• M •
Soundtrack: “Roller Coaster Ride” by Eric Church
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
When Marissa awakens on the floor, it takes a minute to realize she is in her office, lying half-under her own desk. She looks up into the dimly lit room, sickening at the memory of Virgil the Rhinestone Cowboy, claiming her as his own, swaggering around in his ridiculous getup. The sorrow for her Virgil, the real Virgil, is as for one who has died. He had been the one for her—not this cartoon character.
The one. I’m the one! She jerks into an upright position, Tyler’s words ratcheting through her brain like a fire alarm. I’ve already said yes! She’d been too far gone to register his meaning when she passed out—a glance at the clock—six hours ago, give or take. With the shoulder bag strapped on under her shirt, she unlocks the door, steps out into the hall, looking both ways. Business hours are still a long way off, but there is light under Tyler’s office door.
As she slips past, from behind that door a single word paralyzes her in her tracks. The word is: “…Rusty.” The voice from within is primordial, black with aeons of putrescence.
Then, Tyler speaks: “But the Gateway…you couldn’t have done this long ago? Why did it have to be her father?”
“I’ve never felt anything like it before. The walls of that house tremble with her hatred, her rage. They thirst for the blood of her violator.” A dark, clotted chuckle, like something that has crawled up from the bottom of a cesspool. “He thought he was getting himself another little piece of tail. Then, as his life-blood was spurting out of him, I made him use it to paint the Gateway, right there on the kitchen wall—one, might I add, that leads right here inside this very factory, via the freight elevator.” The malignant voice of the demon has been gradually rising in pitch; now, the girlish voice from behind the door is that of Kelley’s human form. “Now he’s a heap of beetle-food at the bottom of his own cellar—right where he used to put her. There’s a repellant spell over the whole property. No man or wizard in all of World Two would be powerful enough to even get anywhere near it.”
“You’ve been coming and going as you please…and you haven’t even told me?” Tyler sounds petulant.
“Be patient, sweetie. I’m laying the groundwork. I’ll keep going as little miss co-ed ‘til I’ve built a big enough following over there.”
Marissa’s paralysis finally breaks and her feet pick up speed, their voices fading behind her. At the end of the hall, she vaults out a window, onto the narrow balcony beside the monorail track that runs all the way to the Ceiling. Think you’re gonna be some kind of hotshot executive somewhere instead of trailer trash, same as your mother? You might have your friends fooled, M. But we both know who you are. Rusty’s voice fills her head, but her mind’s eye sees only the demon that calls itself Kelley Robadu. But I never said yes, she is thinking incoherently. I never said yes. A little train whispers to a stop by the platform. Inside, the walls are gyroing blue and purple. In one car, people are slam dancing. In another, people are fucking. She chooses one where everyone is sitting around in a stupor, bright jelly beans scattered about their feet. When the train pauses at the landing of the topmost tower of the Factory, she bursts out, racing up the sweeping tunnel to the thick outer door of Kelley’s office.
Marissa reaches out to touch the door, and is not surprised when it swings inward. She has the feeling that, until very recently, she would not have had this magic touch. And that Tyler no longer does. But I never said…yes.
She enters the room and walks slowly around the great forge, feeling the rumble of the infernal fire within its bowels, and up to the curving wall of the chamber, where the portraits of all of Kelley’s past vessels stare down at her, their loathsome sins etched into their shriveled flesh like writing on parchment. She stops at the last one. The one that had briefly shown Tyler’s name and silhouette before wavering blank again.
The frame is no longer empty. Looking down from the wall is a new face. Marissa’s.
It is true she never said yes to becoming the Next.
But I said I love you.
Words Kelley Robadu never heard before. Words that hold even greater power than a simple yes. Words that are never without consequence.
For only an instant: She imagines freedom, at last, from crippling addiction. Eternal life and youth. Power beyond imagination. Marissa Robadu. For one instant, or perhaps only half of one, she savors the name.
Then she grips the frame with both hands and rips it from the wall. As she is opening the heavy lid of the forge, a shrill cry spirals through the chamber: “No! Stop it, what’re you doing?” Tyler barrels through the door she left open and makes a grab for the frame, and Marissa clocks him across the temple with it. “I was first! She already chose me!” He is reeling, blood pouring down one side of his face. “I snuck into your house.” He jabs one finger at her, nodding and grinning maniacally, trying to regain his balance. “While you were out partying and cozying up to her. Wanna guess what I found? It’s sitting on my desk right now, and I’m going to hand it over to her! She’s going to know you’re a traitor, and then she’ll want me back! Me!”
Marissa pitches the frame into the white-hot throat of the furnace and slams the lid, not giving a shit about whatever Tyler thinks he’s found. He roars, hurling himself at her. The chamber walls convulse, and portraits begin to rain down with a deafening sound. The fire within the forge rages.
Marissa and Tyler grapple with each other in a drunken dance across the heaving floor, but she is far stronger. She spins him to the ground, then turns, ready to sprint for the door. “Tori Marshall.” Marissa stops cold. Tyler grins up at her with bloody teeth as she realizes what he has taken from her. “Know what? I know a way to go there. No Bypassport required.” He is gripping the doorframe, pulling himself to his feet. “Think I’ll pay your friend a visit. Turn on the charm.” He executes a bloody wink. “Yeah…Why bring Kelley a stupid nametag when I can hand over its owner instead?”
He is about to say more when he is suddenly yanked into the room and slammed against the wall with a sickening crunch. “Get off me, you crazy bitch—” And then his screams are choked off as she hurls him across the room. He hits the wall like a sack of rocks, collapsing in a boneless heap under the battery of falling portrait frames.
Time is running out for Marissa. She must get as far away from the Factory as possible. Beyond that, she really doesn’t have a plan. Tucking the object she has taken from the room into the shoulder bag underneath her shirt, she leaps aboard the next train.
From the pink and gold catacombs of Playland, to the sweet-sticky candy caves riven deep in the canyon walls, to the sugar-coated killing arcades, to the glitter-strewn, shelled-out fuck shacks: The face of Virgil, rugged and worry-worn, gazes out over the multitudes of the Divine with lovelorn eyes. “This here’s goin’ out to Miz Marissa Kelvin, and I hope you can hear me, girl, wherever you may be.” He spreads his hands, soft music beginning to play in the background. “Darlin’, since you been gone, I been outta my mind. Please come back. It’ll be alright, they already told me. Whatever happened, Miz Kelley says y’all can work this out together.” He tosses his frothy mane, a frosted lock falling across one eye, and gazes earnestly out of the glass. “You mean too much to all of us. To me. And I’ll say it right here in front of millions of folks. You are my one true love. I love you, M.” The picture splits to display Marissa’s face next to his, wreathed in twinkling hearts and cupids.
She is sitting, frozen, her back against the wall of the abandoned train car in which she has taken refuge, in which one cracked overhead globe is still receiving the Mindsynth’s signal. His puppet words are meaningless, barely registering in her mind.
All except for the last one.
Only two people have ever called her by that name—brothers. One long dead down a canyon in Kansas, the other slaughtered by Kelley Robadu, his blood now a Gateway between Worlds. Her flesh is cold as she slides a shaking hand into the bag and pulls out the syringe. Its silver glow is the only comfort left in this nightmare world where the last of her courage has finally been extinguished.
Out in the dark roadways and canyons of Robadu, beneath the carnival twinkle of the Ferris wheel, the search for Virgil’s one true love is galvanized by each broadcast. The costumed revelers, united by this thrilling new drama, are happily joining in. The rest of her stash is back in the condo, which will by now be crawling with Caregivers. Here on a rusted, unused track, huddled on the floor of this dented and deserted car, Marissa is rationing the koolaid, pulling only enough into the syringe to erase the terror and allow her a few hours of sleep. Trying not to think about where she will go or how long she will last when her supply runs out.
A violent sexual encounter is taking place against the outer wall of the old train car. It isn’t clear if it is consensual or not, nor the number or sex of the participants. This is what awakens Marissa after an unknown period of unconsciousness, into which she longs desperately to escape again. As the thuds and grunting on the other side of the wall escalate, her hand creeps toward the bag again. The birdlike patter of a Transducer skitters overhead.
No. There is enough Forty-Five in her system to hold off the withdrawals for a time. She must save it, use it not to get high, but simply to stay alive. What she is even living for now is a question her mind blocks before it can fully form.
Outside, there are whoops and yells, pounding on the wall with what sounds like a metal pipe. “Oh Miz Marissa, where are yooooooooo?” someone croons in a broken falsetto. Caws of laughter. The voices finally begin to move off, until there is nothing to hear but the endless dance music, which is thankfully low in volume, due to this globe’s state of disrepair.
The music feed abruptly ends. “Hey, girlfriend.” Marissa’s mouth goes dry.
Kelley does not appear in the picture. Instead, there is a small, dirt-floor room. In the center of the room is a post. Attached to the post is a short, thick chain of blue-black metal. Shackled at the end of the chain stands Virgil, all decked out in the white uniform. On his face is a curious smile, as if this is some game he hasn’t quite figured out. Without knowing it, Marissa has gotten to her feet and is standing below the glass, unable to breathe.
“You had me going there, Kelvin. We could’ve kicked a lot of ass together, you and me. I really thought we were friends.” A sigh. “You live and learn, I guess. Anyhow, I know you’re running out of koolaid, so you’re either gonna burn to death from the DTs or we’re gonna find you first. My money’s on the first one, since your chymist—one Klio—is no longer among the living. Face it—Kelvin, you are a killer!” A giggle. “However, if you do make it home before you turn to toast, you…get to do the honors.”
At this moment, Tyler steps into the frame—whole and uninjured—red lips smiling. He stands in the foreground, to the side of Virgil. In his hand is a gun. A Glock .40, to be exact. “Believe me,” Kelley continues, “you’ll want to do it yourself. My way’ll be slower and lots more interesting. And broadcast live in color!” Her laughter deepens into a wet, black chortle.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.