by Salena Casha
“You can’t come,” my sister said.
I was fifteen, she, nineteen, but in the hallway darkness, she looked far older. Perhaps the night had bewitched her and replaced her with someone else, maybe our dead mother. They shared far more qualities than I cared to admit sometimes: the same dazed gaze, the same golden hair, the same gardener’s touch. Moonlight-stained alabaster-colored walls, the lunar light bleaching off-white plaster. Sara’s ruby lips, Pomegranate Lush, faded in and out of focus. For the most part, she let me borrow her make-up, but she kept that color, one of Mom’s glosses, locked in her dresser drawer. In my Mariners shirt and pink boxer shorts, I must have looked like a child in her eyes. A pair of Jimmy Choos with red soles dangled from her manicured fingers.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“None of your business.”
She cocked her hip to the side and the shoes swung. The soles were worn, more pink than red, and I frantically searched for what it was that she needed me to say to make her stay. Moonlight corrupted girls, music too, our father said, as if implying that Mom had suffered from it as well. When speaking of our mother, he would muse “Persephone did not choose her end; she was just a passive object in a cruel world,” but Sara and I knew better. We remembered where she kept her empty wine bottle collection and had seen her mix potent elixirs of prescription pills and booze. It wasn’t eternal life she searched for, not as she hurtled towards death.
Now, though, our father slept upstairs in the loft, unaware of our hushed conversation. He did not see the mirror between my mother and sister.
“If you don’t take me, I’ll tell Dad,” I said.
“No. You won’t,” she said with raised eyebrows and turned from me.
Sara’s fingers danced across the alarm keypad. Moonlight from the window flashed across something metal tucked into the front of her dress and I inhaled sharply. She paused before the final number then sighed.
“Look, when you’re older you’ll understand.”
“And what? Act like you? Pretending to be Mom won’t bring her back,” I said.
She stared at me hard with her hazel eyes. Reaching out a hand, she tucked an errant hair behind my ear. “When you’re older, you won’t look anything like her, Mel.”
A cold breeze tickled my skin and I took a step back. She withdrew her hand. What had given her the right of prophecy? As if she felt the wind as well, she drew her coat tighter around her body and hid the flask from view.
“Please don’t go,” I whispered. Sara hadn’t done anything like this before Mom had ODed and even though other people might say that it was just rebellion, there was something darker at work, some shadow following her as she walked from the apartment at night.
“I have to,” she replied. She glanced at her cellphone and groaned. “I’m late enough as it is. Go back to bed.” She nudged me back toward the room we shared, pressed 7, and disarmed the alarm with a ring. A click of the door handle and she was gone.
My father’s clock ticked in the hall, close to midnight now. I couldn’t go back to bed; whenever she left, the nightmares came: dreams of being locked alone in our room, the walls painted black, nameless ghosts crowding me, suffocating me. So I grabbed my flats and pulled on a pair of jeans. A flash of her dress glittered from the building entrance and I followed. Luckily, her heels slowed her down.
She wobbled over potholes, skirting pitted city streets, heading downtown. It was a Wednesday, a few stragglers weaving out of the main subway station next to our apartment. A homeless man on the side of Main Street shook his cup in my direction.
“Following Hades’s Princess, are yah? She’s got royal blood, you know. Blood like a god’s,” he sneered at me.
I paused, trying to recall the myth, one my mother told us before bed, sometimes, about poor Persephone, our mother’s namesake, and her pomegranate seeds. I continued past and tried not to shiver.
My sister wobbled down descending streets. She did not glance behind as I followed. To the right, in a dark overhang, neon lights gave her pause. Club Dervish, entrance to the dancing underworld, pulsed like a broken star. A man with dark black hair and a thin face stood at the door, a bouncer of sorts. He would never let us in. A crowd of people milled about the entrance, their eyes blank, faces pale. She bypassed the crowd and headed for a side alley. The pitch-black night oozed into the causeway, light blocked for a moment, and she drew her cellphone from her handbag. A blue glow erupted from her palm and she rummaged in her purse as I watched from a distance. A golden key caught the cellphone’s glint. My stomach dropped, recalling the way our mother had worn it around her neck. I had always thought it was the key to our liquor cabinet, but Sara pressed it into a keyhole in the wall. It turned and she pried the rusted, metal door open. It did not lock behind her and, shoulders back, head high, I stepped into a wave of multicolored strobe lights.
For the most part, dancers populated the main floor but the space seemed to go back interminably and lent to it a sense of emptiness. The smell of sweat lingered in the thick, moist air. It was a heady scent, almost enough to carry me into the mosh of club-goers, but I paused, recalling my sister, my desire to rescue her from this place. We were too young, too innocent; this scene was not meant for us yet.
At a bar made of black marble, separate glasses, each filled with gold, silver, or bronze liquid, slipped between ruby lips. The scent of strong liquor added to the sour odor of bodies. I watched, fascinated from my shadowed corner, as the bartender repeatedly poured the three liquids and handed them into the crowd. I needed to take one, show my father the evidence of Sara’s rule-breaking. Reaching out, my fingers lifted a golden shot glass rimmed with rhinestone rubies. The liquid within was bronze. Tequila, I recalled, something we had frequently smelled on our mother’s breath right before she passed from being alive to being a shadow.
“The cup stays here,” the bartender said. I jumped, nearly spilling the liquid all over myself, but he made no move to take it from me. Instead, he engaged my gaze, his brow furrowing. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
My mouth went dry as I shook my head, but he stepped forward and I feared he would call the bouncer to escort me out. “No, no,” I said. “I’m looking for my sister.”
He spread his long fingers out on the bar. Though grey speckled his hair, there was something attractive about him, something forbidden. I leaned nearer to him. The barrier between us remained and in the darkness, his eyes glittered like false gold.
“What’s her name?” he asked. I doubted he knew most club goers’ names, but I guessed if my sister was a regular, it may have come up once. But he was a bartender after all, the type that some people saw as their therapists, the type that pretended they were listening.
Still, I opened my mouth. “Sara,” I paused. “Sara Olympia.”
A wry smile split his lips and he nodded and introduced himself.
At first, I swore he said Hades, but he repeated his name for my half-deaf ears. Hans, or something like it. “Stay a while. Have a drink,” he finished. I still had the shot glass in my hand and I set it on the countertop to move just out of reach.
“I need to find her,” I said.
He sighed and shook his head. “She’s probably enjoying herself somewhere out on the dance floor. She wouldn’t leave without you.” The statement sounded more like a question but I crossed my arms in front of my chest and turned my head back to the dancers. More bodies clustered in the middle now as bass bumped through the space. They looked more like ghosts than people, just shapes, just shadows.
She doesn’t know I followed her, I thought to myself but I did not step away from the bar.
“Your mother came here all the time, you know?” he said. And beholding him, fear rose within me. He had known my mother in the place my father dared not venture or perhaps refused to acknowledge existed. Hating myself for it, I leaned further forward.
A glass dish on the bar by my elbow held sunflower seeds, shell-less and cracked with salt. I pictured my mother with her Pomegranate Lush-stained lips, sucking the seeds and not dancing. Merely watching everyone twirl over the rim of her martini glass.
“You’re lying,” I said, even though I knew he was not. Mom’s key that opened the club’s backdoor and helped us bypass the entrance requirements of twenty-one plus identification. And hopefully, the same secret entrance would release us when the time came to return home. It was no coincidence; this had been the place she’d met her end.
The bartender shrugged as if bored and wiped droplets of liquor off the bar. “Believe what you will,” he said. “Everyone who’s anyone ends up here before too long.”
I looked away to watch a girl spin in circles at the center of the floor, arms akimbo, her rhythm slightly off-kilter. Thin skin stretched over bones, eyes unfocused. At first I thought it was Sara, but, thankfully, her hair was strawberry blond, not platinum, and I turned away.
A hand circled my wrist. “You can’t be here,” Sara hissed. I blinked and she relaxed her grip. “You didn’t drink anything, right?”
“No.” She exchanged a quick glance with the bartender who had not relinquished his post near me.
Her grip relaxed and she sighed. “Good. It’s time to get out of here. You don’t belong.”
I wanted to tell her that she didn’t belong either. This wasn’t her crowd; this wasn’t what my father and I thought of when she disappeared for the night. This was something our mother would do, had done. And I wondered if our mother’s fate had embroidered itself into our genes and if it was destiny that had brought my sister and me to this underworld or just chance.
“Who’s that?” I asked, nodding toward the center, the dancing girl still a bit off-rhythm.
“Just a girl,” she replied, her grip retightening. She paused. I felt the music’s vibration in my bones, felt it pass from her fingers to my wrist. “If you drink or eat something here, you end up staying.”
“Forever,” she said. “I can’t lose anyone else to this place. I’ve been trying to get her back.” I wondered if she meant Mom, but I needed to tell her that our mother was beyond our reach. There was nothing we could do. Maybe, if she could return from the white-casket-filled grave we’d buried her in a few miles outside the city, it would never be cold again in our house, the plants would never die if only because they had someone who cared for them. But that mother, the one I envisioned, was not real.
Sara made to walk back toward the secret door when her name snapped through the air in a voice rivaling the pounding bass. The overwhelming music hushed for a moment before restarting.
“Sara.” The bartender repeated. He snapped his fingers and pointed for her to return.
“Go,” she said and pushed me toward the door. I lingered. The pair exchanged words, his mouth close to her ear, her blond hair falling over his lips. With a tight nod, she reached into her dress and pulled out the flask. He filled it with golden liquid and, with pursed lips, she watched the stream funnel perfectly into its open mouth.
“What was that?” I asked when she returned.
“I told you to leave,” she said and pulled me out into the street, fresh air exploding in my lungs, free once more. Jimmy Choos in hand, barefoot on glass-strewn, tar-marked streets, she walked, impenetrable. Maybe, dare I say it, immortal? Our mother walked like that once, but she had been mistakenly misled to think herself so high as she sunk this low. I shivered and Sara towed me the long way home, skirting alleys and walking down streets I didn’t think existed in the daylight.
The apartment building towered above us as we rounded the corner. A bum, perhaps the same one who had called out to me on our way down to the club, sat on the steps in front of the main door, grey head bowed.
“Late night out,” he said. Bags hung low beneath his eyes, a knit cap sitting askew over wiry hair. My sister stepped in front of me, shoes still dangling. Her fingers wrapped around the mace on her key ring.
“Or just an early start,” she replied coolly.
“Should we call the attendant?” I whispered, looking through the door at the apartment’s foyer. The night guard sat at the desk reading a paper, unaware. She ignored me and focused on the man.
“Spare change for a man’s coffee?” he asked and held out a gloved palm. One eye focused lazily on us, the other clouded. I wondered if he was partially blind. A hacking cough rent his throat.
“No,” she said. “But I’ve got something to make you warm.” She reached into her dress and grasped the flask. He eyed her suspiciously while she handed it over, disbelieving his luck. He sniffed it tentatively.
“Keep it,” she said, and stepped around him.
Horrified, I watched as he shrugged and took a long swig. I swore I uttered, ‘don’t drink that!’ as it slipped between his lips but I can’t remember.
“Why’d you do that?” I demanded once we had shut ourselves inside. The Pomegranate Lush had worn off her top lip. It still hung around about the corners, making her look slightly vampiric in the dim-lit hall.
“I’ve got another flask.”
“No. Give him the stuff you said I shouldn’t drink.”
She stared at me long and hard in the hallway darkness. And instead of replying, she turned back toward our shared room and gently set the red-soled heels in her closet under a pile of unworn sweaters.
“He’ll be stuck there. Forever,” I stuttered.
She shrugged, unzipping her dress and wriggling out of the material. “He wasn’t going anywhere, Mel. Better him than us.” She slipped away from me, into her bed, beneath the covers.
But the way she’d paused before she said her last words haunted me, whispered doubt in my ear. Somehow, she was wrong. There was no reprieve, only an elongation of fate before our destiny faced us beside that black counter. I recalled the way the bartender had commanded her to return to him, as if she owed him something.
Last remnants of her lipstick stained the pillow and even though she had not drunk the liquid or tarried in the club, I knew she would be forced to return to that place. And I could do nothing to save her. I could do nothing to save either of us; the moment our mother chose to leave this world our future was set in stone. As I tossed and turned and watched Sara sleep, I realized that sneaking off to the club was the first thing we had done together since Mom died. And, sickened, I knew it was what we had been meant to do all along.
Salena Casha‘s work has appeared in over thirty publications. Her fiction has been included in Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions and has been nominated for a Pushcart prize. Her first three picture books are housed under the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishing umbrella.