Warning: Explicit Language and Bad Habits
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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!”
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?”
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:
“Then grow the fuck up.”
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.
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?”
“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?”
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?”
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.
“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!”
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.
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! 🙂