by Petra Kuppers
She emerged into the bright sunshine, some daynight after. She looked up to the sky, some daynight after. The sun looked different, somehow, not doubled, exactly, but there was a too-muchness in the air. And a new color to the shadows on the ground. The shadows were smaller, unfamiliar.
Alissa took off her jacket, her sweater, all the things she had grabbed fleeing. In bra and underwear, she stalked like a crane through the window opening, and into the Oslo street. The sun began to burn immediately. She felt the sizzle of her skin’s moisture, like a hot-plate drop of wax. Quickly, she ducked into the shadows on the other side of the street. Here, a hairdresser had abandoned their studio. The smashed windows were not boarded up again, and shards of glass lay mingled with strands of long straight black hair on the linoleum. Alissa saw the hair, stopped. She flashed back to Jin’s slender form, the willow waistline that had held her fascination for weeks before she approached her fellow student. Jin had smiled, giggled a bit, when Alissa had asked her for a drink, for a date. That had been seven months ago. Where would Jin be, now, a city away, a continent, across a fjord or in the heavens?
Alissa picked up her drooping shoulders, and willed her feet to move further back into the darkly shadowed hair studio. There was nothing fruitful in reminiscing about scents and sweet touches here, in the half-light of a new too-bright day. In recent daynight periods, she had found herself often staying too long, steps and gazes halted by small moments, tiny monuments to the life before. Stop moving and stare, a good way to get kicked in the butt by sunlight or radiation.
In the back of the studio, Alissa found another survivor. One woman in a sheepskin’s wrap had made a nest for herself beneath the skeletons of the retro hair-dryers, hulking shapes of pink and red plastic, upside-down bowls to encompass freshly washed and laid waves. It was hard to imagine the hair dryers in use, but they fit right in: flamingos staking out territory, hipster citations for new androgynies.
The woman uncurled a little bit when Alissa cleared her throat, said a dry, raspy hello.
“Hello. Please move along. There is nothing here. The water is shut off.”
“Okay. I am not here to hurt you, lady. And I have my own water. What do you plan to do here?”
“I am at home. I am fine. Please move along.”
One of the hopeless ones, it seems. Alissa had met them underground, little broken ones that did not wish to live past the apocalypse, who saw the demise of internet, telephony and petrol-driven life as a reason to hasten their own demise, too. A valid choice, of course. Alissa nodded, and started to move along.
“Oh, one thing. Did others come by?”
“Two, the day before. One, the day it happened. You are the first one since.”
“Thanks. Die well, lady.”
Alissa moved past the felt nest, and found the backdoor of the hair studio. She opened it, carefully, peered out. She had been alert to any news, but hadn’t heard about vigilantes, the much-talked about breakdown of human compassion and morals. Actually, people had been kinder to each other, recently, had shared water, even scraps of food. The tunnels had been terrible, but not because of the people. It was the smell that got her out, eventually, the hot smell and the press of it all. Also, curiosity. What did it look like, above, now that the sun had shifted and found companions? It had been a choice: heat death or cave death. No one had imagined other options, or real viable life after. That meant, probably, that she wasn’t that different from nest lady. Alissa stepped out of the backdoor, shouting ‘Hi’ to whomever could hear her out here.
A ‘Hi’ came back. Her ears pricked. But it came back more than once. Just an echo, vibrations reverberating human-like against the steel plates of the modernist apartment buildings. The courtyard in Oslo’s Toyen district was shiny and hot like an oven. No one was hanging out here now. Alissa moved on, through the arc at the far end of the yard, and into the next street.
Cars, tires melted and glued to the asphalt. Small curls of smoke where car mirrors set spots to smoldering. No other movement in the blue air. Above, blinding light: the sun or, maybe, suns had climbed higher, whiteness taking over any shape or contour. Alissa sprinted across the street, ran along the opposite side, where some shade remained. Ran, because stopping would mean unsticking her sneakers from the molten pavement. So she touched lightly, taking note of the stores she passed, looking for something to arrest the inevitable. In a gap between buildings, she looked down at the city center, and the fjord, its bare dry walls bone white, salt flowers over gravel. What had been green looked burned, black mud, or grey like ash. She turned away, laid her hands against the warm yellow bricks of new houses, instead.
Ice bar. Ice bar? Alissa stopped, pressed quickly against the black door, and felt it give. It was open. Down she went.
As soon as she entered, she could feel the coolness waft up from beneath. A café scene behind black out windows. Blond people nearby, short hair, layered at the back, a careful cut above jeans jackets, printed T-shirts. Tight jeans. 20-somethings. An older woman, close-cropped hair white-blond with dark roots. An expensive parka, leather bag, Doc Martens. Next to her, a young man, long wavy hair over John Lennon glasses, a moustache that dripped across the cheekbones. Long coat. A pagan cross. He turned to her.
“Welcome. Do you need water?”
He held out a slender glass bottle, real glass, with a wavy design, condensation shimmering the surface. She accepted, and nearly fainted with the crispness of contact. It was so cool! She had not felt anything like it for weeks. She touched the round glass opening to her lips, and felt the deliciousness of liquid down her throat. Careful now. She mustn’t get carried away. She stopped. Sighed.
“First time here, right? Welcome to the Ice Bar.”
“Thank you. Thank you.” Alissa was near tears. He knew. She collected herself.
“What is going on here?” Here was one of the old Oslo winter haunts: the site of a bar made of ice, mid-winter, usually closed in other seasons. But here she was, and yes, there were icicles dripping down from the dark ceiling. She saw her breath in front of her face. She was crying now, and the tears became salt on her skin.
“Ice Bar. Dance on the Volcano. We will survive. Dance the freaking music baby.”
His pupils were wide and dark pools. She got it.
She released her gaze from his, and scanned the crowd, still holding on to the magic of the cool glass bottle. Alissa remembered the bar from different years. In the deep Norwegian winter, the bar was usually made out of iceblocks, an igloo in the city, shimmering blue-green with lights set into the blocks. Hipster bar. Also, a tourist pleaser. An easy pick-up spot. All that. She couldn’t remember ever seeing the bar open outside winter time, and in artificial refrigeration. But here it was, pulsing with light and heaving bodies. She pushed to the front of the crowd. Everybody was grooving along, Karma Chameleon blasting full-force from the front, vibrating her ears the closer she got to the stage. And there was Boy George, Norwegian-style.
He was round, dark blond hair like whips drenched in sweat, waves of delicious flesh touched with a hint of blue frost. Crotchless pleather pants opened to a large black rubber dildo, beating along to the music. Two lines of criss-cross laces run up over bulging flesh to a military bra, cupping abundance. A small pencil moustache over red lips. He crooned and swayed with the song, Karaoke’d with a swish, fastfastfastslow. This close up, by the stage, Alissa was surrounded by adoration, the drag king’s entourage in happy 80s flow. Silver lamé flashed in blond hair, blue eyeshadows draped across freckled noses. Goosebumps embroidered white shaking limbs. She took another draft of her cold water bottle and tried to make eye-contact. No go: all pupils wide and lost in the charm of the music. She pushed to the left of the stage, to the curtained-off area between the well-stocked bar and the runway.
The music followed her, but the light and cold did not. It was more mellow here in the shadows. Up ahead, Alissa saw the next performer getting ready. She approached, ready to try again to ascertain the meaning of this ritual, and its connection to the sun death outside.
“Hello.” The answering voice was mellow, with a hint of kindness, interested. It emerged from a ruched and wrapped form lying on what looked like an autopsy table: stainless steel without grab bars, a wheeled contraption on high shine. The small woman had just transferred to the table, and her wheelchair was standing idle alongside, like a pony having a rest. She was arranging a sheepskin beneath herself, tucking small limbs onto the fleecy surface and away from the steel bite.
“I just got in here. Why is this place refrigerated? What is going on?”
“Can you tuck this piece over there? My assistant seems to have lost their way from the bathroom.”
Alissa complied, gently folding a piece of suede under a creamy tiny thigh. The flesh was warm, pliant, and she felt a thrill run through her. The performer noticed.
“Come with me, newbie. Come onto the stage and sing. You’ll see and find your answers.”
She extended a small, perfectly formed arm, dimples at the elbow. Her fingernails were painted dark green, with sparkles. Alissa took her hand.
Boy George came off the stage in a rush of sound and applause, screams echoing into the curtained corridor. He dahling’ed his way past them, into the far bowels of the bar, into the dark. Alissa could see blood dripping down his bare back from scratches that had opened the corset laces. The small woman next to her tugged at her hand.
“I am Minerva. It’s our turn. Just follow.”
And Minerva directed her to push the autopsy table down the corridor. A helper appeared suddenly from the depth, a hummingbird creature in lilac and purple eye-shadow over soft brown eyes and skin. Battering eyelashes, they directed Alissa to push and laid their own long pale blue fingernails alongside Alissa’s splintered messes. Together they trundled the autopsy table up the wheelchair ramp to the stage. That’s as far as the hummingbird went. Releasing the table, they walked backward, after depositing their tiara on Alissa’s head.
Minerva directed Alissa to position her in the network of stage lights. She bathed in the beams. Her little limbs moved fluidly through the air, pointing to where she wanted Alissa to push. Finally, she was bidden to drop the brakes on the wheels. When Alissa straightened from her task, a new person had arrived on stage, a flash of sequined tubes, with a microphone in their hands. Alissa took the proffered mic, and Minerva invited her to hold it close to her small rosebud lips. Minerva breathed into the mic, and for the first time, Alissa became aware of the audience beyond their bright stage. The breath had pulled them in, forward, with the out-breath from the little mouth releasing a wave of relaxation across the wide Ice Bar. It rippled out all the way to the guy with the long hair who had given Alissa her water. She could see him, quiet and dark, a greeter on the threshold. He seemed to nod at her. She refocused, and, listening to an in-breath from Minerva, saw the crowd lean in, forward toward them, eagerly waiting.
Music. Flashing lights. Minerva opened her lips, and “Smooth Operator” ballooned into flight. Alissa just held the mic, still and solid. From time to time, Minerva laid her tiny hand on Alissa’s arm, emphasizing a sighing moment in the song’s unspooling. The crowd was blissful. Swaying creatures lined the edges of the stage walkway, beyond the sharp edges of the autopsy table.
Eventually, the song ended. Minerva closed her perfect eyes, eye shadow in peacock stripes sending light signals into the universe. The crowd went wild. Applause and shouts. Alissa saw them, and saw beyond, too: the giant air conditioner, chugging and heaving high in the vaulted ceiling. It shuddered and waved electric lines out toward the crowd and the singer. Minerva sucked in air through her perfect pout, and Alissa watched one of the cables lash forward, toward them, and sink electric wires like fangs into a fan’s back. A small man, white skin under leather doublet, heavy boots. She jumped back with a tiny hop, but Minerva had fastened a small hand on hers, and steadied her. The crowd kept shouting, undulating, and Alissa could see the caught fan wriggling in ecstasy on the live wire, not two meters from the stage. Then the wire released with drips of red blood, and coiled back to the ceiling.
The crowd shifted down a notch, calmed themselves. Some turned to their drinks. The dripee staggered a bit, Alissa saw, but kept upright, facial grimace unreadable: pain or pleasure? He looked a tad pale, stunned, but ok. When he turned, Alissa could see the jagged scratches where the cable had taken its bite. The doublet had shredded decoratively along the back, weaving a new pattern of skin and leather strips. Ignoring his bleeding back, the man took a beer someone had offered, glass dewy with cool condensation, and drank deeply.
Minerva signaled to Alissa to undock the autopsy table’s wheels. She took a small bow, blew a kiss into the crowd. Then the hummingbird was back, and the two of them guided Minerva’s chariot down the ramp. The show was over.
That daynight, after the lights went out, Alissa shivered on the floor. Hummingbird had given her a blanket, something that looked like it might have been one of Minerva’s sitting blankets. Lambs wool, small tight curls, pressed and shaped into hollows and rises, near bald in spots, but still fine to cover herself with as she curled into sleep. She listened to the wind in her lungs, the in and out of her own cave breath, and touched the knot of fear deep inside.
Alissa stayed at the Ice Bar. She became an act with Minerva and Hummingbird, and refined her costume. Instead of her black bra and panties over sneakers, she added combat boots, and found a different bra, with a netted back, on a recently passed woman in one of the dungeons beneath the Bar. Every night, the air conditioner drank its fill of patrons and performers alike. It seemed fair to Alissa, in the harsh lights of blue and pink ice day: everything needs fuel, and humans had used up their allocation. Why not be fuel, and enjoy the process of heating one’s self to the right temperature? Dancing away, they were little cool ice-cream bonbons with molten warm hearts, disco balls of liquid delight.
The performances died down a few hours after the heat of the day, and punters and team alike just went to sleep where they stood, curling limbs into one another for dream safety. After that, in what would have been late afternoon or early evening in the prior-time, a crew came round with sandwiches. No questions were answered, and so she stopped asking: what meat is this? Where did the bread come from? Why does this taste so salty? It came, and then the performances started up again. All the while, they stayed cool, and no one, no one at all, re-emerged from the front door, and saw the street again. In the few hours of dusk/dawn openness, a bit of wanderlust might lead one to the toilets, to the warren of tunnels beneath the stage, to the dark round holes that seemed to lead to other houses. But no one went to check on the street, and the open air beyond. That life was gone, and done, behind a crystal rainbow curtain.
Tonight was the night. Her first solo act. Alissa was nervous, and tight with pulse and feelings. Minerva had been the one who told her.
“The management thinks you are ready. I think so, too. Go out and wow them, babe. Do you want to use my make-up chest?”
Everybody was so friendly, so sharing. Alissa couldn’t even remember ever having seen so many lipsticks, eye shadows, liners and false lashes in one place. She opened box after box, trying to decide on her new look. She had already found a piece of music in the karaoke box: “Private Dancer.” That was the one. So now she wanted to a Thunderdome look to go with that, blackwhite whiteblack outback queen. She knew this would be a command performance, a one and only. She was ready for her swan song, to lift into the cool moon.
The nightday. The stage. Minerva and Hummingbird kissed her. Boy George gave her a wax flower, a dark purple lay lily which shaded into black. She clipped it into her short curly hair. They all touched her, braille love on her bare skin, new-old family. She smiled and released the last smell of fear from deep in her lung wings. She let her fear fly, ascend in her thorax, up through the windpipe, and when she finally stepped into the light, the crowd, the song, her mouth broke open and it flew and flew and touched the snake’s sweet mouth and then they were one, the bird and the snake and the lung and the cave and the planet and the sun, under the Thunderdome.
Later that nightday, after her flight, Alissa rested in Hummingbird’s brown sinewy arms. A tattoo of a kiwi bird was by her nose, a kiwi that had stepped out from an impossibly dense bush, and had lifted its long nosebeak toward the moon. Alissa felt the pulse in the back, the crusty densing of knitting flesh and blood. She felt an island of peace seep from the open delta, new parts of land rise from salt and sea in the solar plexus, a liver sifting and shielding, kidneys to winnow old and new. Minerva had come by for a while, in her small pink wheelchair, and had brought warm tea, a delicacy here in the land of cold. Alissa had felt the surge of blood tide in the salty warmth. They would go on, soaking and receding, filtering into the electric purity of the snake’s mouth. They would worship the cool moon. Outside, the neon sign was still lit, in the never-darkness of daynight, flickering into the stillness of the dust street. Here was the Ice Bar, harbor, ocean.
About the Author
Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is a Professor at the University of Michigan, and she teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Her most recent poetry collection is PearlStitch (Spuyten Duyvil: 2016). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Sycamore Review, Visionary Tongue, Future Fire, Wordgathering, Festival Writer, and Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective. She lives in Ann Arbor with her poet partner and collaborator, Stephanie Heit.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Croft lives by the ocean just south of San Francisco. She has read stories for Podcastle and Escape Pod, and provided the audio narration for Tim Pratt’s The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. She makes regular appearances on the Point Mystic podcast where she is also a story developer and script editor.