JazzTeeth

My Name Is Eri- Ch. 2: "Something You Might Like"

Sep 5th, 2014
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  1. The leg of your journey made on combustion engines and turning wheels came to an end. With little ceremony you left the bus terminal and threw away your ticket. This trip was one-way.
  2.  
  3. The mid-afternoon sun idled overhead. You and Erica traveled down sidewalks and street crossings. Your purpose was apparent, but not urgent. No point in rushing things. Erica twirled around you, staring at buildings, passing cars, and the ebb and flow of pedestrians.
  4.  
  5. She touched your arm.
  6.  
  7. “Do you know where we are?”
  8.  
  9. You read a street sign. “Kinda.” You pointed to a tall building with green window work in the skyline. “But it won't take long to get oriented. That tower's part of the medical district. I'll have to work east and then my memory will come back. Give me...I don't know, half an hour to get my bearings. Two hours to get where I want to go, we'll probably have to take a transit.”
  10.  
  11. “Works for me,” she said, distracted by a cluster of neurotic birds.
  12.  
  13. The wind blew over your shoulders. “Have you ever been here before?”
  14.  
  15. She grabbed a street light with her cotton gloves and spun in a smooth, sliding circle. “Not once in my entire life,” she said with no small amount of cheer.
  16.  
  17. You stopped mid-stride. “What?”
  18.  
  19. “Never been here at all. I didn't know about this place until it the name was printed on my bus ticket.”
  20.  
  21. 'Reckless' was the word at the front of your mind.
  22.  
  23. “You have no idea what you’re doing here, do you?”
  24.  
  25. Erica laughed. “I'm just following you, really.”
  26.  
  27. “Why?” Horror and disbelief mounted in your voice. “Do you know how terrible an idea that is?”
  28.  
  29. She shrugged hard enough to bounce her baggy overcoat. “That doesn't bug me too much. I said I can take care of myself. I'm more worried about you.”
  30.  
  31. “Well, you don't need to be. Christ, I'm,” You shook your head. “You're lying to me. I'm going to pretend you're playing a trick and tell myself that you have an apartment and a roommate here in town and you're just tagging along with me for laughs.”
  32.  
  33. “Whatever makes you feel better,” she rang.
  34.  
  35. “It does. It makes me feel lots better.”
  36.  
  37. “You're lucky my mind's not in the right place,” you called over your shoulder. “No sane person would follow me, and sane or no, not many people would let you come along to satisfy some half-baked whim.”
  38.  
  39. The two of you stopped at a knot of pedestrians waiting at a street crossing. They did the usual pedestrian thing -listening to music, talking on phones, to each other, or to no one.
  40.  
  41. Erica hoped in front of you and slipped her hand in a man's back pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
  42.  
  43. Your lips tightened and your eyes widened like spotlights. She slipped the cigarettes into another man's jeans, from which she pulled out a string of condoms. She replaced the man's missing smokes with them. Neither noticed.
  44.  
  45. Erica hummed to herself as her hands picked and swapped the pocket inventories of almost everyone present. Bubble gum was switched out with a can opener which was switched with a mushed wrapper of gum which was switched with a folded note that had “I love you” scrawled over it.
  46.  
  47. The people never caught onto the pair of hands rummaging through their rears. The walking sign flashed and they all walked forward. Erica headed off but you grabbed her shoulders and she almost tripped on her huge boots.
  48.  
  49. “Hey, c'mon,” she yelped, surprised.
  50.  
  51. “Just. No. No.” You watched as the people crossed the road. Some of them kept going forward after making it to the other side. Some turned right. Some turned left. The group dispersed, never once to meet like that ever again. “They have no idea, do they?”
  52.  
  53. “Not yet.”
  54.  
  55. You turned Erica around. “What the hell was that?”
  56.  
  57. “I dunno.”
  58.  
  59. “Crap in a hand basket, what the hell was that?”
  60.  
  61. More people gathered at the sidewalk's edge to await the cross sign.
  62.  
  63. “Just making things a little more interesting,” she said. Her hands raised and she went for the nearest back pocket like a coyote.
  64.  
  65. “No!” You jumped behind her, grabbed her wrists and pinned them to her side. “No!” You repeated. An older man turned around and saw an apologetic-looking young guy holding both hands of a very annoyed-looking girl. He frowned and went back to his own business.
  66.  
  67. Erica grunted. “C'mon, it's just a bit of fun. I was on a bus for...ugh, for too long. I need to vent.”
  68.  
  69. “Vent in a way that won't get you arrested, please.”
  70.  
  71. She wrested her arms out of your grip. “Fine, whatever.” She crossed her arms. “You better believe I'll get you for this later.”
  72.  
  73. “What do you mean 'get me for this?' I just want to cross the street without getting -hey where are you going?”
  74.  
  75. Erica took great strides across the street with her long legs. A car blared past her. And another. Her jacket rippled in acknowledgment, but little else.
  76.  
  77. “Jesus, I don't need this.” You sprinted into the road and tapped the hood of a delivery truck that skidded to a stop and wouldn't stop honking. You made it across the road without getting hit by anything more serious than insults and insinuations to your intelligence.
  78.  
  79. Huffing, you caught up to Erica. “There's a little rule I like to abide by when I'm in strange cities, want to hear about it?”
  80.  
  81. She pulled her hoodie tighter.
  82.  
  83. “It's 'Don't walk in front of traffic and pickpocket strangers.' It's a good rule. Big Bird talked about it on Sesame Street all the time.”
  84.  
  85. Her chin moved underneath the hood. “Well that sounds like a fantastic rule for you to follow,” the rich timbre of her voice lent itself well to her mood. Her pace quickened.
  86.  
  87. “No, no, I'd encourage people all over to follow it.”
  88.  
  89. “Why's that, huh?”
  90.  
  91. You felt exhausted already. “Is it that hard to understand? I don't want to see you get questioned by men in uniforms or spread across the street by a heavy truck.” The thought of her getting hurt upset your stomach.
  92.  
  93. She halted and about faced. You almost crashed into her but she raised an arm and placed an open hand firmly on your chest that seemed to absorb all your momentum. “Don't worry about me,” she stressed. “I'll be more than okay. How many times do I have to say that?”
  94.  
  95. “How many more times are you going to do something crazy?”
  96.  
  97. She tapped her boot. “If I keep my hands to myself, will you take me to your damn ice cream place without,” She raised her hands “freaking out?”
  98.  
  99. You snagged her rational mood and did not intend to let go. “Yes. You behave, and I'll take you straight to the shop, no distractions.”
  100.  
  101. She put her hands in a pair of her many pockets and put on a smile so sweet it spiked your blood sugar. “I'll be a good girl, I promise.”
  102.  
  103. You took a cautious step away from her as if she'd explode from any sudden movements. “Okay. Cool.” The two of you built up again to a steady walking pace. “I still don't know why you want to come.”
  104.  
  105. “You really sold me on that coke float.”
  106.  
  107. “Anyone ever call you a bold-faced liar?”
  108.  
  109. “I'm interested, even though you're a dull killjoy. Anyone willing to travel this far to visit an old childhood haunt is worth tagging along with for a bit. And I'm on a journey of,” she threw her head back and skipped for two steps. “wild self-discovery, remember? Rite of passage and all that,” she said with no sincerity at all.
  110.  
  111. She bumped you with her hips. “Gotta have a little impulsive fun.”
  112.  
  113. You couldn't get to that ice cream parlor fast enough.
  114. -
  115.  
  116. Some few hours later the streets matched up with the dusty pictures in your mind. Old building fit into old slots in your memories, even if they had different names and the paint coats changed.
  117.  
  118. “We're getting close,” you told Erica. She gained an extra spring in her step, and she was springy to begin with. “I think...I....yeah, that street...so,” You closed your eyes to look at your mental map. “We turn left here.
  119.  
  120. You turned left.
  121.  
  122. Some of the buildings in the neighborhood looked run down. Storefronts were dusty. Windows seemed barren. Cars didn't cruise down the pavement in great number or with great purpose. The handfuls of people on the sidewalks paid no heed to the shops that bothered to put up an 'OPEN' sign. You frowned.
  123.  
  124. “A little more threadbare than I remembered.”
  125.  
  126. Erica's eyes leapt from signs to sprigs of weeds coming up through concrete cracks and back again.
  127.  
  128. Soggy newspapers clogged the gutters. Old beer bottles and cigarettes butts lined themselves in grooves and crannies. About the only sign of continued prosperity came from a barbershop and a used electronics store.
  129.  
  130. “Sanderson's place is going to be on the next street,” you said with a distracted lack of enthusiasm. Your hands went into your pockets without much notice.
  131.  
  132. You turned the corner.
  133.  
  134. You walked a few yards and stopped.
  135.  
  136. “Damn,” you whispered. Erica was silent.
  137.  
  138. The wide, wooden post that read “Sanderson's Soda Shoppe” was chipped and weathered. Years of rain and uncaring sunlight cracked and washed away the red and white cursive lettering. The windows were boarded up with flaky plywood sprayed over with skittle-colored graffiti and wads of ancient gum. Weeds huddled in rows around the entrance like lazy sentinels. The door listed an incomplete list of its operating hours. Above was a sun-faded sign that read 'CLOSED.'
  139.  
  140. You looked up and down the street. There were no other souls asides from Erica and yourself.
  141.  
  142. “Okay.” You stared at the concrete beneath your feet and dropped a loose nod. “Nothing to be surprised about,” you muttered. “Places like this close down all the time. It was a relic, anyhow.”
  143.  
  144. Erica uncrossed her arms.
  145.  
  146. “I'm surprised the old man managed to hang onto the place for so long. He gave it a good run,” you bit your lip. “Real good run.” You slumped along the brick wall. “Shit.”
  147.  
  148. Erica looked the building over from the bottom to the top. “Wanna go inside?”
  149.  
  150. “Come again?”
  151.  
  152. “Inside. Wanna go? It'd be pretty pointless if we walked all this way and you didn't even give me a tour of the place.
  153.  
  154. You turned and read the orange CLOSED sign again. “I don't think there's much inside to show off,” you said. “Unless you want to gawk at dust.”
  155.  
  156. She shook her head, groaning at your lack of imagination, then stomped off to the building's side. The sound of her footsteps disappeared down the thin walkway between the the shop. “Screw it,” you whispered and trailed her.
  157.  
  158. Behind the building was an alley with an old, rusted dumpster, plentiful weeds, and wind-blown litter. Erica rapped her knuckles on the brick work until she knocked on the back door. A heavy, rusty chain and padlock was wrapped around the handle. She knocked again, harder, and pressed her ear against it.
  159.  
  160. “Hm. I don't hear anything.”
  161.  
  162. “That 's because you're wearing a hood.” Jesus, she'd never taken that thing off for the whole trip. You noted the utter lack of disagreeable body odor coming from her. What did her hair look like? Why the didn't she sweat? She hadn't even-
  163.  
  164. “Looks like nobody's home,”she lilted. “Do you think anyone'll mind if we let ourselves in?”
  165.  
  166. You a nudged plastic coke bottle aside with your shoe tip. “Probably not.”
  167.  
  168. “Ah, nice. I'd hate to make someone mad.” Erica flexed her fingers and looked at her gloved hand. She rattled the door lever a few times. The black chain swung and clanked in aggressive resistance. She tapped on the links, bent over, and blew on the locks. She kicked the door's base.
  169.  
  170. An intense fascination boiled up inside. You tried to hide it. It was clear Erica wanted to make a show of this. “Are you preparing another special trick?”
  171.  
  172. She looked at you with bright hazel eyes and winked. Even bundled up in that unflattering fashion, you couldn't help but notice the curve of her back in her generous bend as she looked at you. A splinter chill shot up your spine.
  173.  
  174. She wrapped her fingers around the door handle and pushed. The padlock swung loose and the chain fell apart link by iron link. A small rain of metal clattered and clanked on the ground. Erica pushed the creaking door open as if it led to a haunted house. “Abra kadabra,” she said with a show woman's nonchalance.
  175.  
  176. There was no point in asking her how she did it. She wouldn't tell. If Erica considered herself a magician then she'd keep her secrets close to the chest under her many, many layers. She stepped back from the door and gestured inside. Loose cloth dangled off the limb. “All yours,” she smiled. “Go first.”
  177.  
  178. You scooped up a broken chain link as you past her. You flicked the iron into the air and caught it with a flourish. Erica paid you no mind and scratched her forearm.
  179.  
  180. You stepped inside. She followed.
  181.  
  182. The interior was hot and stuffy. The air was dusty, thick, and stale. Plastic bottles and containers lined a few rickety racks standing in the back room. You smelled mold and pieces of droppings that came from rats and other low things. The rectangle of light from the open door lit little, and none of it encouraging.
  183.  
  184. “Hold on,” you pulled out your phone and turned the light on before heading further inside. “Uh. Close the door, in case someone walks by. They'll think we're breaking in.”
  185.  
  186. “We are breaking in.”
  187.  
  188. “Then they'll know we're breaking in.”
  189.  
  190. Erica closed the door. She hovered close behind you and the flashlight.
  191.  
  192. “I've never been back here before,” you said. “This must be the supply room.” You shone the light around and found a staircase and a dingy looking door -probably for a closet or the mechanical room. A wedge of light filtered under a wide, important looking door. “Here, this looks like it heads to the front.”
  193.  
  194. The door opened easily. The plywood boarding on the windows left enough space to let the sun cast a dim slice of light within. Dust tracked across the floor as the two of you stepped into the dining area of Sanderson's Soda Shoppe.
  195.  
  196. The wooden service bar was still there, covered in dirt, a few chips of ceiling, and tracks from mice. The soda fountains were gone. A few stools still manned their posts, but the red leather was gnawed and frayed, white cotton poked out from the seams.
  197.  
  198. A ladder leaned against the wall along with a few buckets. An outline of dirt on the wooden floor marked where the Pac-Man machine once stood. The outlet cover where the machine plugged in was missing.
  199.  
  200. “Hello,” you called out to the empty room. “It's just me, Mr. Sanderson. I brought a friend.” You sat on a stool and forced it to turn. The ancient thing groaned. “Just two of the usual please. We came a long way, so don't skip on the good stuff.” Elbows plopped on the bar. “Extra cherries on top. I don't mind if they cost extra...”
  201.  
  202. You heard a mouse nibble on something inside the wall.
  203.  
  204. Erica made a gradual round across the room, inspecting every growth of mold and torn piece of wallpaper. Her mouth was neutral, but her eyes were active. She ran her fingers along the walls and useless light-switches. She teased the corners of the bar's edge. Her nostrils flared and she tasted the air.
  205.  
  206. The girl sat on the stool to your left. It didn't creak. She laid the side of her head on the counter and let out a puff of dirt-scattering air. “You really liked this place, didn't you?”
  207.  
  208. “I had some good times.” You gave the room another one-over. “I don't think I'll find much perspective here, not now.”
  209.  
  210. Erica popped her mouth. “Maybe...” her head rose, “I can help you out.” She jumped and slid over the bar, kicking up dust and specks of debris. She stood on the opposite side of you and leaned with her elbows on the counter. She looked at her hands and bit her lip.
  211.  
  212. Finger by finger, she peeled the colorful gloves from her hands. She cracked each knuckle in methodical precession and rubbed her thumbs against each of her brown finger tips. She closed her eyes, almost in hesitation. Erica laid her hands palms-up on the bar. Her long fingers curved with a gentle upwardsness.
  213.  
  214. “Here. Give me your hands,” she whispered. Your lips compressed. “Go ahead, I'll give them back when I'm done.” Her eyes glimmered with a cultured kind of patience you didn't think she had.
  215.  
  216. You put your hands within hers. Her fingers wrapped around them. She rubbed her thumbs against the sides of your hands. They felt soft and smooth. Erica's skin was hot, almost oven-like as her excess heat radiated into your hands.
  217.  
  218. “Close your eyes,” she said. “Please.”
  219.  
  220. You did so.
  221.  
  222. “Tell me about this place,” she said in her low, smokey voice.
  223.  
  224. “What do you want to know?” You asked.
  225.  
  226. Her fingers moved in lazy circles across your hands. “Anything. Start with anything.”
  227.  
  228. “The windows were bright.”
  229.  
  230. “Bright,” she echoed.
  231.  
  232. “And...the first thing you noticed when coming inside was the...the smell of ice cream. Vanilla, strawberry, mint, and coffee. He had them all. And popcorn. He sold popcorn here. Covered in tons of salt and butter.”
  233.  
  234. The sweet, pinching smell of heated kernels and ice cream scooped fresh from the tub drifted into your nose. If you opened your eyes you could've sworn there'd be a bowl and bag full of the stuff beneath your chin. Erica exhaled slowly.
  235.  
  236. “And he always kept it air cold, of course. Felt really good when coming inside. The summers can be brutal here.” You heard an AC rattle to life somewhere far away in time and space. Chilled air flooded down your neck and legs. Your hands still sweltered at Erica's touch, but you didn't care. The foul, stagnant air was banished. You took a deep, refreshing breath.
  237.  
  238. “Yeah, just like that.”
  239.  
  240. “Keep going,” she urged.
  241.  
  242. “And the counter was always polished. The wood was polished and shone like it was worth a million dollars. There may have been some stains on the thing, but we didn't care.”
  243.  
  244. The image of the bar, wide and long enough to hold all the ice cream in the world conjured itself in your mind. You looked around in your head and in the real world. Your eyes were closed, but you could see it, clear as day.
  245.  
  246. “Same thing with the floors. Spit polished. The thing sparkled.” The floor glowed to a former glory. “And-and he had this huge soda machine on the back wall. With lots of fountains. And big tubes of syrups labeled with flavors.” The back wall glimmered. A well kept and handsome soda fountain gleamed. Huge containers of syrup for snow cones and milkshakes bubbled into sugary life.
  247.  
  248. “Show me around,” Erica asked. You kept your eyes closed, but you stood up. She let go of one hand, so that you could lead out from behind the bar.
  249.  
  250. “Here were the booth tables.” Plushy, curved chairs sprouted.
  251.  
  252. “Did any music play?” she asked, excited.
  253.  
  254. “Wouldn't be an old-fashioned place if there wasn't a jukebox, right? It was over there by the window.” You pointed with your free hand. She laughed as a bulky, glass-encased record player lit up in neon greens, blues, and reds, and cranked out golden-oldies without so much as putting a quarter in it. Music and faded croons filled your ears.
  255.  
  256. “And of course Mr. Sanderson would always be behind the bar and every time you came in he'd ask-”
  257.  
  258. “What can I get for you fine kids today?”
  259.  
  260. You turned around and there he was. An old man who may have always been old, but whose eyes and smile still spoke of a youth that'd never quite be chased off. He wore a pin-stripe apron and paper-boat hat.
  261.  
  262. Erica led you back to the stools. You both took a seat. They accepted your weight in good nature and without a squeak.
  263.  
  264. Mr. Sanderson beamed.
  265.  
  266. “Just the usual,” you said. “And I brought a friend with me, so make it a double, if you please. I don't...mind if it costs extra.”
  267.  
  268. He tipped his hat and winked. “Can do. One Purple Cow with all the fixin's coming right up. I'll make 'er moo real good, just for you.”
  269.  
  270. You rubbed your forehead and laughed. “Sounds perfect, Mr. Sanderson.”
  271.  
  272. Erica face lit as she watched the old expert spin his ice cream scoop into the air. His fingers twirled around the fountains and bins of ice cream like he controlled all of space in his own little corner of the world. He spun a hefty mug in the air and filled it with creams and bubbly sodas that fizzled and foamed like a magic potion.
  273.  
  274. The old ice cream wizard put two cherries on its creamy top and put the mug on the far end of the counter. With a bare flick of his wrist, the mug glided in between you and Erica. Two spoons and two straws poked from the top of the froth.
  275.  
  276. “Enjoy, kids.” He walked off and faded from the world, having business elsewhere.
  277.  
  278. The fuzz popped and tickled your chin. Erica leaned in, her large eyes enraptured. “How does it taste?” Her voice curled in your ear.
  279.  
  280. You took the spoon and dug out a generous mound of ice cream and purple soda. It danced with joy in your mouth. Your grin and a second spoonful was all that needed to be said.
  281.  
  282. “Can I have some?” Erica pressed her warm body against your shoulder. You dipped the second spoon into the mug and raised it. She dove in and took the sweet ice cream in her mouth. Her eyes closed and the edges of her mouth tickled itself upwards. Her tongue licked the bottom of her lip where purplish ice cream dripped off the spoon. She savored the taste for a moment before swallowing.
  283.  
  284. Her eyes twinkled when she said “Worth it.” She slid her stool nearer and pressed even closer to you -the better to get at the Purple Cow. Not that you minded sharing.
  285.  
  286. The two of you sat on the stools at an ice cream counter that should have never existed, and enjoyed yourselves. Spoons clattered against the glass and made loud slurping noises underneath the old-fashioned rock-n-roll of the jukebox.
  287.  
  288. “I'm telling you,” you spun the spoon for one more taste of the ice cream inside. “This is just as good as when I came in here with my-”
  289.  
  290. The door bell rang with cheer. You turned and saw a group of four kids rush in. Two boys and two girls.
  291.  
  292. Mr. Sanderson's voice rang greetings from an formless void. The kids called out their scattered replies.
  293.  
  294. “I call the Pac-Man first!” announced a boy.
  295.  
  296. “Nuh-uh, the ghosts'll just keep eating you,” said a small girl.
  297.  
  298. You knew those voices. You knew those faces.
  299.  
  300. “I want to get a banana split, but with popcorn instead of banana.”
  301.  
  302. “That's sounds gross.”
  303.  
  304. “Your nose is gross.”
  305.  
  306. A lady walked in. “Mom, he said my nose looked gross!”
  307.  
  308. The women shook her head and said “Keep up the name calling and no one's getti-”
  309.  
  310. “No,” you muttered. A crack formed in the walls of the shop. Your spoon dropped and shattered the counter. “No way. No.”
  311.  
  312. The world fell into pieces and your pulled your hand away from Erica as you sprung out of your seat and tripped. Your elbow crashed against the dirtied floor. The noise from the jukebox screeched into silence and the stool tipped over in a clammor.
  313.  
  314. Your eyes stung, even though there was very little light in the abandoned parlor.
  315.  
  316. Erica pinched the bridge of her nose as if suffering from a migraine. “What was that?” she strained.
  317.  
  318. “Why did you bring them in here?” you groaned from the floor. Anger painted the edge of your voice.
  319.  
  320. “Wh-what?”
  321.  
  322. “How did you...aw dammit.” You got to your knees, to your stomach's protest. The taste of the soda float lingered on your tongue. “How did you know about them?” Erica held her temples.
  323.  
  324. “Know about who? Those people that came in? I don't know them. You put them there. You were doing....ugh. Urgh.” She squeezed her eyes. “We were having a nice time,” she whined.
  325.  
  326. You dragged upwards and braced yourself with both hands on the bar, breathing deep and trying to get a hold of the jackhammer in your chest. “I didn't need to see them.” You wiped your eyes. “Erica. Erica, what the hell was that? And don't tell me,” You caught your breath. “Please don't just say that was a trick.”
  327.  
  328. She looked at you with moisture in her eyes.
  329.  
  330. “That was me trying to help, okay?”
  331.  
  332. “Help?” Disbelief was in your voice. “Helping is you making some kind of...I don't know, full bodied hallucination?” Was that even real? God, it felt real.
  333.  
  334. Erica got off the stool and wavered, fighting off a bad dizzy spell. “I just wanted to...I don't know. You said you wanted some perspective. Was that too much? Well I'm sorry, okay? I won't do it again,” she spat and stomped to the back room. “Swear, nobody knows what the hell they want.”
  335.  
  336. The door swung close.
  337.  
  338. Dammit. You took several deep breaths to get over seeing your mom and siblings living and breathing for the first time in not nearly a long enough time.
  339.  
  340. You slammed an open palm against the bar. An empty echo bounced once or twice around the room. The worst of the rocky sickness passed after a few lungfuls of air.
  341.  
  342. You went to the back room, calling for Erica. You shone the light around the supply room, but she wasn't there. In the corner was the staircase glossed over by your first inspection. From the bottom of the stairwell you called up. There was no answer, but you heard movement.
  343.  
  344. The steps whined and creaked as you traversed the steps as fast as you dared in the dark. At the top was a small room with two adjoining doors. Erica sat on a very old spring bed in the corner, head buried between her legs.
  345.  
  346. She peeked a bleary eye at you. “I didn't mean to do that, okay?” She wiped her eye on a sleeve. “You were putting the place together, I was just...following your lead. I'm sorry. I only tried to...” She plopped her head down. “Tried to do something you might like.”
  347.  
  348. You approached and eased yourself on the lumpy mattress next to her. “Hey. Hey, enough of that, please? I freaked out yes. Maybe more than necessary. Maybe. I'm just not used to seeing ghosts. At least not ghosts that real.” You rubbed her back. “It was too much at once
  349.  
  350. “I really scared you there,” she sounded miserable. “I'm so sorry, I didn't want to freak you. Hrm. Seems to be something I'm real good at...”
  351.  
  352. You put your hand on her arm. With a gentle squeeze, she let you bring it away and hold her hand. Still warm. You fingers mixed with hers. “You scared the holy hell out of me, but it wasn't all bad. C'mon. Erica, that was -that was amazing. Everything down there was...perfect. The table, the ice cream, even Mr. Sanderson. Perfect. Maybe more than perfect. Like the best dream I've had in a long time. I don't regret that.”
  353.  
  354. Her breathing steadied. Erica stared at you from the depths of her cowl. “Thanks for sharing it with me,” she whispered.
  355.  
  356. You patted her hand. Erica's lips drew tight and her eyes avoided looking at her wrist. Your fingers slid across from the top of her palm towards her wrist. But something felt...off. You looked at Erica. She made no comment. You drew the thick layered sleeves up her arm inch by inch. Her skin was marked with raised, discolored bumps, like a lesion or a scaly rash. Your brow furrowed.
  357.  
  358. “Erica, Jesus, what is-”
  359.  
  360. She yanked her arm back and pulled her sleeve down. “It's not contagious or anything,” she muttered. “I would've known out by now.”
  361.  
  362. “That wasn't at the gas station.”
  363.  
  364. She waved the comment off. “Don't worry about it. It comes and goes.”
  365.  
  366. You shook your head and bent forward. Warning signs went off in your mind. “But what about -does it hurt?”
  367.  
  368. The girl only shrugged. “It itches sometimes. Mostly after I do a...a trick.”
  369.  
  370. “Have you put a cream on it, or...go to a hospital and have a doctor check it out?” You thought of other alternatives.
  371.  
  372. Her voice turned venomous. “Why? To let some person I don't even know stick needles in me and say that I'm not right? Have them strap me in a room and let them say 'We're not sure, ma'am, but we're doing everything we can,' and send me a bill? Fuck that. Fuck them. I'm fine. I keep telling you, don't worry about me. Why can't you understand that?” She pulled her hoodie down further and buried her head again.
  373.  
  374. “Alright...dropping that idea.” You looked at the girl hidden under a bundle of clothes. You wondered what else she could hide underneath those haphazardly piled on layers. What other kind of tricks did she harbor? What kind of surprises and secrets? Did you even want to know about them?
  375.  
  376. You swallowed. “I have to ask you something.”
  377.  
  378. Her head lifted and she sniffled. “What?”
  379.  
  380. “Erica....what are you?”
  381.  
  382. Her eyes glistened in the dark. Her lips moved with careful deliberation and said “I'm not sure.”
  383.  
  384. -
  385.  
  386. You were quiet for a while. You checked your phone and the growing shadows. “It's getting dark,” you observed.
  387.  
  388. “It's dark up here already,” Erica replied.
  389.  
  390. “Yeah, but it's going to get darker.”
  391.  
  392. “And?”
  393.  
  394. “Should we sleep up here?”
  395.  
  396. Erica prodded the ancient mattress with bare fingers. “May as well. Unless you want to dish out money for a crappy motel.”
  397.  
  398. You thought about your bank account. “Not really.”
  399.  
  400. “Answers that question, then. Stay here, I'll have a look around.” She hopped up. “Or you know what? Do me a favor and pull the boards off the window.” You looked at the slabs of bristly plywood held against the room's window.
  401.  
  402. “But what if someone sees?”
  403.  
  404. “I don't think anyone within fifty miles cares if two pieces of wood go missing from a second story window.”
  405.  
  406. You shook your head and examined the window. Rough grains of wood brushed against your fingers. Great care was taken to find purchase on the board without getting undue splinters. Plywood like this was cruel and uncaring towards human skin.
  407.  
  408. You grabbed the corners and tugged.
  409.  
  410. “So what are you looking for anyhow?” you grunted and pulled.
  411.  
  412. “This closet right here. I wanna see if there's anything stashed away.” She knocked on the door.
  413.  
  414. “What's in that other door?” you asked.
  415.  
  416. “A bathroom with a real nasty looking toilet,” she answered.
  417.  
  418. “Doesn't work, I guess.”
  419.  
  420. “The rats have been using it just fine,” she said. You ignored that comment and focused on the window.
  421.  
  422. The wood pried loose with a forceful snap. You went to work on the other side. Night time city light sprinkled into the room.
  423.  
  424. Meanwhile Erica opened the closet door and dove inside. You heard the sound of her clumsy rummaging. “Oh, lookit what I found.” She pulled out a pile of sheets and threw a handful of pillows on the mattress.
  425.  
  426. You yanked the rest of the board loose and found two latches on the window. The latches came undone with ease. Opening the windows took a bit more elbow grease, but they gave way and let evening air come into the room for the first time in God knew how long. A half-decent breeze come through the opening and over your arm.
  427.  
  428. “Ah. There.” You wiped your hands off on your jeans. “That's a little better.” Erica spread the blankets over the mattress. You inspected a sheet. They smelled fresh and free from mold spots or holes gnawed by silverfish. “These are new,” you realized and rubbed the cool linen between your finger.
  429.  
  430. Erica closed her eyes and shook her head, tired. “Just roll with it, please. Let's make our lives easier and say whoever bought these really got their money's worth.”
  431.  
  432. Tricks and tricks and tricks, you thought.
  433.  
  434. Erica laid on the mattress and stared straight at the ceiling. She scratched her arm again and appeared distracted. Looking at her on the bed, so swaddled in jackets and sweaters, made your body itchy, and skin oily with sweat, both real and imagined.
  435.  
  436. “Don't you get uncomfortable wearing all those coats?”
  437.  
  438. Her neck swiveled to you. She frowned. “Does it matter?”
  439.  
  440. “Yes. It does matter. Let you skin breathe for five minutes. Your arm won't get better if it's not getting fresh air.”
  441.  
  442. Erica's mouth curled in begrudging acceptance. She sat up, looked between the door and window, as if worried someone may barge up and see. It was the first time she seemed nervous. She stared you down, eyes narrowed.
  443.  
  444. “Is this a trick to get me out of my clothes?”
  445.  
  446. “Not all of your clothes, just most,” you assured her.
  447.  
  448. She laughed, but it was weighed down with hesitation. Her shoulders bunched together and slid off the heavy outer coat she wore. She wore a sports windbreaker beneath the coat. Erica took that one off one sleeve at a time. Beneath that was a pair of sweaters.
  449.  
  450. Erica took off several laundry baskets of jackets and sweaters before she was down to her hoodie. Her hands paused by her stomach before she pressed off the bed to face you.
  451.  
  452. Her hazel eyes caught the white and orange glimmer of the city lights. She looked expressionless. Your heart caught when her fingers grasped the lower rim of her hoodie and drew it up her body. She wore a body-hugging red tank top underneath. The hoodie caught over her head for a moment. Erica tugged it off and tossed it into the corner.
  453.  
  454. She tousled her hair and great, tight, reddish-brown curls fell around her face and settled just past her shoulders. Her hands brushed aside a few errant loops and framed her face with wild, springy hair. Her eyes bore deep into you as you admired the strong line of her jaw and handsome curve of her shoulders. Her tall body was slim, but not anorexic. Athletic would be a better description. It was easy to see that Erica took good care of herself, despite her questionable behavior.
  455.  
  456. “There we go,” she said. She scooped the bundle of clothes and chucked them off the mattress and into an unremarkable corner of the room. The pebbly rash looped around her forearm. You approached the bed, keeping an eye on Erica.
  457.  
  458. Yes, you couldn't keep your eyes off her collar bones, or the pinch in her waist, or the perky curve of her modest breasts. A little part of you tried to say you were looking for signs of any other lesions. You couldn't see any, and that did relieve you, for what it's worth. But a more plain part of you mind greatly enjoyed the unobstructed view of Erica's body.
  459.  
  460. The weathered mattress grumbled as you sat to stare out of the window. The city skyline offered a decent view. You saw the green tower that dominated the medical district. Other impressive buildings sprouted against the darkening sky and blinked to life. Red antennae lights winked in the darkness and traffic zipped and crawled around distant and low-lying highways.
  461.  
  462. The mattress shifted as Erica crawled over and rested her head against your shoulder. The curls of her warm hair brushed your cheek.
  463.  
  464. “All those buildings,” she said. “All those lights.”
  465.  
  466. “It looks nice from here.”
  467.  
  468. “I wonder,” Erica began, “How many nights did that old Mister Sanderson spend sitting here and staring out the window before,” her hair wiggled as she shook her head, “some men came and closed it off?” She swung her legs over the mattress's edge and splayed her boots across the floor. Her hand slid past your other shoulder and her head nestled into your neck. “Not even the cockroaches could get a look outside after that. A shame, isn't it?”
  469.  
  470. “Most people don't consider cockroaches,” you replied
  471.  
  472. “Most people don't consider a lot of things. They'll shut down ice cream shops and cover up windows without a second thought...”
  473.  
  474. You put your hand around her waist. She moved a little closer.
  475.  
  476. “You know what the real shame is? The part that bothers me?” she asked.
  477.  
  478. “What's that?”
  479.  
  480. “No one tried to put anything else in this building. Not a single person walked past this place and thought to use it for something new and exciting. It's like everyone wanted this spot to be an abandoned, run-down wreck. They all gave express permission for...brokenness and stagnation. It's rot.”
  481.  
  482. Her fingers tightened on your shoulder. “What the hell is wrong with people?”
  483.  
  484. “I can't really speak for other people. There's too many, and I don't know them that well.” You shrugged. “Maybe they couldn't think of something as good to replace the parlor?”
  485.  
  486. Her head shook on your neck. “Don't tell me that. The jerks could've at least tried to put something new, something alive, here. I don't see excuses. Only a wasteful sickness.”
  487.  
  488. Erica took a slow breath. “I need to think,” she whispered.
  489.  
  490. She slipped away from your shoulder, but her hand eased you down to the mattress. You lay on your back. Erica kept close to you. The mattress wasn't big. She was a heater without clothing to buffer her body warmth. But the room was already cooling as the night's chill settled in. You looked into her half-lidded eyes.
  491.  
  492. “You haven't slept at all, have you?” you asked.
  493.  
  494. She shook her head. “Not in a long time.”
  495.  
  496. “Will you sleep tonight?”
  497.  
  498. “Probably not.”
  499.  
  500. You frowned. “Why not?”
  501.  
  502. “I see things when I sleep.”
  503.  
  504. “Those are called dreams. Or do you have a nightmare problem?”
  505.  
  506. “I have a lot of problems.” She circled her hand across your chest. “There's a...something, I see when I sleep,” she confided. “Something alive, and writhing.”
  507.  
  508. Your head shifted on the pillow. “What kind of something? A monster?”
  509.  
  510. “An animal,” she specified. “Or at least I think she's an animal. Parts of animals. Lots of parts. Like a beast stitched together from everything in a zoo. She feels...it's hard to say. Timeless. Like an old myth that men in robes would chisel down on stone tablets and high on all kinds of plants.”
  511.  
  512. The image unsettled you. “Sounds like a movie monster.”
  513.  
  514. “She terrifies me.”
  515.  
  516. “It's only a dream,” you assured, but your voice felt hollow. There was no telling with Erica.
  517.  
  518. “That's the worst part.” Her fingers gripped your chest tighter. Erica's voice trickled. “She wants out.”
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