PodCastle 675: Blush Response
by E. Catherine Tobler
No shit, there I was, behind the wet curves of the ebony Bugatti, watching Kasper cut through the rain like a knife’s sudden edge. He paced outside the automat, clothes wet like he’d been out there a few hours. His silver lighter slid between his rain-flecked hands.
It was too wet to smoke, the windows of the Bugatti streaming with rain that ran quicksilver when I slammed the trunk. It latched with an exasperated splatter and I brushed the wet from my charcoal trousers and straightened to study Kasper.
Kasper was an ashen smudge amid the hues of gray that coated the world until he thrust his chin toward me in greeting. The clear light falling through the automat’s window caught the rosy colors that banded his cheeks and brow for a long-ago crime, exposing hues unnatural and alien. His left eye gleamed emerald, the other as flat and flint as Chicago around us.
I joined him under the dripping awning, rain tracing my melting jet pincurls while he rooted in his jacket for his silver cigarette case. The minute he opened it, the damp air blanketed the cigarettes and his lighter refused to catch.
“You’re late for your boys,” I said, “and looking like the gutters spat you out.” Sodden debris clung to his shoulders and his shirt was rucked out of his belt. His hair, slate parted to the right and gold to the left, was mussed like a lady’d had her fingers all up in it. But no lady would have her fingers all up in that.
“They in there?” His head jerked toward the automat window.
“You know they are.”
Kasper’s crew, the Rock Ghosts, was sour-faced and focused on the door to the powder room. I unbuttoned my jacket and shoved my hands into my pockets, the motion exposing the black leather holster at my waist. As far as Kasper knew, I was a bruno like him, someone known for keeping things right and proper and orderly. You needed a thing taken or reclaimed, we were also the people to see. Usually.
“You–” The word seemed too big in his mouth and he coughed. “I can ask you something, Lola? In confidence?”
He was going to ask me about the dame, because she wasn’t at the table where she should be. Where he should be, too, because he always saw to her, made sure she had her slice of sweet meringue.
“You can ask me something, Kasper.” I rocked back on my heels, enjoying his discomfort the way I would later enjoy stripping out of my damp suit.
“You seen Wonderly tonight?”
People didn’t much talk about Wonderly; she was a sin everyone desired but none wanted to confess. She was a creature that shouldn’t exist, not so much an angel you hear stories about, but more a creature that should not be possible at all, something no one could ever rightly make. You believe in God enough, angels seem possible. Not Wonderly.
“You lose track of her, Kasper?”
Kasper’s flint and emerald eyes flicked back to the automat. One of his boys–Miles–got up from his seat and headed toward the powder room door. Inside, he would find an unlatched window, but no sign of a scuffle. I was better than that.
“Accidents happen. Surely even you lost a thing or two.”
“I ain’t never lost a thing or two, Kasper,” I said because it was true. “Surely not something as slight as a girl.”
He watched Miles cross the checkerboard floor to pound his knuckles against the powder room door. I could almost hear his rasp as he called out for Wonderly. He had taken my elbow to the throat a few years ago; hadn’t ever been the same since.
Kasper moved into the automat as my boys stood from their table and strode toward the doors. Dix and Lash didn’t shoulder into Kasper like they might have normally; maybe it was because Kasper tried to make himself the size of a frightened mouse even as he walked toward the Ghosts.
Outside, Dix and Lash looked my way and I, opening the car door, only smiled my usual smile. They didn’t ask me anything, because asking implied they didn’t trust me, and they trusted me implicitly. Courting that trust had taken an exhausting eight years.
We drove to the warehouse and once the doors were rolled tight, the Bugatti dripping water onto the concrete, I rounded its beetled backside to crack the trunk open. Rainwater sluiced from its edge onto Wonderly who curled inside. She looked like a pearl bowed into the black maw of the trunk and I offered her a hand. It was kinder than the chloroform I’d knocked her out with earlier. Her hands were gloved and shaking when she grabbed hold of me, but strong even so. She came out in a whisper of white chiffon, her pale hair tangled in the collar of her jacket. I reached out thinking to set it loose, but she pulled a hand free and slapped me across the face.
“You goddamn crumb,” she spat.
Dix and Lash dragged her kicking and shouting through the warehouse. After I lifted Wonderly’s pocketbook from the trunk, I followed, because I needed to see her work.
Monte was tied to a chair in a back room that smelled like panic and piss. When we entered with Wonderly, he pulled against the ropes looking for all the world like a wriggling puppy who needed outside before he pissed himself again.
“Shit, Dix, not her! Can’t we–”
Dix was the brains of this operation, always cool under pressure. He didn’t flinch when he thrust Wonderly into Lash’s hold or when he kneeled in front of Monte, who smelled exactly like he’d been strapped to the chair for three days. Dix leaned in like a lover and ran a black hand against the man’s rough, stubble-darkened cheek.
“We cannot,” Dix said. The overhead lights in the room made a game across the bald dome of Dix’s head, skating this way and that as he kissed Monte’s chapped mouth and straightened up.
“Lola,” Dix said.
Wonderly had belted me across the mouth only moments before, but I still moved toward her. The way Lash held her, she couldn’t get a hand free, but she still lunged at me, a snarling dog on a very short leash. A snarling, dangerous dog.
“You know what we want you to do,” I said to her. I gave her pocketbook to Dix and reached for Wonderly’s glove. Lash held her while I opened the line of white buttons that traced the inside of her arm. The dove gray of her cheeks deepened as I worked.
“We could have made a deal,” she said to me. She no longer struggled to escape Lash’s hold, maybe realizing she could not or would not get far if she did. “Could have been real nice, the way you–”
The way I curled around you from behind in the powder room, to smother your nose with my chloroform-soaked handkerchief. The way your eyes flashed in the mirror before they closed and you went limp in my arms.
Wonderly broke off but all I could think about was the way she smelled here and in the powder room both: a summer field with flowers unfurling in hues of platinum and cloud.
My fingertips brushed her arm and I pulled back like I had touched open flame. My skin had not changed–would not unless it was her intentional fingertips, but I still startled and she laughed, a liquid sound that rolled like a lazy river over a high cliff. I jerked the glove off as though I were skinning a rabbit, the white silk turning itself inside out.
Monte shrieked at the sight of Wonderly’s bare hand and resumed his frantic pleas to Dix. Dix didn’t listen and Lash didn’t listen and God knows I didn’t listen. I had to see it and wanted to feel it. Told myself the latter was not the point, but I wished it was. With Lash’s help, we guided Wonderly closer to Monte and she came with us, knowing she had nowhere else to go.
“Where?” she asked me.
“His mug, so everyone will know.”
Wonderly looked like a glowing Madonna, the hem of her chiffon gown trailing in three days of Monte’s muck as she pressed her pale, bare fingers against his rough gray cheek. I jerked like I had been touched; I wanted to be. It would hit like a tattoo gun and burn all the way down.
Daylight exploded in the room, the patter of nighttime rain still making itself known on the tin roof. Light burst from Wonderly’s fingers to spill color into Monte’s traitorous skin. Where once he had been as grayscale as any of us, Wonderly’s touch spread warmth into his cheek, showing the stubble to be dark red, gilded with orange. The skin beneath was dirty with soot and sweat, but ruddy, veins running blue. Monte screamed until he exhausted himself and went limp in the ropes. When Wonderly withdrew, half his face burned with color, the other half as gray as it had ever been. Even his hair reflected the change, dark red in the way of his beard. Just like Kasper had been marked years before.
Wonderly crumpled in my arms and I swept her up, Dix tossing her pocketbook like a careless tip into her lap. I carried her from the room, upstairs to the storeroom because there was nowhere else; I laid her down on the bags of coffee beans and waited for her to come around.
With Monte punished, Dix and Lash would be busy showing him around so everyone knew exactly what he’d done, the way some dames showed off a new ring or dress, and the show would give me time to get Wonderly out.
Wonderly lunged from the sacks of coffee, catching me across the chin with her still-gloved hand. She could punch, I’d give her that, but I was on her before she could think of escaping this room. My hands closed around her wrists–gloved and not–and I pushed her back into the sacked beans, staring into gray eyes clear like church glass. Her pupils widened, black holes to swallow a person up.
“Do not shush me,” Wonderly said and squirmed to escape my hold. When she saw she could not, she angled her bare fingers toward my face, like she meant to put the shine on me. Some part of me wanted that, goddamn it all.
“Ain’t no need to threaten,” I said between clenched teeth. I thrust a knee between hers, hearing the tear of white chiffon between us as her pocketbook tumbled to the floor. “I’m here to get you out, Wonderly. To take you away.”
She stilled at that, watching me like a white cat in the shadows. Like she couldn’t trust what she was hearing, and I couldn’t blame her; the Ghosts hadn’t been kind to Wonderly in the years they’d kept her, and Dix hadn’t made a gentle opening salvo either. Steal you, use you, then have someone say they was going to free you? But shine girls, they always wanted to get away, didn’t they? Until they didn’t, because Wonderly laughed in my face like it was a cheap joke.
“There’s a place,” I explained when she fell quiet and exhaled like she could extinguish every light in the world.
“Where’s a girl like me going to go?” Her gray eyes searched the ceiling, then came back to my face and I wondered what she saw there, beyond my black curls and black eyes. She reached up, like she meant to touch my mouth and I stayed put, like I meant to let her. “Girls like me only got one place.”
Girls like me only had one place, too. Her fingers hesitated and I didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. The world had condensed itself to the five points of her fingers, bare and hovering between us.
“There’s a place,” I repeated. “A place you can live like anyone lives.”
She laughed again, only this time, there was no humor in the sound. I let her wrists go and eased away and she watched me. She slid from the sacks, all those iceberg skirts crumpling up to show her cream silk stockings.
“Like anyone lives,” Wonderly repeated. “Like you live? Anyone tells you there’s anything other than this is a goddamn liar. Everything is small rooms that smell like piss and men that smell like want and me putting my hands on them until they scream because they done something so bad they need to be marked. That’s all it is. Lola? Is that what they called you? Ain’t nothing but marking people, and then the next person, and then the–”
From the room below, Dix and Lash escorted Monte out with a holler. Monte wouldn’t be booted just yet; the first time, a person was given a chance to redeem themselves, because Dix believed in redemption, only a person never did, except that freak Kasper. Just like a shine girl never refused to leave. Except Wonderly.
“You’re telling me you’d rather stay, be the Ghosts’ shine girl, or Dix’s shine girl, or anyone’s shine girl but your own? Wonderly.”
Wonderly’s eyes narrowed and she advanced on me, looking like a teakettle about to boil over, all steam and hiss. “Like you, being your own goddamn thug? You goddamn liar,” she spat and lunged. “There’s nowhere else.”
Her hands were everywhere, looking for something; in my jacket sleeves and jerking at my shirt until it tongued out of my belt. She grasped and pulled until the pearl buttons ripped loose and pelted the ground like grapeshot.
“You shut up.”
I shut up, because with my shirt spread open, Wonderly stared, but it wasn’t my lingerie that caught her attention or the long silver chain that curled over my breasts. It was the uneven flush of hidden color that stained my belly and ran in haphazard, watery waves beneath the belted equator of my trousers. Here, my skin was as flushed with blood and color as Monte’s had been after Wonderly’s touch. Wonderly released my shirt, now wrinkled from the force of her touch.
“How hungry you looked when I touched Monte. Just a goddamn liar, looking for another fix. Where do you take these girls? Some place they’re never found? And don’t you dare ‘Wonderly’ me. Not going to be your shine girl, you goddamn junkie.”
I flinched at the implications, but couldn’t say she was wrong about me wanting a fix. Couldn’t say I didn’t crave the bite of her touch. Couldn’t even guarantee she would enjoy the life I’d take her to, the quiet towns where I’d left so many other girls. Maybe she was like me and knew only one way, couldn’t imagine breathing under a sky that wasn’t raked to ribbons by scrapers.
I didn’t draw my shirt closed, only crouched where I stood, to ease the tension that pulled like a knotted rope down my spine. I bowed my head and right then, Wonderly could have run and I might not have chased her. If I was a better person, that would have been true. I wanted those hands on me long enough to leave a permanent mark the way others had before. Carefully hidden from the world, but still there.
“We take shine girls away,” I said when I could look at her again. She was like a pillar of marble in the dim light of the room, arms wrapped around herself so she might stop shaking. God, she was still shaking. Was it fear? Hope? Some mishmash of both?
“New lives,” I said. “Better lives.” The girls always wanted to go, and I never questioned my work, the time it had taken to ingratiate myself to Dix, the terrible things I had done in the name of getting them free.
“Says you,” Wonderly said. “Maybe it’s you who needs to get out. Junkie.” Her eyes narrowed when I didn’t react to that jab. “Copper.”
I shook my head. “Junkie yes, copper… Not anymore.” I pulled my shirt together and stood.
Wonderly looked at me differently then, tilting her head in a way that made her white hair avalanche over her shoulder. “How long’s it been, then?”
The question was vague and also not. Not how long had I pretended to work for Dix. Not how long had I been getting shine girls away. How long since I had been touched.
I was about to brush her off, but the look in her gray eyes made me want to tell her the truth. I wanted her to know I’d been trying to get better, trying to get shine girls into better lives so people like me wouldn’t use them. Dix believed in redemption. I didn’t know if I did.
“Three months, four days,” I said.
“And you come waltzing into my life,” Wonderly said, “telling me you’re here to save me, like my life is so terrible. Like it’s not everything I always thought it would be.”
There was a hitch in her voice and she was shuddering like a cart about to come off its wheels. Still, she looked like four million standing there in her stained chiffon, ready to punch me if I so much as moved toward her.
“This is exactly what I thought it would be.”
Her admission was like a blade under my chin. She had known what would become of her life the second someone discovered she could bleed color into every gray bit of flesh in the world. How dare I step in and offer her the hope of anything else?
I wanted to say her name. I didn’t. I moved toward her and she did not step away. I could smell the coffee that clung to her and when I reached out a hand, meaning to brush the hair from her shoulder, she still did not move. My fingers slid through the snowy strands until I touched her collarbone, solid and warm beyond the tangle of hair and collar, and–
Wonderly bloomed. Hues of pink and rose flowed through her skin beneath my fingers, startling beneath the white of her hair, but my fingers did not glow the way hers had. Her eyes slid shut and now-stained lips parted in a gasp. How like a cat, purring under the touch until she pushed my hand away.
“That–” Like with Kasper earlier, the word was too big on its first try. She took a step back now, clearing her throat and not looking at me. “That doesn’t usually happen.”
I pressed my fingers to the back of my own hand and nothing happened. My fingers were only my fingers, nothing else. And then she laughed, because it went both ways, this response, this addiction.
“How long’s it been, then?”
“I never counted,” Wonderly said. “No one wants to touch us, only wants us to touch them.”
At the door, Dix cleared his throat. “Ain’t this touching, and I do mean touching, don’t I? You skirts…junkie yes, copper no…you certain about that, Lola?”
I turned on my heels, facing Wonderly one moment and Dix the next, to place myself between them like I was a wall he would never scale. The wariness in his eye told me he respected the wall, having seen me work. I’d seen him work too, destroying girl after girl.
“You running my shine girls to other gangs, that it? Complicating my ability to keep my boys in line.”
“Oh, Dix. For the brains of this joint, you sure don’t have many. You need a kitten to keep your trouble boys in line? What kind of a boss does that make you?”
A muscle in Dix’s jaw leapt, but he said nothing, eyes narrowing on me like I was prey.
“When all the shine girls are gone, where does that leave you? Standing in the silver rain with two bits in your hand.”
The problem with Dix was he often sank to the base level of every man in this town. If he couldn’t smash something into submission, he’d kill it. He leapt at me, going for my throat because that would leave a mark. He could show me around, show everyone what I’d tried to do.
With his hand around my throat, the room swam; my mistake was letting Dix get hands on me at all. He was big and knew how to brawl whereas I’d always been able to clever my way out of situations. I caught him in the ribs with a hard elbow, but his fingers tangled in my necklace and we went down into Wonderly’s billowing dress.
Dix grabbed her with a grin, almost mindless of the threat she posed to him–like he didn’t think the kitten would turn on him. Before she could, he snatched her hands and pressed them toward me. I made to move out of her reach, but Wonderly shook her head. Her gray eyes told me it was okay–that she knew what she was doing, but this– Those fingers–
Wonderly’s hands on my cheeks sent color flooding through my body, a hundred thousand fine-point needles ripping my skin to shreds. I might have screamed, but the pleasure of it nicked the memory from me. Wonderly’s eyes were sapphire, a blue running so deep it coiled into violet and eggplant and eventually black, because all things ran to black in this place. When the color drained away like water down an unclogged drain, it went from me, through Wonderly, and into Dix.
Wonderly didn’t filter the color so much as she guided it and Dix didn’t possess the tolerance Wonderly and I did. His body flushed a startling ebony, eyes gone hazel and bright before they widened and blew out entirely. Dix came apart like the wind was whipping him to every corner of the world, every color shredding into our gray world and away.
Pale Wonderly sagged into my arms. She smelled like summer fields on fire now and stared at me with eyes that were gray and sapphire both and then, only gray.
“I w-won’t go. Not to that place–with all those other s-shine girls.”
There were other shine girls? No way could there ever be, not compared to Wonderly.
“I won’t go to that place, but you and me… Let’s go. Anywhere but here, Lola. Doesn’t matter where, does it? I don’t want to get lost in all those girls, and you…”
It was me who trembled now, though my hands were steady in a way they hadn’t been before. I could still feel the rush of color in me, though there was no sign Wonderly had ever touched me.
The idea of going away with her was disquieting, when she might be only an arm’s length away and would touch me the way I wanted touching because I would touch her the way she wanted touching. It was death to stay and it was death to go, but Wonderly was no angel and there was no heaven beyond what I’d seen in her arms.
When I closed Wonderly into the Bugatti this time, she wasn’t in the trunk but on the seat beside me, that chiffon dress enfolding us like clouds. The rain beaded on the windows and I felt Wonderly’s hand momentarily in my pocket. Bare, rooting. Then, the press of a cigarette between her lips, the flicker of my lighter in the gray of her eyes. And me, jumping like startled quicksilver when she slid that cigarette between my lips, fingers brief and blushing.
About the Author
E. Catherine Tobler
Hugo and Word Fantasy finalist E. Catherine Tobler lives and writes in Colorado. Weird how that works out! Her debut collection, The Grand Tour, is available from Apex Book Company. Her short fiction appears in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and others.
About the Narrator
Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth. She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com