CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE: THE FIRE
I’m standing in the cold night air, the wet street in front of me reflecting the green neon above my head as it fades in and out. The passage between these buildings is pitch black. I can’t even see my own feet or hands until they start to glow under the flickering light, reminding me that I am maybe real and maybe really here. I am invisible when the light is gone, suspended in the vacant pupil of the city’s sparkling iris.
This is the third time this week I’ve stood below this sign in the rain, entranced by its ghostly light. The other two I snapped out of it and wandered home, unable to talk myself into walking through the doors. This time the sudden noise of my ticker returns me to reality, blaring in my head as if every station it can pick up is competing for my attention at once. It startles me so violently that I fall backward into a puddle, uselessly covering my ears with my hands as my brain tries to remember through the noise how to turn it off. Eyes blink three times...mouth open/close...right hand to left shoulder...tongue circles left on the roof of my mouth...The silence and the blackness happen simultaneously. It stays black much longer this time, an extra moment of nothingness for the ringing in my ears to fade into.
My fingertips appear green in front of me just as I start to wonder if I am gone for good this time. I wiggle them to make sure, the light glowing brighter with my movement. I snap my fist closed; blackness again. It stays black for minutes. When I open my fingers impossibly slow, the neon tiptoes out into the darkness, its faint buzzing keeping time with my quickening pulse. The alley strobes green like a cheap haunted house, chopping the movement of a huge rat running the length of the building in front of me as I squeeze my fist open and closed.
I freeze, my fist half open, and look up to see a striking woman standing in the doorway, her dark eyes illuminated by a glowing tie.
“We’re trying to be patient in here and let you work this out in your own time...”, she says into the half-dark, squinting as she tries to make out my details.
I open my fist a little, pouring green light down her face and onto a black apron, neatly stitched with the same text that glows above my head: C.H.E. To the right of the letters, it reads Gory, Sensory Sommelier. A man appears in the shadow behind her, finishing her thought.
“You’ve been fucking with this light for a week...come inside. Dry off and have a drink.”
. . .
The air in this place is music. It feels like music is woven into the very atoms of this space; I can feel my shoulders relax and my heartbeat sync with the beat the minute I step through the doors. I’m looking around for the source of it when a voice in my ear cuts through the sound, and I turn to see the man from the doorway.
I give him a puzzled look, hoping he’ll assume I’m not talking because of the music.
“That’s why you feel that way, they use binaural beats. Really sets the mood, huh? This band is amazing, they’ve been priming us for over a year now.”
He motions to the back of the room where a small band seems to appear out of nowhere under a glowing sign that says TRICERA, before ushering me to a booth in the corner of the room.
“Welcome to Chapter Thirty-Eight. Sit tight, someone will bring your drink. Relax. You’ll love it here”.
I sit as he walks away, leaving me to take in this strangely familiar place. Directly across from me is what looks like a bar, but there’s no one tending it and nothing I can see to tend. Four of its twelve stools are occupied by people who are all dressed in black, sitting oddly tall and still with their backs to me. One of them turns and looks directly at me, though I can’t see their eyes through the thick purple gem-like lenses in the goggles they wear. The twinkling lights hanging from the ceiling dance off of the goggles, tossing tinted light around the room in fragments like a disco ball.
Gory walks through the stare and plops down in the seat in front of me just as I’m starting to squirm uncomfortably. She places a beautiful, glowing green drink on the table in front of her and slowly pushes it in my direction, flashing me a huge smile. Her energy warms me from head to toe and I can’t help but smile with her.
“Drink up! You’ve got some catching up to do...what took you so long?”
I shift in my seat and raise the glass to my lips to buy me some time. I don’t know how to communicate with her, not even enough to tell her I can’t communicate with her. I feel pretty sure they’re mistaking me for someone else, but this odd place feels oddly comforting and I don’t want to leave. My mind is reeling as I take a slow, long drink, nodding in approval as I sip.
The man from the doorway appears at Gory’s side, whispering something in her ear. My imagination nearly convinces me that I hear him say She’s a Murderer. My mind is suddenly reeling with all the reasons I shouldn’t be here. What if someone is looking for Tok and finds me? What if I get scanned by a cop? Is there even a record of me? I sip my luminescent drink, hyper aware of every muscle in my face. Breathe. Relax. No one knows you here.
“Sorry hon...gotta go deal with a thing. Look this over, I’ll be back in a jiff to help you out if you have any questions.”
This time Gory pushes a menu across the table before walking to the corner of the bar with the man to continue their conversation. They’re dressed identically except for the name on their aprons...his is Oz. I take another drink, talking myself into believing I’m not the topic of their conversation, and pick up the menu Gory left. The eight choices are making me question whether this is a menu at all; none of it sounds edible or even drinkable.
As my straw slurps the last of my drink, I scan the room for some clue about what any of these words mean. There are thirty or so people in here. Some are dancing in a trance-like sway near the band. Some are looking at art on the walls, huge portraits full of light and color. Some are sitting in booths, talking and laughing. All are holding a glowing beverage. The last swallow of mine warms my belly and I feel myself sink deeper into my seat.
The words on the menu start to look fuzzy, and I wonder how long I’ve been sitting here staring at them when a woman sits next to me, plopping down so hard on the bench cushion that I bounce in the air. Before I can even look at her, she hugs me tight around the neck. To my surprise, I relax my head against hers and really hug her back, sending the warmth of my belly to my outer edges. We hug for a long time; a lot longer even than you’d hug a friend you haven’t seen in a year. There are two more women sitting in the booth with us when I open my eyes.
“My name is Moira”, the hugger tells me, “and these are my sisters, Bezel and Azra.”
Moira leans in, examining my expression with concern, continuing cautiously.
“I just thought you looked like you could use a Number One.”
She smiles kindly, draping a fuzzy sleeve over the table to point to the menu. She’s wearing the most comfortable looking sweater I’ve ever seen, its loosely woven loops of yarn framing her with soft movement.
“Sorry, she’s a little touchy-feely.”
Bezel speaks without even looking at me, holding her glass up to the light to inspect its glowing contents through the same purple goggles the people at the bar were wearing. She is wearing three watches on her left arm. Her right lifts a cane in the air, moving it as if to motion someone over to the table. She turns to speak to a waitress who appears out of nowhere right behind her.
“Are you sure this doesn’t have Qualia in it?”
“I’m positive, Bezel. Look, it’s a slightly different color from theirs. I told the mixers, don’t worry.”
The Azra sister takes the last drink of her own glowing glass before dropping it sharply on the table.
“Might as well live before you die”, she says under her breath, motioning for the waitress to bring her another.
Azra waves her empty glass in the air, her long necklace swaying like a pendulum with her movement. An old pair of tiny, elaborately embellished scissors dangles from the chain, and my eyes are growing heavy as I watch them move back and forth. The sisters are chatting excitedly now, their muffled voices blurring together and moving farther away with each word.
I open my eyes and Azra’s face is inches from mine.
“Cat got your tongue?”, she laughs.
Her expression softens, and she lowers back into her seat. Moira reaches for my hand, holding it in hers as she speaks.
“Oh, I think you need to order a Number Two as well, don’t you?”
Bezel’s watch arm raises, holding two fingers in the air, and within seconds the waitress places a bowl of fire in the center of our table. Moira hands me a white square of paper and a pen.
“Just write it down, whatever you need to get off your chest. Let the fire clean it for you.”
She stands up, motioning to her sisters to give me some privacy. As soon as they are out of my sight, I scribble furiously on the paper, racing against the numbness in my head that is making its way down my body, and throw the paper in the bowl of fire.