which was just enough to keep a roof over my head in this city as long as I didn’t need to eat or anything.
Not that I ever heard a single thing from him after I had left, just the anonymous deposit each month.
The choice to use the tricks of the trade he taught me to dig myself out of my own holes as an adult was my own choice. It was fucking dumb and brought back things from my fucked up childhood I keep trying to forget, but it was not his fault.
It was not his fault.
“You know,” said Aunt Nancy, rousing me from my memories, “there is a piece of that story no one ever tells. It is the dream he had that night.”
“Who,” I asked.
“Your great grandfather, silly child.”
Aunt Nancy was finally finding time to make up a story for me, probably feeling sorry for my sitting there in a funk, so I bit. “So what was it?”
“Well, the night your grandmother was born your great grandfather dreamt he was standing outside their meagre hovel and there was a lone coyote dancing about on its hind legs in the moonlight. Then he saw a wolf come out of the forest. This struck him as odd. He didn’t live in a forest. But because of this he then knew it to be a dream. The wolf was sneaking up on the coyote, who was lost in dancing. So your great grandfather silently drew his bow, for now, in the dreamtime, he was a mighty warrior of old, more than a match for any spirit wolf, and let fly an arrow.
“The arrow missed.
“The startled wolf and coyote ran off into the woods in different directions.
“He turned to go back inside to check on his wife and child, but in turning he found himself still facing out into the clearing, and there again was a coyote dancing. Again the wolf appeared and, as he watched, the wolf pounced on the coyote and pinned her under its huge paw. Before the wolf could sink its teeth into the coyote, he drew his bow and sent a second arrow flying. Again he missed, and again the wolf ran off into the woods.
“When he looked for the coyote, it was nowhere to be seen.
“Again, he turned to go in, but instead of his door he was faced with a raven sitting on a branch of an old tree.
“The raven glared at him, as if taking his measure. ’So you’re the reason,’ the raven stated coldly. ‘Quite the mess. Quite the mess. Indeed. You would be best to never have been here. Never,’ the crow added.
“‘You can’t punish the crime before it happens. Won’t work. Just delaying the inevitable. You have no right. No right to punish this one. No right.’ The crow glared at him some more. It cawed in annoyance. ’Now. Now we have to do this the hard way,’ the crow added. ‘Horrible. Unfair. Necessary.’ It gave another annoyed caw and flew off.
“He turned to watch it go, and again he found himself watching a coyote dancing. Again the wolf appeared, this time bolting like raging lightning, and grabbed the coyote in its jaws before he could even react. He drew his bow carefully, while the wolf shook the coyote like a broken rag doll. Again he let is arrow fly, this time filled with his anger at the wolf, and this third arrow flew true and straight through wolf’s eye. The wolf fell to the ground as if dead. The coyote fell limp from its jaws.
“He walked cautiously up to them, both laying on the ground. When he drew near, the wolf leapt up, raging and snarling, growing huge. He fell backward to the ground, the wolf towering over him. The wolf, growing ever larger, made ready to snap him in two like a twig with his jaws when a white fox leapt out of nowhere and up onto the snout of the wolf, grabbed the arrow stuck in the wolf’s eye in its mouth, and yanked it out, eye and all.
“The wolf fell back, howling in pain, sending the fox tumbling.
“The raven landed atop the wolf’s head, talons digging deep into its brow, and with one smooth peck, ripped its remaining eye out and flew off with it.
“With noise that shook the earth, the wolf howled in pain and rage.
“The wolf turned back to the bloody pile of fur that was the coyote and launched it slavering maw downward to finish it off in one gulp. But with no eyes, it could not see the arrow the fox had hidden there between the coyote’s paws, and as it drove down, the arrow pushed up, into its mouth, through the back of its throat, and out. The wolf toppled over, dead, next to the body of the coyote.
“Your great grandfather rose up carefully and went over to the coyote. He poked gently at her remains. On being poked, the coyote roused, stumbled to her feet, and limped away as fast as she could. Then at the edge of the clearing, she stopped, shook herself out, stood up shakily on her hind legs, and resumed her dancing as best she could, staggering at first, each step more sure, more perfect. She danced until she became one with the moonlight and he found himself alone.
“Then he woke.”
After I realized he wasn’t going to say any more, I asked, “So if this story is true, why didn’t anyone ever tell it to me before?”
“Oh that. He never told anyone about it. He was afraid it might be bad luck.”
I gave him a dirty look. Then I gave him a warm smile for telling me a story. He didn’t see my facial exercises. He was wrapped up in his knitting again and ignoring me, so I went back to being bored at the bar.
After watching the crowd for a while I realized the Baron was watching me. I normally didn’t talk to him much. If you weren’t putting out, he wasn’t interested, but now and then he made time for me. I wandered over to see what was up.
Before I could settle in to the table and say hello, he said, “No reason to sit. This is not your place, girl. Your home is the bar.”
What the fuck was it with people being rude tonight? But one didn’t get angry with the Baron, it could be bad. I managed to dial myself down to businesslike. “Then why did you want to see me?”
“You got two little creatures hiding under the table doing things we’re supposed to pretend we don’t see, and you’re ignoring them and staring at me.”
“Touché,” he said with a dark undertone, and leaned forward, dislodging two eager mouths. “I have a question for you, girl, an important one. Not that I want you to answer it, I just want you to think about it.”
I waited, trying not to glare. He stood up, not much concerned that he was still hanging generously out of his trousers, and pushed past his girls to me. He was a big man, towering over me, and I’m not small. I felt fear creeping up my spine.
“Your wrist,” he said.
“I am asking the questions tonight.”
I held up my hand towards him, ready to snatch it back, but before I could he had delicately wrapped a bracelet around it and snapped the clasp shut, all in one smooth gesture, like a spider lovingly seizing its prey.
“There are many debts to be paid tonight,” he said.
I looked at the bracelet. It was a charm bracelet. He didn’t give me time to inspect the charms, tucking up my chin so he could stare into my eyes.
“You’ve been living here in this city for something around a decade, first, as you like to tell everyone, in college, then struggling to get by at something you would like to call being an adult, and so far as I can tell, not doing a particularly good job of this fool’s errand.” He shushed me sternly with a painful squeeze of my jaw before I could protest. “You need to remember. Soon you won’t have any choice but to remember. So let me jog your memory with a question. A simple one. Where is here?”
He let go of me. Something in what he had said left me too stunned to answer, but I couldn’t understand what. He put himself away with a great piece of ceremonial adjustment, zipped up his fly, and said, without once taking his eyes away from mine, “Come on girls, party is moving to my place.” Then he slipped past me and out the door with a gaggle of toys in tow.
I realized with a start that Papa had come over next to me, worried that there might be trouble.
“Kaiyo, you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered, distracted by ideas dancing in my head to fast for me to grab them.
“What did the Baron want?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a lot of not knowing.”
“He wanted to know if I knew where I was.”
A flash of concerned anger rolled across Papa’s face, and then passed. “I’m gonna stick my nose out and see if he’s still around, have a chat with him. Maybe it’s time you called it a night.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said.
Everything was feeling really weird, like shadows of what they were supposed to be. Even I felt like an echo, a memory.
I went to the bar to say my farewells to people. Aunt Nancy gave me a hurried, “Can’t talk. Almost done. Maybe next time you can tell me a story.” Pierre leaned over the bar to give me a kiss on the cheek. “Before you go,” he asked with a wink, still leaning in close, “could you get Old Pierre’s hat down off that peg?”
I looked up at it, looked around to see Papa absent, and laughed. The strangeness passed and the world snapped back into focus. “You got it.” I went behind the bar and climbed up on the rear counter. I still had to reach to get it down. Then I pushed it down over his head with an annoyed screech when I realized how much he was appreciating the view.
I studied the bracelet as I walked home during a gap in the storm. The rain always behaved itself when I went to dance in the Moonlight.
It was a delicate silver thing with an odd collection of charms; a teeny whiskey bottle, a tea pot, a Japanese fox mask, a bird of some sort, a crescent moon, a little working garden gate, a spider, a sombrero, a top hat, a pistol, a knife, a teardrop, or was it a rain drop, and a martini glass. There was one charm loop left with nothing attached to it.
It had a story to tell, but I didn’t know what it was.
Or maybe I just refused to admit it.
When I got home, I found my door ajar. The light was on in the living room, but I couldn’t really remember if I’d turned it off. Might be the women from before, but it might not. This was not a good section of town to make assumptions in.
I eased in carefully, in case some fucking miscreant had discovered it was open, and I found the big carving knife stuck to its magnetic strip on the side of the fridge without taking my eyes off places people could be waiting in the shadows. No lurker was going to catch me unarmed and off guard.
The pile of clothes I had left on the kitchen floor earlier that night was neatly folded on the counter now. Didn’t seem like something an invading psychopath would do, but I felt safer stabbing first, asking questions later.
I eased out into the room at a safe distance from anyone who might try to make a grab for me. There on the couch, sipping the last of my whiskey and staring straight at me, was Brother Church. “Hey girl,” was all he could say before I almost crushed his spine in a flying hug. Then I dropped the knife down next to the couch and hugged him again, safer this time.
Reality managed to dig its way out of the muck that was my brain and I let go and eased back. A man showing up after ten years of not writing, not calling, not doing anything but making money mysteriously appear, probably automatically sent from some account he forgot about long ago, wasn’t a social call. It meant something was wrong. I swore quietly at logic and intuition for ruining a moment of pure fucking joy. I had few enough of them as it was.
I looked at him. Brother Church looked like he had been through the wringer, bent and frail, a dirty eye patch over one eye, his clothes faded from their normally flashy elegance and sitting on him like they were a size or two too big. He would never have tolerated being sloppily dressed. He had a distant look in his eyes that I couldn’t read, a weird hollow mix of sorrow tinged with anger.
“What are you doing here,” was all I could say. It wasn’t supposed to be an accusation, but that was what it felt like.
“I came to see you. How has my little girl been, besides all grown up?” The words dripped with his surface charm, but there was no warmth underneath them. They felt all wrong, like I was talking to an echo of someone past.
I felt that echo fading and tried to grab on to it. “I’ve been getting by. Survived college. Been working in jobs that require I stand on my feet or sit in chairs, instead of lying on my back. Doesn’t pay as well, but I feel better about-” Which was as far as I could hold on to a false piece of joy.
I put my hand on his, and felt like a little child again, trying to comfort her dad, as if he needed comforting. “You look terrible. Something is wrong. Why are you really here?”
“Don’t worry about my looks, child. Some plans fell apart and I had to go underground for a bit. Time, hardship, failure, the occasional betrayal, and all those little deaths can drag a man down. Ended up coming here to hide for a bit. Didn’t really expect to find you kicking around.”
“I realized after college I didn’t really know where I wanted to go, so I just sort of stayed right here.”
“What is all this with college? You are a queer one.”
“Well, you’re the one who found the money to send me there. I still get your monthly stipends, but I that is all I get from you. I wrote you lots of letters, but never got a single one back, so it is not my fault if you didn’t keep track of me. Besides, you still found me, right?”
“That I did,” he said. Then he punched me. Hard.
I went sprawling.
I recovered to find myself staring at the wrong end of a gun. It didn’t stop me from shouting, “What the fuck?”
“College? I don’t know what kind of a little princess palace of lies you built for yourself, girl. Do you even know where you are? There aren’t no colleges here. There ain’t nothing to learn here. What would you study?”
“Shut the fuck up, girl. There ain’t no college. There ain’t no money. Who made this damn story up for you? Someone is playing you for the fool so they can play me for a fool, and I don’t like it.” He stood up with the gun, and I crawled backward to the other side of the little coffee table. It still had the tea set on it, by some miracle, totally undisturbed in my fall.
“That’s no reason to fucking hit-“
“Shut the fuck up!” He glared at me with an anger I’d never seen before, and I’d seen him angry plenty of times. “They were here! I can still smell their stench! I followed that stench here, otherwise I would never have found this place! You don’t belong here, you deserve better than this, better than what I gave you.”
He shuddered as softness crossed his face, but then the rage dug in deeper. “They said I wasn’t good enough. That this was my payback. That I refused to play by the rules. What rules? Rules are for fucking games. They want games? Let’s play a game and see what happens. I’ll walk out here without another word, if you can tell me where here is.”
The same weirdness hit me as when the Baron asked. I opened my mouth to answer and the weirdness got hundreds of times worse. The room was suddenly spinning in directions it had no right to spin, like it was perched on the edge of a twisting dark hole, trying to drag me in, teasing me with a word that kept dancing away as I grabbed for it.
Brother Church laughed.
“You don’t fucking know, do you?” He gave me a long look. “Eh, I wouldn’t have honored that promise anyway, so why don’t I tell you.”
“Here is nowhere,” he said with a sweeping gesture of his gun. “It is between. A place for gods, and demons and the occasional lost soul who can’t even walk a clearly marked path to their own grave. You are stuck between. You shouldn’t be stuck between. You should be dead, very dead. I should know, I killed you with my own hands.”
There was a twitch. A silence. Brother Church talked, but there was no sound, and the world ground to a halt.
Suddenly, I was being torn in half, caught between, shredded into fragments. I fell backwards screaming, falling to a floor that was right under me and endlessly far away. There was Brother Church seeing me off at the bus station on the way to college. And, with no warning, a sudden blow from behind. There he was beating me to death with a weighted cane in a dark basement, with no reason, just, “Hey girl, got something for you, come with me,” to a place no one could hear me scream. The bus ride going on forever, or was it a train, each clack of the rail another blow falling on me. He was speaking something at me, something about a deal, in a cold calm voice, apologetic, almost sincere, how I didn’t deserve this, how he hated to do this but had to keep up his end of the bargain, and the blows kept coming. Or was it because I forgot to do my math homework? Sitting in class, trying to survive a boring lecture about Brother Church in a course on world mythologies, hand twitching feebly as the blows pulped my skull. Watching, distant and right there, like a ghost, screaming as the remains of my battered body being methodically hacked up and dumped in a dumpster, chunk by bloody chunk. Someone pulling me, a terrified child, out and telling me I was his little girl and he would always take care of me and that this wasn’t my story, not really anyway. Brother Church was coldly apologizing with each blow and the story wandered further and further away. It all became the dark echoes of a story intentionally told wrong, and the blows kept falling, and I kept screaming. And the pain wouldn’t stop.
And Old Pierre was sitting beside me, at the bar, or was it a sunlit clearing in a primordial tropical forest, helping me with my homework in a place before homework, or was he just trying to get into my pants. He was mostly making jokes that helped confuse things while I screamed, though whether in pain, fear, or frustration I couldn’t tell. I asked him why all these lessons were about me, and why didn’t I know any of this? Without breaking away from the lesson, he calmly put out a hand to stop the next blow from falling. The pain started fading. He laughed and said that being born was always the hardest part, but that wasn’t a very good excuse not to. But I still had to remember so many things that I never knew before.
And Papa was holding me close after a night of making love, when the horror crept back in and ruined it, telling it me it would be all right. I had a gift, he said, one that could open any door, he said, and he asked me to tell him a story. So I told him a story, between tremors and sniffles, of how I wished things could have been. He stopped me and said it was always too late for stories of could have been. Telling them was nothing but trying to forget. I needed stories of what is and what could be. He said I needed to believe in myself to make those stories real, because that was who I was.
So, while Papa got up and made some tea, I told him another story, a dumb story about being a psychologist and helping others, but how could I help others if I couldn’t even help myself? He shrugged and said it was still a good start, now I just had to deal with that second part.
And I hit the ground with a whump, like I had fallen all the way from the moon. The wind was knocked out of me. So was the crazy.
I was lying on my back in my apartment and Brother Church was still talking. If I had been screaming, he didn’t seem to notice.
“-so I agreed to help your father fix his little mistake by making sure you never had a chance to figure it all out. He wasn’t very happy when he found I fucked up, sent some friends of his to discuss it with me, so here I am now. All I want to do is lay low until this little shitstorm blows over. I’ve got too many enemies, don’t need any more, and you are the one hole in my defenses. Though the good news is that when you are standing at the gates of hell, there is no place left to hide between the quick and the dead. I promise you will stay dead this time, very dead.”
I watched the gun as he moved to a better angle to kill with, flat on my back, too far away to reach him.
My foot hit the edge of the coffee table and the tea pot flew up in a perfect little arc as its lid flew off in another direction. He startled, and lost his aim as the tea pot hit him in the face. Freshly-brewed tea splashed out, still steaming, scalding his one good eye, and for an instant I wasn’t sure it if it was tea or liquid fire. He screamed and dropped the gun. I watched a pantomime of him clawing at flames that weren’t there.
We both recovered from the surprise at the same time. We both saw the gun on the floor at the same time. We both leapt at the same time. Him down, me over.
There was a tangle of limbs, and eye gouging and hair pulling and arms reaching for the gun. He was strong, inhumanly strong for something that looked so worn. He tossed me away still holding a chunk of his hair, too far for me to have a chance at the gun.
I pushed myself up to at least make an attempt at defending myself and felt the handle of the kitchen knife under my hand. I grabbed it and leapt as he was swinging around with the gun. It felt like time itself had stopped for a second, just for me. By the time he pulled the trigger I was already closer to him than the gun was.
With my full weight behind it, the knife slid home into his stomach.
A look of shock came across his face, pressed right up against mine. I screamed and pushed him back, the gun flying away, and I drove the knife in again, and again, blind with rage at the memory of the fear and the pain.
The rage faded with a shudder, and I looked at him under me, in a pool of blood. I left the knife there, propped in his chest and got up. Shaking and staggering, I made it to the kitchen, then out the door. I didn’t even bother to fix my dress, hiked up and torn to a useless tatter in the fight.
I went up, instead of down. It was just the easiest direction to go. Maybe it seemed like a place to hide. At the top of the stairs, I pushed open the creaking door that led to the roof.
Outside, it was raining, with a distant moon beam peeking through the only gap in the clouds and winding its way down the maze of city streets. I opened my arms, still shaking, and let the rain pour down in torrents on me. As I opened my hand, something fell out of it. I looked down to see the martini glass from the charm bracelet, the rest of it torn off in the fight.
I picked it up and admired its little glinting perfection. I looked deep and saw through it to a perfectly mixed drink sitting on the bar at the Moonlight. It was a tiny little story all its own. Aunt Nancy was sitting next to that drink, gently tugging to knot off a final piece of yarn before reaching for his scissors. The shaking turned into a giggle. I threw the charm into the air. I don’t know if it ever came down, but it didn’t matter.
I tore off the remains of my dress and stood naked in the rain, arms out, head up, and surrendered to it, letting come down in blinding sheets, letting it wash all the blood away, letting it wash everything away. The memories, the pain, the fear all pooled at my feet like so much grime. They weren’t me. They were just of me. Forgetting them was no better than clinging to them, but they could still be washed, purified, left behind. I pull my arms in tight, twirled, and laughed some more. I was giddy, drunk with a crazy ecstasy welling up from deep inside me. Because I… because I was.
The rain settled down to something soft and steady. I ran over to the edge of the roof, dancing between the raindrops, and hopped up on the brick wall that defined it’s edges. I looked over and saw the moonbeam had come closer, threading the maze of streets to find me. I looked down at the street below. So far away. Was the building really that tall? I couldn’t even remember how many floors there were. Too many to count and never the same number twice.
I saw a sparkle of something at my feet. I bent down to find another small charm. A dog. No. It was a coyote. Definitely a coyote, because that is just how things are, just how things were supposed to be.
Brother Church was so terribly wrong. This place wasn’t nowhere. It was home. A horrible little home of lost souls and dark spirits, but home. I knew where I was. I knew who I was.
Starting tomorrow, I would tell stories about the wonderful things that could be, instead of the bad ones past. If people misread them, then it wasn’t my fault. And instead of counseling psychology, it would be art. Did I really spill Brother Church’s blood all over that painting I had worked so hard on as part of my graduate thesis project? Maybe I could restore it. Wait, what was that other thing Papa said, all those times when he would try to explain it to me and I wouldn’t listen, the most important thing, don’t get lost-
I heard the creak of the rusty door behind me and spun around to see Brother Church staggering through it.
“You fucking little bitch,” he croaked, “you killed me. First your dad and then you. Fucking cheated death so many times and then some fucking little cunt ruins it.” He staggered toward me, raising his gun unsteadily. “But at least I can die knowing I took you with me.”
There was no fear this time. I was home. With all its creeps and weirdos and ugliness and beauty and stories—especially the stories. It was a city made of stories. It had no name without its stories.
I stepped backward into the emptiness behind me, letting myself fall into the embrace of the moonbeam I could hear sneaking up behind me, framing me in its light, staring me in the face like an old friend. I accepted its invitation, and I told it a story, all the silvery rain drops dancing about me, a million tiny reflections of a coyote dancing in the moonlight.
With a wet thud, the moonlight was consumed by the night and darkness fell on the empty, lifeless street.
With his dying breath, Brother Church cursed the rain and the darkness, then slumped in a heap where I had stood.
And maybe, if you’re really lucky, Coyote will dance in the moonlight.