2-10: Bad Timing

Warning: Explicit Language and Bad Habits

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Far above the midday nightclub pulse and the strobelight seizures breathe the smoke stacks of Neon City, whose mouths penetrate the clouds and bases form the seaside. They loom above the skyscrapers and their sallow-faced tenants. Mercenaries wash gray in their shadow; children forfeit their lungs in their smog. For centuries, their ash has fallen over the neon signs of the red light district and its shifty eyed neighbor, the grand statehouse. Even the hotels, the once gleaming harbingers of progress, wipe the soot from their windows.

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The celebrity hills-The Heights, as locals call them-must wash daily, or else risk succumbing to the common man’s filth. Their streets desperately yearn to shine beneath inches of gray. Nothing escapes. On the corner between the biggest mansion and the most expensive car, a permanent, thin layer of soot conceals the dashes in the road, beside which wheezes a familiar Sloppy Jalopy. Its windshield wipers have been running for nearly an hour. When asked why, the driver pleaded insanity.

In the Jalopy’s passenger seat sits Flannery Dove, one jaded knee drawn to her chest and five frightened fingers drumming on her thigh. In the driver’s seat fidgets Alto Loft, whose shaky hands struggle to unfold a prewar map, and whose eyes stay trained on the scrap of paper taped to the steering wheel. Behind them sit Seaweed Staley, slumped into his cigarette, and Dolly Lemon, who still covers her eyes. They have arrived in silence and remain in silence.

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Outside the Jalopy, the city forms a smokestack jungle. Sirens blare from downtown like howling monkeys, and Dolly’s head nearly pierces the ceiling at their sudden arrival. A brief yelp escapes her lips, but no words break the humid, suffocating car air. Flannery rolls down the window and sticks out her head, breathing in deep gulps of cigarette smoke and salt water wind. Flashing lights pierce the grey beyond the hill, and bounce, muted, from the skyscrapers’ sharp corners. She rubs the purple circles beneath her eyes and squints through the smoke. Somewhere in the smog stalks her father, and somewhere miles away and decades dead, lay the innocent. Or so she thinks. Flannery glances at the steering wheel and reads the note, read a thousand times over during the past hour.

1449 Ivy Way.

Whatever that means, thinks Flannery, and her mind travels back to that musty city hall, to its spiderwebbed chandeliers and corpse-covered floors. Her stomach churns as the rotting smell washes over her. She screws her eyes shut, withdraws her head, and leans it against her knee. Can’t think about this right now. Need something else, anything. “Have you found the hotel?” she asks Alto, who nearly drops the map at the sound of her voice.

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After a moment’s hesitation, he nods. The map returns to the glove compartment (although it tries its best to remain spread out, creases and all), and the key turns in the ignition. The windows are painted grey now. Only the windshield has escaped the soot.

And over the grand swinging bridge they go! Certainly it’s less dull by moonlight, but the dead clog their minds, and the pavement winds past their imaginations. They drive through the city streets, passing shuttered shops and urban nomads, circumventing lane-wide potholes, and imagining days of the broken city’s glory, when the women smoked diamond cigarettes and the men had emeralds sewn in their cufflinks. On downtown’s border, they discover their hotel amidst a sea of abandoned cranes. They park the car across the street, then haul their luggage first to the front desk, then to the elevator, and finally, after enduring its creaks, lurches, and droning music, they reach the top floor, and consequently, their room.

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Dolly steps in first, gingerly, and dumps her bags next to the ratty red couch. As the rest pile in, she crosses the room to the window, and folds her arms across her chest. The peeling, last century wallpaper burns her eyes. The top floor heat summons sweat to her armpits. “I hate this country,” she says to the sea, expanding over the horizon out their very window. She wrinkles her nose. The room smells like smoke and death. “And it’s trying so goddamn hard to make me afraid of it.”

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“You’re not afraid?” asks Seaweed. He lights another cigarette. I swore I’d quit after graduating, he thinks mournfully, tucking his lighter in his pocket. “Where have you been the past twenty-four hours?”

She turns to face him. “The same goddamn places you were, but I’m sick of crying about it. Why waste time sobbing, when we could be doing something about it?”

“Doing what?” asks Seaweed. Behind his back, Flannery heads for the bar, tucked away in the corner, by the fridge. She pours her first drink and sets it down with a thick clunk; startled, then furious, Seaweed whips around to face her. Spit flies from his mouth. “Put that the fuck down, Flannery!”

“We just found a room full of dead bodies, and you’re flipping out at me for having a drink?” she yells back. “Well excuse me if I don’t feel like fucking frolicking through a field right now!”

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Alto collapses on the couch and presses his hands over his ears. “Get your priorities straight,” snarls Seaweed as he approaches her. “Are you going to confront your father or pass out on the couch with your head in your boyfriend’s lap?”

“I think your father and your romantic bullshit are the least of our worries,” comments Dolly. “This is really a bad time, you guys. Um, the room full of dead people? The alarm? Hello?”

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Flannery ignores her and glares at Seaweed, shoulders tense, eyebrows drawn tight. A storm brews in her eyes. Lightning whips from her mouth. “You’re not worried about my drinking at all,” she hisses. “And you sure as hell don’t give a damn about my dad right now. This is about Alto, isn’t it?”

“Maybe.” Seaweed thrusts his shoulders back. A deep breath. His nostrils flare out. He drives his cigarette into the ashtray. A bead of sweat drips down his forehead. There’s no air conditioning on the top floor. Flannery’s forehead shines. Her eyes narrow. Her lips part. She spits out the words:

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“Then grow the fuck up.”

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As she turns away, Seaweed shouts, hoarse and ashy, “You’re a horrible friend, Flannery.”

She glances over her shoulder as she pours her drink. “Because I don’t want to sleep with you?”

Alto notes her reflection in the window: flaming hair frizzy, grey eyes a tornado. He swallows, hard. He thinks he might love her at her best, but in this sweltering, hurricane hotel, he wishes he were dead. The impulse passes in the ensuing silence, but his knees still knock.

“Because you never gave me a chance!” Seaweed’s shout pierces the silence, and the window slides up and Dolly’s head slips out, her athlete’s lungs breathing in soot for hope of a peaceful place.

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Flannery downs her drink. In the dim, flickering light, her eyelids sag like an old woman’s. “Seaweed, look. It’s…it’s been a really long day. Do we have to talk about this right now?”

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“I don’t care how tired you are. I’ve just seen the truth about the past, and now I want to know the truth about us. I want to know why I’m always the last thing on your list, and why you’re screwing around with this motormouth history buff who doesn’t know the first thing about you! Look a little bit closer to home, Flan. If you’d goddamn paid attention, you would’ve noticed that I..I love you. And I have loved you, ever since you introduced me to your mom all those years ago. I’ve always been here for you, and I know you, and I know you’re probably feeling tipsy about now and-stop goddamn pouring and start listening to me!”

Flannery takes a deep, shaky breath. Her head pounds. Her mind screams in guilt’s absence.

“I don’t understand why you can’t love me back. All I want is you. I’ve sacrificed and I’ve struggled and I’ve watched you fall in love with countless things and countless bottles and take me as your goddamn dessert. I’m your drunk dial, your fan, your best friend. But that’s it. God, Flan. Why can’t you just love me back?”

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Her cracked lips burst open, and she screams, hoarse and raw, “Because I don’t!”

Seaweed sits on the bed. He cradles his head in his sweaty hands. “But why?”

“Do you want an essay? I just don’t, okay?” she sighs and runs a hand through her hair. Tears well up, and she blinks them back furiously. “You’re my best friend, but I don’t want to date you, let alone sleep with you. Why is that so hard to understand? If you care so much, why can’t you just be happy for me?”

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Seaweed groans. Flannery crosses her arms over her chest. Her eyes meet Alto’s, and she quickly averts her gaze. A scrap of wallpaper plops in her drink. Hearing the plunk, Dolly glances over. She smiles reassuringly, hesitantly at Flannery, and, when Seaweed’s hands conceal his eyes, offers her a thumbs-up. Flannery starts to laugh.

First, only a quiet, subdued chuckle, and then she is guffawing, heart racing in hysterics and tears and ruddy cheeks. Her hands fly over her face as Alto leaps from the couch. “They’re all dead,” she chokes between laughs and sobs, “and we’re here arguing about who’s dating who.”

“Are you sure we’re not dreaming?” asks Alto. He massages her shoulders. Seaweed’s cry fills the room, then exits quickly as he pushes past the couple on his way to the bathroom. The door slams behind him.

Flannery sighs, then pinches Alto’s thigh. He grimaces. “I wish we were,” she croaks.

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“Can’t you two stay away from each other for five minutes?” wails Seaweed. Flannery can picture him, slumped over on the toilet seat, whole body shaking, one hand steadied on the bathtub. And he doesn’t care about anything. She wants to slap him.

Flannery pulls herself away from Alto. “We have bigger fucking problems, Seaweed!” she shouts at the wall.

A knock at the door. Three staccato raps.

Without hesitation, Flannery flings it open. “No, we don’t want any room service!”

She freezes.

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The redheaded man adjusts his sunglasses, and rearranges his scarf, riding just under his chin. His lips flounder for words. She’s seen him on TV, she knows, and in her sister’s face. His hair’s vanished since his last appearance, and wrinkles have appeared in its absence. His jaw falls. Her eyes widen. “Flannery? Oh god, Flannery, is that you?” he asks. “We’ve got to get you out of he-”

And then his eyes roll back in his head and his knees buckle beneath him. As he falls, the dart tears a slit in his suit.

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Flannery screams.

A sharp pain in her shoulder. Dizzy. Four Altos falling, six Dollys crumbling, two bathroom doors opening. Five men in suits, then four, then three, then one…

Her head hits the floor, and the room fades to black.

                                                          

Robyn – “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do

A/N: Sorry about the wait! School’s back in session, and my game’s been screwy as of late. Especially taking pictures in apartments. The camera moves ridiculously fast, and it’s a pain in the ass to get a single shot. Also I’m sorry about the cliff hanger torture! ‘Specially cuz the school year’s officially in session and I’ll probably be updating weekly/bi-weekly until Thanksgiving break. But anywho, thank you so much for reading! 🙂

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2-9: What Flannery Found

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Separate. Arms pumping. Chests heaving. Brandy has always beaten exercise. Oh, how Flannery regrets it now!

Stumble in the brush. Bruised knee. Blood drips down her thigh. Gust of wind. Alto’s hair whips in front of his eyes. He nearly crashes. Tree in the way. Continue on.

Up the steps. Panting now. Flushed cheeks. Eyes dart from pillars to floor. Dolly’s hand covers her mouth. Eyes squeezed shut. Seaweed leans against the wall, cigarette in hand. His gaze meets theirs. Hollow. Deep breaths. Stammer. Stop.

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“A-a-are you okay?” asks Alto between great, heaving breaths. Dolly slides to the ground; she presses her face against her thighs. Her quivering lip peeks from between them. “Lemon?”

Dolly doesn’t reply. Flannery stares at the city hall’s doors, at the darkness behind the empty window frames, at its rusty doorknob, at the scrap of paper jammed between hinges. She narrows her eyes. “What did you two find?”

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Seaweed shakes his head and takes another drag. Dolly’s knees knock. “If you won’t tell me,” snaps Flannery, “I’ll find it myself.”

“Don’t!” cries Seaweed. He covers his face with his hands, then with a shaky hand, holds his cigarette to his lip. His voice continues, choked, distraught. “Just listen to me for once, okay, Flan? Don’t go in there. Let’s just go back home, okay? You don’t need to see that. Nobody should.”

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“I’m going in,” growls Flannery, raising her chin defiantly. Seaweed says nothing as she marches past him, and only takes another drag, frown sinking to his ankles, when Alto slips through the door behind her.

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Broken glass cracks beneath Flannery’s boots. Through the darkness, she makes out the ornate, stately rug beneath her feet, and the strange, dark brown stains upon it. Dust puffs from its depths with each step she takes. Mice avoid her feet. Above her, a chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Spiderwebs adorn its fixtures. She breathes slowly, and a putrid and sickly sweet scent floods her nostrils. She nearly gags on it, but remembers Seaweed’s presence ten feet away. She swallows, hard. She pushes her shoulders back. A doorway stands to her left. The doors hang open, barely attached to their hinges. She turns to enter, when something brushes her hand.

Flannery’s shriek sends the mice fleeing for their mouseholes. Her hands fly to her face, and she is enveloped by a brief, nervous hug. “Hey, hey,” comes Alto’s hushed voice. He pulls himself away from her and meets her wide eyes. “I’m sorry. Shit, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she lies. His hand finds hers, and their fingers intertwine. She takes a long, shuddering breath. “Let’s keep going.”

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She turns the corner and freezes.

A flag, worn and moth-eaten, hangs across the far wall. On it, a tiger buries its teeth into a snake; its blood spurts across a snapped olive branch.  A podium stands in front of the flag. A torn page dangles from a book on its surface. Weapons cases and supplies boxes line the walls. Dried food, read some, and antibiotics, read others. Another chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

On the floor lays hundreds of skeletons.

Some still wear clothes. Some still clutch their mother’s hand. Their rot’s leftover stench floods the room.

Flannery’s stomach heaves. She gags; the bile rises up her throat. Her coughs echo through the room. Alto’s hand falls limply to his side. His eyes meet hers for a brief moment, awed or horrified, until her stomach empties through her throat. Vomit splashes against a skull. The alarms go off.

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“Run!” screams Flannery. She turns on her heel, and nearly trips over a thigh as she stumbles for the door. Her head pounds with the pulsing, high-pitched shriek of the alarm, and suddenly she’s vomiting again, dribble running down her chin, throat burning. Alto follows, silent, forehead covered in a thin sheen of sweat. He steps on a mouse as he whirls around the corner. It squeaks as it dies. The blood stains his shoes.

Sunlight on their faces. Vomit down her shirt. The paper between the door. Alto tucks it in his pocket as he flies past. Flannery grabs Dolly’s hand, yanks her to her feet, and then the four run, run, run to the car, run the engine, run to the city that never wakes, that insomniac, that frightened city.

                                

Lorde – “Swingin’ Party

A/N: I hope to have another chapter or two out before school starts, and will try to update as often as I can once I’m back in the classroom! It’ll be tough, though, because this is college application season, and while I’ve already applied to my first choice, I still plan on applying to a few more schools and will need to focus on school in order to keep acceptance and get MOAR SCHOLARSHIPS.

Anywho, thank you all for reading! I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer. 🙂

2-8: Trouble Town

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Flannery brushes her teeth ferociously, no water, no band aids. She drags her thumbs beneath her eyes, then reapplies her mascara. She examines her hair in the mirror, furious and blood-red. She wonders if she will kill her father, or simply burn his ego to the ground. Well, she’ll find out soon enough. She brushes her teeth again. The sun has not yet risen.

“Hey!” shouts Dolly from the hall. Flannery grimaces. “We’re leaving in five!”

Flannery yawns. “Can I go to sleep first?”

“If you hadn’t been fixing your hair, you could’ve snagged a nap,” replies Dolly. A door opens in the hall. Suitcases scuffle across the carpet.

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“We’re going to be in the car all day,” Dolly calls to Flannery. “You don’t need to wear makeup. Come on, the sun’s up.”

Flannery rolls her eyes and tucks her mascara in her makeup pouch. She runs a hand through her hair, sighs, and opens the door.

Dolly stands outside, hand on her hip, blonde curls pulled haphazardly into twin buns. A pile of suitcases rests beside her on the floor. Shadows pool in her collarbones. She narrows her eyes. “Really, chiquita? We’re not going to a photoshoot.”

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“I wouldn’t be me without my eyeliner,” says Flannery simply. “Oh, thanks for grabbing my bag.”

“No problem,” says Dolly. “You know, maybe you should try going without it once in awhile. It feels good to be exposed sometimes.”

Flannery ponders this for a moment, then shakes her head. “I’m fine the way I am, but thanks.”

“I don’t have many girl friends, either,” says Dolly incisively as Alto’s door opens. He’s still wearing his pajamas. He lugs a suitcase behind him. “And I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wear a shirt.”

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“Sweater vests aren’t shirts?” asks Alto, unzipping his suitcase and yanking out a button-up and argyle sweater vest. He buttons up his shirt quickly, as if he’s just been caught skinnydipping in a public pool, then yanks his vest over his head.

“I’m digging your sweatpants,” teases Dolly. “They really match the vest.”

“I-I was going to change in the hallway, but I really wasn’t expecting a welcoming committee.”

“We’ll load up the car,” says Flannery, tossing a wink his way. Should’ve left the shirt off, she mouths. His blush lights the whole house. She grins and waggles her eyebrows. “See you in five.”

***

They have been driving for nearly two hours when Alto suddenly pulls over. The suitcases tumble from their stack in the trunk, and Seaweed crashes into Dolly’s lap. She yelps, then pushes his head to the mustard stain on the polyester seat. “I said I wasn’t getting married,” she snaps, “and that didn’t mean I wanted your head between my legs.”

Seaweed blushes furiously and scrambles upright, nearly banging his head on the ceiling.  “What the hell, Alto?” he snarls.

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Alto points at a billboard on the other side of the highway. Whitewater, it reads over a drug-addled monkey and an oversized popsicle, a river of opportunities. Beside it, a dirt road branches from the highway, then disappears behind a fertile hill’s slope. “Do you guys know what that means?”

“Alto,” says Flannery firmly, “that is the stupidest advertisement I’ve ever seen.”

“No, no, no,” he snaps. Flannery blinks, surprised. “The bad advertising doesn’t matter. The town itself is way more important than its billboard. Come on, you guys haven’t heard of it?”

“I always liked math better than history,” says Dolly, “but I think I remember the name. My uncle might’ve mentioned it once.”

Alto points at the billboard again. “Whitewater was the last town that vanished.”

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“Okay,” says Flannery, “but Pandora Spring goes on tomorrow. We can’t waste another day on side trips.”

“We won’t spend the night. We’ll just stop for lunch,” pleads Alto. “I just..I can’t pass this up.”

“I’m on Flan’s side,” says Seaweed, and Flannery looks at him sharply. They’ve hardly spoken since two evenings ago. “Why should we stop just to poke around some creepy, empty, crusty old town? There’s going to be a ton of spiders and mold and I don’t think we want anyone to die on this trip.”

“Look,” says Alto, leaning forward, raising his voice. All dissent silences. “I don’t talk a lot about my past or my interests, but when I say that this really matters to me, believe it. When I thought my world was going to end in ice, I immersed myself in a library, and I discovered these…these notes, hidden between the pages of certain history books. They told me about the days nobody talks about anymore. Everybody just wants to forget and everybody just wants to move on. They don’t want to know what happened to the thousands who vanished. They’re comfortable in poverty or mansions or cubicles, and they won’t look at the mass graves behind them. And I know the government encourages it, too. Do you know how hard it is to find a book on The Vanishing? I looked for ages. By chance, I discovered one in a gas station bathroom, when I was warming my hands under the hand dryer. All of the pages had been torn out, except for one. The one that read Whitewater, the clue to the mystery that all still live with and still all have forgotten.”

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“Why were you so cold?” asks Flannery, voice soft. “What happened to you?”

“I got kicked out,” says Alto, “but that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that town. I only found one web page on it, stating its emptiness, but not its address. I don’t know anything about it, only that it matters, and that we can’t just drive by as if it hadn’t lived.”

“All of this from one page?” asks Seaweed.

“We’ll just stay for lunch,” says Alto. “Please.”

“We’ll do it,” says Flannery. Seaweed kicks the back of her seat. He continues kicking for the next twenty minutes, almost unconsciously, as they squeal over yellow fields and coffee stain roads.

***

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“I don’t like this place,” says Dolly; she takes a small, nervous bite from her charred hotdog. Birds crowd the trees, and squawk louder with each uncomfortable glance. They sit at a picnic table. A scrap of fabric peeks out from under the dirt beneath it. Its seats are cold; the sun is hot. Dolly wonders why they don’t eat in the gazebo, looming over them from the right. She glances at it sideways and shivers. She’s certain that if she closes her eyes, the dead will be upon them in moments. “At least,” she mutters to herself, “I wouldn’t have to eat this burnt-ass hotdog.”

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“Ouch,” says Seaweed. He swivels his head to the right. From his seat, he can see the entire town square, and its immortal deadness. The city hall’s grand pillars, the swooping curves of a dozen streetlamps, the crumpled movie posters, caught on a bustling breeze-all betray the ghosts skipping from shadow to shadow, and their immeasurable silence. Only the screeching birds and the four’s chewing rub sleep from the graveyard town’s eyes. Seaweed shudders and takes another bite.

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“How much lighter fluid did you use?” Flannery asks Seaweed. She smiles softly at Alto, whose eyes wander miles away. Under the table, she pokes her foot through the grass and the anthills, until it eventually finds his. She strokes her foot against the side of his leg, smiling sweetly. He nearly chokes on his charcoal.

“Enough,” says Seaweed curtly, after a brief glance under the table. Flannery’s eyes lock to her plate. Her foot freezes.

“Wow, you know, I’m loving all of this sexual tension,” says Dolly dryly, “but can everyone keep their appendages slash old wounds slash whatevers to themselves and finish eating? This place isn’t…it isn’t right. We should leave as soon as possible.”

“That’s a fine idea, Lemon,” says Seaweed. He chomps into his hotdog. Alto squirms in his seat, driving his knees together and his shoulders inward.

“Don’t be a dick, Seaweed,” snaps Flannery.

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Seaweed shoves the rest of his hotdog in his mouth, then clambers to his feet. His eyes avoid Flannery’s. His jaw tightens. “Hey, Lemon, do you want to go look at the city hall, since these two eat crazy slow? Those pillars are looking, um, pretty sweet.”

“Whatever, sure,” sighs Dolly, standing slowly. As she raises her arms to stretch, Seaweed sprints towards the city hall. “What the hell, dude?” she shouts after him.

“I’ll race you there!” he calls over his shoulder.

She shrugs and flies after him, feet moving faster than the clouds, and seemingly never slapping the ground. She passes Seaweed in seconds; he puffs and wheezes as he tries to catch up. Soon, they disappear over the hill. Flannery frowns, then sighs. “He’s being ridiculous.”

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“Hm?” asks Alto.

“Nevermind. Just Seaweed again.” She rises and walks to Alto’s side, then taps his shoulder. “Hey, you alright in there?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m just thinking about history. I-I never thought I’d be walking through it-let alone eating hotdogs in it. But even though I’m here, I still don’t understand. Forty years ago, this town was full of people. Think about it: families must have picnicked here. I bet the gazebo was a popular hook up spot, and old couples took their grandchildren here for their birthdays. If it weren’t for The Vanishing, those people would still be here, older, yes, but living.”

Flannery thinks on this for a moment. “What do you think happened to them?” she asks, voice soft.

“I don’t know,” he says, standing to meet her eyes. “And that’s the worst part.”

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She kisses him. His cheeks flush pink. “I think I understand,” she says.

“They never even had a choice,” he murmurs. “They never even got justice. No one knows what happened to them, or if they’re even dead, and nobody goddamn cares, because whoever got rid of them covered up their tracks so well that after years of research, I haven’t found a goddamn trace. Not even in this last dead town. There’s got to be something, I’m sure, but I-”

Flannery pulls him into a hug. “Hey,” she whispers, running her fingers through his hair, squeezing his torso. His ribs poke into her breasts. “It’s not your fault. Not whatever got you kicked out, not Seaweed, not The-goddamn-Vanishing.”

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“T-thanks,” whispers Alto back. They can barely hear each other over the birds, but keep their voices remain hushed nevertheless. “I think I…I think I needed to hear that.”

“You’re welcome. Can I tell you a secret?”

“Is it dirty?” His smile warms her cheek.

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“The only things dirty are mud and murder, don’t you know?” whispers Flannery, smiling wryly. “Now listen closely. This is my secret. Last night? That was my first kiss.”

“H-h-h-how old are you?” Alto stiffens in her arms.

“Eighteen. And you?”

“Thank god. I’m twenty. Why hadn’t you, um, kissed anyone before?”

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“There was nobody I wanted to kiss.” She pulls back to meet his eyes. Her lips part. “I really like you, Alto, and I-”

Dolly’s scream mutes her words, and sends the birds flapping from the trees.

                                 

Jake Bugg – “Trouble Town

2-7: Beach

Warning: Strong Language

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Flannery sinks her toes into the sand and squints into the sun. From between cracked eyelids, she watches the ocean fills the horizon ahead, and feels palm trees crowd the boulevard twenty feet behind her. To her left slumps Seaweed, deflated like a balloon in the gutter. To her right stands Alto, who tucks his hands in his armpits, hoping to hide his bony chest from her. She closes her eyes and is swallowed by the ocean’s salty breath.

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Seaweed rubs his eyes. He peers through a narrow slit, wishing he’d brought sunglasses. At the water’s edge stands a girl, tall and fair-haired, with her nails chewed to stubs. She waves hello; the sun catches between her fingers. Flannery shuffles sideways, towards Seaweed. They haven’t spoken since the night before. “Seaweed-” she begins, and he turns to the girl by the water.

“Want to go swimming?” he shouts to her.

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“Hell yeah!” she calls back. He crosses the beach, leaving large footprints in his wake, to crash into the waves beside her. Just before his toes slipped underwater, he nearly glanced back at Flannery. His eyes first flittered towards the borders of his blue eyes and then snapped forward, to the ocean, to the sunshine girl. If he had turned his head, he wouldn’t have taken another step. If he’d seen the shadow cross her lips, he’d have fallen back into yesterday, to wither away, the best friend forever, until dirt swallows his coffin. So instead of turning around, he smiles. He says hello.

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“Fuck,” says Flannery.

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She turns on her heel and starts briskly for the bar, only to stop, shake her head furiously, and collapse into a nearby lounge chair. The sun beats on her reddening shoulders. “Fuck,” she repeats.

Alto sits gingerly in the chair beside her. For a moment, he believes he is her hapless therapist. He has been feeling like this a lot lately. “S-still having troubles with Seaweed?” he asks.

Flannery’s throat burns for vodka. “That’s just one symptom of my disease.”

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Alto blanches. “Your disease?”

“Don’t worry. I’m only contagious when I’m drunk.”

He cocks his head to the side, studying her intently. She seems to fold into herself as he watches, first pulling her knees to her chest, then resting her chin upon them. He interrupts her mourning. His question, soft and serious: “Why are you so sad?”

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“I don’t want to be,” she sighs and leans forward. Her legs swing over the edge of the chair to face him. “I cry, then I drink, then I screw everything up. On the night my mom died, I was out partying. I came home drunk. The house was cold, I remember, really cold. My head hurt. My baby brother was there. The babysitter had left without calling, or maybe I didn’t remember him calling. I didn’t remember much of anything, but I was scared. My mom had been gone all night at a party. She was never gone at all, well, never physically. She’d always been at her computer, crying, or in the garden, crying, never wanting us, but the few weeks before she died, she’d started to smile. To say hello, to compliment us. She almost cared. It was like maybe, just maybe, we were more than reminders of her doomed romance with that asshole. Anyway, I was thinking about all of that and then..then my phone rang. And she was dead, just like that. A suicide, the cop said. And I think that’s bullshit.”

“I’m so sorry,” Alto begins, but Flannery cuts him off.

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“And some days, I think I’m bullshit, too. I just want to be happy, but I’m not very good at it, as you’ve probably noticed. I can’t make myself happy without screwing someone up. I know sometimes I look like some dumb alcoholic, but I know what I’m doing. I drink to live and I drink to destroy. And I”-she looks down sheepishly; her voice drops-”I really hurt Seaweed, didn’t I?”

“I-I think so,” says Alto, hesitating slightly. “Not that you’re bullshit, but that you hurt Seaweed.” He watches as her eyes squeeze shut, then reopen fiercely.

“I’ve got to make everything right,” she says. “That’s why we’ve got to go to Neon City, isn’t it? And that’s why I need to talk to Seaweed, when he’s ready to.”

“I thought we were going to see Pandora Spring?”

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“That, too. I’ve got a score to settle in Neon City.” Her voice lowers. “My mom’s murderer will be there this weekend. I’m going to make his life Hell.”

He raises his chin. Bravely: “I’ll be there when you open the gates.”

Flannery blinks. “You sound so confident.”

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“You want to make things right. I…I understand that. And I want to help you-really, I do. I’ve read that plans usually work better when you’ve got someone to back you up. Well, an army’s ideal, but we haven’t got those kind of resources, at least, I don’t think we do. And besides, this isn’t a fantasy novel. In real life, people go it alone, or they find someone to lean on. I’m partial to the second, personally, but, um, you don’t actually have to lean on me if you don’t want to. My shoulders aren’t really that comfortable-kind of bony, so I’ve been told and, um, observed myself-but I can put on a sweater if you’d-shit. I’m totally off topic again.”

“I don’t mind your shoulders,” says Flannery. She stands, and her eyes shine from sunshine or tears. “I think they’re nice, actually.”

Alto’s jaw collides with the sand. His cheeks burn. “Really?”

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“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she says. She glances out at the ocean, then offers him her hand. “Since we’re at a beach and all, do you want to go swimming?”

Alto glances at her hand, eyebrows halfway to the moon, then back at her face. She cocks an expectant eyebrow. He blushes fiercely. “Erm, w–w-what about Seaweed?”

“He’s my best friend, not my boyfriend,” says Flannery, tossing a look over her shoulder. Seaweed’s too far away to hear her. “Besides, I like you, Alto. You’re funny. And you understand.”

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He smiles sheepishly and takes her hand. She pulls him into the sunlight and the salty breeze; his schoolboy hair whips about in the wind. The sand burns beneath their feet. He turns to face her, to smile again, but she takes off towards the waves, pale feet paving a trail through the pure white sand. He runs after her and nearly trips on a seashell. He watches his feet more carefully for the final two feet, hopping over obstacles and planting his steps in Flannery’s footprints. After what seems like an hour, warm water brushes against his toes. Alto looks up.

And there she stands, knee-deep in the blue-green waves, white swimsuit shining in the hot sun. She winks and tosses her red hair, kindled and inflamed and for a moment wholly unworldly. Alto takes a step forward, grey eyes alive, and trips over his own feet. Flannery’s laugh fills the ocean. She steps behind him, to help him up. He slips again.“Maybe you should trade your car for a walking stick,” she teases, sticking out her tongue.

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Alto rises from the sea like an antique diver, then crashes forward, splashing Flannery’s smile off her face. He grins with his hair in his eyes. “Whoops.”

“I take it you’ve declared war then?” Flannery grins back. The sun is falling.

“Oh, this is just a border skirmish,” says Alto, sending another wave in her direction. She fires back. “We can expect limited casualties, and um, hopefully no reinforcements?”

“You play a lot of videogames?” Punctuated by a squeal and newly wet hair.

“I read a lot of books. I practically lived in the library when I was in high school. For a few months afterwards, I actually did.” He sighs. “It wasn’t too bad, except for the occasional roach and spilled milk. And the librarian. She smoked on her lunch break. I thought she’d burn the place down every time the lunch bells rang.”

“How’d you end up there?” asks Flannery. “Don’t they have shelters in Neon City?”

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“They don’t have shelters anywhere, not anymore. If you’re lucky, you have friends or a couple of decent family members. Me? Not so much.”

Flannery splashes him playfully. “You’re being surprisingly eloquent right now.”

“Yeah. I know it’s only been a few days, but I’m not so nervous around you anymore”-she raises her eyebrows-”okay, just kidding. D-don’t move your eyebrows like that! A-a-am I doing something wrong? I read a few books about talking to girls, like I said before, but I-I was thinking about it last night, and I decided that the books all wanted me to act like I’m bigger than I really am. Like nothing’s ever touched me, and if the whole world came at me, I would conquer it.” He pauses. He blanches. “Shit, uh, that didn’t come out right.”

Flannery’s thunderous laugh draws a sad stare from Seaweed. The shadows hides his eyes, and so she continues to giggle. “So I’m curious,” asks Flannery, “what’s your new policy?”

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“Honesty,” answers Alto. “You’ve been pretty honest with me, and I think that’s…that’s really cool. And I’m going to be honest with you, too. I promise.”

She smiles warmly and sadly. “You’re too nice.” She splashes him again, powerfully. In a deep, joking voice: “Come on, unleash your dark side!”

Alto smacks his lips and squeezes his eyes shut. Salt water has never been recommended for its taste. He cracks open one eye and glances towards the beach. “W-well, my sweater vest’s reversible and has a black inside, if that’s what you mean.”

“That’s not what I meant, but okay,” says Flannery as Seaweed approaches, tall blonde in tow.

“Hey,” says Seaweed, stopping a few feet away. Waves lap around his ankles.

“Hey,” says Flannery. She and Alto wade to the shore, to join the other pair. The sun has fallen.

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Seaweed gestures to the girl beside him. “This is-” he begins as an airplane roars overhead. They wait, awkwardly, until it journeys over the horizon. “I suppose something important’s going on, if they’re breaking out the big planes,” he muses, then shakes his head. “Anyway, um, this is Dolly. Dolly Lemon.”

She steps forward. “Call me Lemon, please. My first name’s as awful as the grandmother I’m named after.”

“Dolly would like to-” begins Seaweed.

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“I’d like to come with you guys to the city,” she says. She scratches at her wide nose and takes a deep breath. “Contrary to nobody’s belief, living in Sugar Valley is more boring than daytime TV, and our sports team, the Llamas-the hell, right?-can’t tell a soccer ball from a canary. Nobody leaves the house except to go to work, and your mom picks out your husband like she’s grocery shopping. If you’re lucky, she went to the right store.”

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“Oh, post-Vanishing measures,” says Alto. “I’ve read about this place. There’s not much farmland, so to keep the economy running, marriages are arranged by the parents, who purchase wives for their sons. Every three years, all parents of children over sixteen meet in the town hall to barter. There’s never enough daughters for all of the sons, though, which forces families to work hard in whatever field they’re in in order to afford a wife for their child. Also, reproduction rates skyrocket every few years, as each family tries to create a little girl to sell. Then they have to work hard to support the kids-most end up having over three, if they want to retire someday. It’s awful, but it’s…it’s sort of genius. Productivity never falters. The economy and people are, for all intents and purposes, thriving.”

“I didn’t know they made living encyclopedias,” says Dolly, rolling her eyes. “Look, it’s the third year. If I don’t get out of here soon-tomorrow, actually-I’m going to be married to some guy with a stick up his ass, and pump out babies until, by some miracle, we have a daughter.” She sighs. “My family’s practically cursed to have men. I have four uncles and five brothers.”

“Damn,” says Flannery. She bites her lip and wonders where else has gone to these lengths.

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“Damn is right.” Dolly brushes a strand of curly hair from her cheek. “Seaweed said ya’ll were from Orchard. Lucky. I heard your mayor’s great.”

“You heard wrong,” says Flannery, darkly. A cloud passes over the sun.

Alto interjects. “Um, there’s one empty seat in the Jalopy.”

“I don’t know about this.” Flannery crosses her arms.

“Flannery,” says Seaweed, and she freezes. “Lemon’s got to get out of here.”

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Dolly’s voice drops to a whisper. She stares at her feet, long and dark in the water. “I don’t want to be anyone’s wife.”

“What do you want?” asks Flannery.

“I want to play soccer. I want to run down the street. I want to play music in the library”-Alto gasps-”oh, hush. Oh, damn. I, um…damn.”

“What?” asks Seaweed.

“My backpack is at the library. The librarian, the old hag, took it when I refused to turn off my boombox.”

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“Does she smoke?” demands Alto.

“Negative.”

“How big is your library?”

“Huge.”

“Welcome to the gang,” says Alto, and Dolly’s eyes widen. “Think Scooby-Doo, not the Cripps.”

***

Sugar Valley’s century-old library, 3:00PM. The rug smells like mildew. The windows are shut. Hardly a rustle shakes the air.

Between the shelves, only the books breathe. An angry muttering escapes from upstairs, and is immediately cut off by a gently shut door. A toilet flushes downstairs. Between the shelves, silence.

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Seaweed relieves himself at the urinal, chewing the inside of his cheek. He wonders if he likes Dolly (Lemon, he reminds himself), and if he does, if he likes her for the right reasons.

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Dolly puts her hands on her hips and glowers at the librarian. She wonders if she’ll ever get her backpack back, and if the stars really do shine brighter from highrise windows.

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Alto runs his fingertips down an ancient book’s spine, then pulls it from the shelf. He wonders if he’ll ever find another book on the world’s greatest mystery, and if he’ll ever kiss the girl standing bored beside him.

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Flannery bites her lip as she watches the glow in Alto’s eyes fade with the book’s first page. She wonders where her father lurks, then shakes her head. Not now. Today, this sunshine, big book today, she’d like to be happy sober.

She taps Alto’s shoulder. He glances up from his book; its dust settles on his fingertips. “What are you reading about?” whispers Flannery.

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“The Western Wars,” says Alto. “They’re the closest thing to the The Vanishing that books are published about.”

He buries himself back in the pages, and Flannery leans against the bookshelf. She closes her eyes. The smells of old pages and older people fill her nostrils. Her boots sink into the carpet. She hardly remembers changing or the walk over. She scans the past twenty minutes. Palm trees, empty streets, Vanishing talk-nothing that matters to her. Nothing worth remembering. Her eyes turn back to Alto. He studies the pages, soaking in thousands of words a minute. What do I really want? thinks Flannery, staring at her shoes. Revenge is sweet, but so is happiness. And fruity cocktails. She shakes her head. Alcohol can’t cross her thoughts now. It’s far too late to drown herself. Flannery’s eyes return once more to Alto. She smiles softly at his hair, sticking up in every direction, and his rolled up, rumpled shirtsleeves. His red lips form a firm, focused line, and suddenly, she knows one thing she wants. “Hey,” she whispers. “Will you kiss me?”

The book hits the floor with an echoing thud. Alto’s hands shake. His lips part as if to speak.

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Flannery takes a step closer. Her nose is inches from his. “Do you want me?” Her breath catches in her throat. Alto remains silent. Her lip quivers. He bites his own. Shit. “I’m-I’m sorry,” she says, her voice thick, her footsteps loud as she backs up. Not even my mother wanted me. “I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just…”

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Alto reaches across her absence, and catches her hand as it flies to her face. “Hey, hey,” he says, pulling himself towards her. His eyes are wide, alarmed. “D-don’t cry. I couldn’t think of what to say-that’s all. It was just really weird, because I always have something to say even if it’s usually stupid and irrelevant and very stupid, and nobody’s asked me to kiss them in a long time, and-”

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Flannery presses her lips to his, and he melts into her like a sunbeam.

                                      

San Cisco – “Beach

A/N: Sorry about the long wait for this chapter, and some of the infodumps in here. They’re very relevant later, I promise. :S Anywho, it’s great to be back and writing again! I hope to get another chapter or two out by the time school starts, but will try my hardest to update biweekly, if not weekly, during the school year. Senior year’s supposed to be crazy busy, though, but I’m enough of a homebody that I don’t think it’ll affect me too badly.

Thank you for reading! (: I hope you all have had a wonderful summer!

PS: I know Gemly asked for this forever ago, but here is the hair color you wanted!