Flight • Burn
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
The eternal night wind lifts her hair as she climbs onto the stone window ledge on the forty-second floor of Skidmor House and stands unmoving. From all around comes the faint song of hundreds of monorails slipping from canyon to canyon, tower to tower. Distant music, screams, and laughter drift upon the night air, but she is looking away, into the blackness of the Ceiling.
Since the skin-popping began, she has been experimenting, late at night, trying the needle in different places—her groin, her buttocks, the soles of her feet—looking for anywhere that will intensify the high. Lately, she has been injecting at points along her spine.
The empty vial tumbles away to shatter in darkness five hundred feet down. The syringe is filled with all the koolaid she has left—more than twice the regular dose. She gathers her hair out of the way. Turns her head to the side. Presses thumb and forefinger firmly into the vertical groove along her neck, angling the needle slightly, forcing it through the rigid wall of the jugular. She probably won’t even feel the impact. Just one more flight.
As the koolaid blasts into her heart, then goes storming through the neural corridors of her brain, her face softens, a rounding of the plains and angles that normally give her the appearance of a woman far older. Years fall away, and here stands a girl from an alternate life, one where parents love, and uncles live, and friends can finally tell each other everything.
Kelvin! Someone is shouting, but faint, barely audible. What the hell!
Her gaze, now silver-threaded with the potion’s radiance, gradually clears, her lips parting in wonder. The blackness above is shot with billions of cold, white stars. Why have they been hidden until now? Her arms lift into the air, reaching up to touch them.
Doomsday, you fucking moron—
She sways upon the ledge, one foot swinging out over the drop, the syringe flying from her hand, and then she is falling, falling, falling back into the junk-strewn room on the forty-second floor, not even aware she is not dead on the bricks below. As her body lies slumped against the wall, star-shot eyes wide and without sight, inside she is rising, rising faster, streaking toward the outer shell of the atmosphere, exploding through in a thousand slivers of ice, where a thousand fires can never reach her. And as a thousand worlds spin away far below her, her self is dispersed upon interstellar winds.
“God-damn, girl. Wake up! Snap out of it!” Oh, but even in this stricken tone, the voice is like the memory of some perfect day, some perfect moment that never happened, save in dreams. “Oh, Miz Marissa. Please come back to me.” And then, hands—smooth, strong hands—cradling her head, brushing strands of hair out of her mouth and eyes.
It’s dark. Faint lights reflected from far below waver across the ceiling, and the face looking down into hers cannot be real. “What—” she croaks, then swallows, tries again. “What kinda critter are you?”
“One that’s about half-crazy worrying about you!” Virgil’s voice is raw. “Girl, what’re you doin’ in this goddamn hole?” He indicates the trashed room, where she is still half-collapsed in the corner beneath the ledge. “Are you hurt? Tell me! Did some sumbitch hurt you?”
Marissa was supposed to be a stain on the road hundreds of feet below, after a short and blissfully hallucinatory flight. Something—a dream, perhaps of someone longed for, or of some other, better place—pulled her back from that ledge. She has no idea how long she has lain here. On some other floor far below, a band is playing. Probably the first band to exist in this world, and they have crafted—or more likely conjured—more instruments. And here is Virgil, albeit Rhinestone Cowboy Virgil, crouching over her—wonderfully alive.
And suddenly—it clicks home. In the video, Kelley was not visible. That video was made long ago, right after Virgil’s capture and subsequent enchantment, in case coercion became necessary—probably Tyler’s idea. Only the voiceover, then, had been recently added.
“How’d you find me?” she asks, suddenly wary, getting to her feet and backing away. Could this be another trick, designed to lure her out? Sweet as he is, this Virgil is still a slavemonger, a minion of Robadu.
In the silence between them, the band strikes up the song again. The only song they know: the Sky Song. A slow, sliding rendition, heavy on the organ. “I felt you, girl, that’s how. Always.” Virgil holds out his hands, claws sheathed.
His gentle words thundering through her, she places her hands in his. “My god. You’re still in there,” she whispers as he draws her close to him, their bodies not quite touching.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he whispers back. Only holding hands, swaying in place to the music. She could stand like this forever. But then:
The bass kicks in, one of his hands slips down to her waist, and he is stepping her one way, then the other, his amber eyes never leaving her face. He lifts her hand, she spins slowly, and when he spins her back, there is no more space between them. The music sends tremors up through the dusty pillars, and his breath is warm in the curve of her neck.
What are you holding out for? Staring past his shoulder at the shattered syringe lying by the window, she feels her hands sliding around to the small of his back. You weren’t meant to go out like some coward. When the koolaid wears off this time, you die…
The music fills her with something bright, something fierce.
…or you live.
When every night
We dream we’re dying in the dark
Then wake to find it’s true
No more, no more!
Don’t wait a lifetime
And die wishing you’d tried.
He smells so good, and he feels so good, just listen to his heart…just look at his…
Her hand begins to slip lower…
Oh, the Science of Biology tells us all
Oh, read and speak those written words!
Somewhere beyond this dark and hollow tomb
Lies the place we call…the Garden.
And then she is turning her face into his, opening his mouth with hers, her tongue running over the sharp point of his incisor, inhaling his startled gasp. Unseen by either of them, the toes of his white boots begin to darken to a scuffed brown. “Easy, baby.” His breath is hot against her ear. “Don’t tease me, now.”
In reply, she yanks him up close, at long last allowing her hands to go to those places they have always wanted to go. And as his teeth gently catch her lower lip, the frosted highlights adorning his hair recede, then disappear. The floor is vibrating, the song rising all around them like a promise, and she buries her hands in what is now unfrosted, ebony hair. But she is beyond words, only knowing somehow, some way, he is coming back to her from wherever he has been, that on the shirt she is clumsily unbuttoning, where rhinestones recently glittered upon brilliant white, now a brown shield bears the modest letters UPS.
Now, his rhinestone-studded trousers begin to shorten even as she unfastens the buckle, fading from dazzling white to that dear, familiar chocolate-brown. Now, he is no longer the larger-than-life, rock-star-outlaw-cowboy. Now, he is simply Virgil, the UPS guy, whole, warm, real. Now, he is backing her up against the wall, lifting her straddled, this hovel offers no place to lie, so that is how this is going to happen—up against the wall—and the band plays on, and everything is, indeed, exactly where it belongs.
To feel the warmth of that welcome Light
More precious than the air we breathe
The air shimmers around them, flowing out of the glassless windows, carrying with it the last remnants of his enchantment. The corrosion of this place, the heaps of rusting junk, no longer exist.
For they have forgotten where they are.
To see forever without end just by looking up
Destroy the machine
It’s not a dream
Destroy the machine.
They are no longer fugitives in an underworld at the bottom of the universe. For these two, the roof has blown off.
For they have forgotten who they are.
You know it’s darkest before the dawn
Oh, let this keep you moving on!
The sound rising from deep within his chest is less a growl of desire, more the cry of something long confined, freed at long last. And now their voices are soaring together, a chorus far wilder than the one rising from beneath their feet. Were they able to see their own faces now, they might be awed, even frightened;
For they have forgotten what they are.
The Sky Song has ended, the final, lingering note throbbing away into silence. His breathing gradually slows, his fingers still tangled in her hair. “Oh.” The voice of this Virgil—her Virgil—is weighted with infinite sorrow. “That’s what you meant.”
The subterranean air currents eddy across the rooftop of Skidmor House, a dark pedestal towering above the lesser structures below. In one corner, not visible this far above the city lights, sits a big, square truck, its former gleaming white replaced by a familiar brown.
“We always have a couple weeks’ worth of food rations and water in our trucks.” Marissa is silent as Virgil secures her to the low wall bounding the rooftop, with manacles recently used to restrain some of his less cooperative passengers en route to this world, the first threads of dry heat beginning to wind through her core. She breathes slowly, trying to calm the rising beat of fear in her chest. “I’ve got a little stash of Forty-Five in my glove box, from—from before. Just in case. If it seems like you’re really…in danger, I’ll dose you. But I don’t believe that’ll happen.”
Neither of them speaks of what will happen if he ends up having to give her the dose. Of a bleak and brief existence in the streets of Robadu as fugitives, desperately seeking the drug only the enemy can supply.
The roof is crawling with demons. They have shed their disguises and crab about the place, leering and cackling.
No. The demons are in her head, fading in and out of focus as she peers through flames only she can see. She has been cast into the heart of the sun, and her need for Number Forty-Five is a cracked and hideous thirst. And now, the demons are only the snappers, lost Organics rising out of her tortured mind, disappearing again as they weep their endless, empty questions.
Marissa grins into the darkness of her hell. Her laughter rises to a hoarse cackle.
“Help me.” For a second, the woman before her is not empty, blank, or broken. For a second, her wide-set, gray eyes are clear and determined. “Help me get away from him.” She pats an old purse hanging from one shoulder. “I’ve packed some things. I’m leaving tonight.” The woman’s face, though pale and afraid, breaks into a hopeful smile. “He’ll never find me.” Then her face falls again, sagging into wrinkles, the sores reappearing on her arms and neck, the glimpse of who she was before now gone. “Please God. Help me.” She shuffles away, picking at her skin.
“I ain’t a fag.” A plump girl with braided hair is leaning on the low stone wall. “She don’t even know what that means! All she know is, I ain’t her kid no more.”
“What’s your name?” Marissa whispers.
The girl’s features lose their fullness, and she dwindles to a scarecrow husk. Tears leak down her sunken cheeks. “Ain’t got one. They come and took it.”
More of them. Some youthful. Some grown. Some desperate, some hopeful. All running from something or to something, only to end up here. Is it another cursed symptom of withdrawal, that she must see them as they were at the moment they were taken, the moment they surrendered their names to Cowboy Virgil? The fire is racing through her. Just one draught of the koolaid would smother the flames…
“I’m here.” Slowly, her eyes open. A brown-clad figure is kneeling before her. “Drink this.” Cool water trickles down her throat. “Can you eat—”
“How’d it feel?” She grins up at him. “How’d it feel when you tricked them into giving you their names?” She is still filled with their ghosts, their eyes, their pleas. “Was that one there abused by his folks? Was that one on the run from her asshole husband? You’ll never know, but then what do you care?” Virgil is silently pulling her clothing off her. “Maybe he wanted to be a cop, or a doctor,” she mocks. “Maybe she wanted to be a star! She could’ve been on her way to Hollywood when you pulled up and turned on the charm!” He is gently cleaning her soiled body. “Just think, maybe someone back home is thinking about her right now, wondering why she’s never called, still hoping she’ll come back. Ha! Joke’s on them, even if they run across her now, they’ll think she’s on PCP.” She giggles in a horribly dead-on imitation of Kelley Robadu.
His hand finds her cheek again, but she twists away from him. “Can’t wait to feel me up again, can you?”
“I love you, Miss Marissa. You’re going to be okay.”
The flames are eating her alive. They are behind her eyes, racing through her veins and arteries. Her wrists are raw from the spasms that pull her taut against her restraints. In her delirium, she croaks: “Tyler…”
“What about Tyler?” Virgil whispers, bathing her burning face.
“He broke into my house…” Marissa mutters.
“Ssh, ssh. ‘Sokay.”
“I hid it behind the fridge! That fucking little—He gave her the—” A scream tears from her throat and she thrashes against him. The back of her head slams the bricks and Virgil gently catches her in his arms as she shrieks her fury, her thirst, her need, and the snappers in her head scream with her, until the rooftop of Skidmor House is a choir of agony and rage.
Holding her, Virgil touches the small, glowing cylinder in his pocket.
Her throat is too swollen to speak when next she notices him there. His hands find her, jerking involuntarily at the baking heat of her skin. He has found ice somewhere, which he slips across her face, chest, and limbs, and into her mouth, which is working, making a faint whistling sound. “What is it, my love?” He leans close, listening.
“Dying,” she whispers. “Kool…”
Instead of replying, he dresses her wrists with balm from Darphina. It is the first real relief she is able to register. Tonight, she finally accepts a small amount of the thick broth he has brought her. She manages two words: “Thank you.”
He kisses her filthy forehead, then rests his own against it. “You’re still in there. Thank God.”
And then she is gone.
Blackness closes over her like an ocean, and at long last there is no more terror, no more fire, no more thirst; instead there comes a violet twilight. A place that until now existed only on the cover of an album that belonged to Tori’s dad, one she used to stare at for hours, the painting of a place she longed to escape into. A dark field dotted with fireflies, the silhouettes of cottonwoods rising on all sides, a farmhouse on the slope rising above it all, windows and a porch light sending warm shafts of yellow into the dusk as if beckoning grandchildren in for supper. The hillside cloaked in flowers folding in for the night, catching and holding the last pink glow of a summer sunset. All real now, waiting for her to come home. Best of all, there is no more stain upon her soul. She is washed clean, finally free of every crime, born anew.
She turns fully, awash in wonder, into this newness, this forgetting, barely hearing his fading screams.
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.