Round Robin Fiction- Round One, Part One

The walls and ceiling of the nearly bare room were plain enough. But they seemed to sweat. Moisture clung to them as if they had run through the humid mid-summer night trying to escape a place far more terrible than this. A caramel-colored grime slithered across the off-white walls in ribbons, like the drizzled topping of a coffee ordered by some clueless sorority girl who had not wanted for long, nor suffered ever.

 

A single light bulb cast an unapologetic glow from the hallway into the sparse room, and across the unsettling back of Sean Vessler.

 

Most men who hired prostitutes paid for sex; if degradation was an available service, so much the better. Sean paid them simply because they were for hire, and were willing to do to living flesh what no one else would.

 

Agitated, the state of California writhed between his shoulder blades and shifted in the small of his back. Near the bottom, the wasteland called the Salton Sea was marked by a cartoonish body of water. Above it, a heart. At the heart’s center—a terrible mutilation.

 

Just a couple of inches to the northwest and barely a hair to the right of his spine, the miserable little dust bowl called Hemet was marked by the same heart. Ontario, Barstow, Bakersfield, Fresno, El Dorado, and Sacramento all formed a jagged, unconnected line of hearts across his sweaty, twitching back. And at the center of each—save Sacramento—was a circular scar, a brand forged by the meeting of fire and flesh. The oldest wounds were at the bottom, becoming progressively more red, more raw, heading north.

 

Slightly north of Sacramento and a little west, a small square bandage concealed a mystery.

 

Sean straddled a plain wooden chair backward, his inner arms choking the back of the chair into submission. He felt the meat of the prostitute’s hand come to rest gently near Sacramento; he could feel the heat from the cigarette spread in a radius inside her palm. The smoke wrapped around him and stung his eyes.

 

“You ready, baby?” She had intended to sound confident and a little sexy. Instead, these words were dripping with pity, compassion, and a whole mess of raw fear. This betrayed her greenness. Sean thought she seemed like a sweet kid. He could tell she was brand new to all the deviance and awe-inspiring horrors that germinated year-round in the human soul, then bore rich fruit on the hottest of summer nights.

 

They were each afraid in their own way. His was an old, jaded fear that couldn’t forget where it had been and was even more terrified of where it was going. Hers was a brand new fear; the fear of an innocent who had stepped out into the night for the first time, loaned herself to it willingly, but was afraid it might decide to keep her for good.

He answered her with a snicker. It was as unconvincing as her words had been, so he added, “I’m ready.”

 

Without lifting her hand from his back, she bent and drew slowly on the cigarette, stoking the ember.

 

He tensed completely, then slowly relented. These moments of acceptance—the moments before the fire—were the purest he had ever known.

 

He heard a breath come from her in a whispered “O” sound. He couldn’t tell if she was inhaling or exhaling. It quivered. Then…

 

The sound was a foamy, moonlit tide, sliding away from sand and rocks. But the sensation was the opposite. The surface of the sun was concentrated in a small point and its searing heat bore into him mercilessly. The sensation was unfathomable, even for him. It could not be held, nor comprehended by the mind. Each time was a brand new experience.

 

All he knew was agony and a blinding white light behind his eyes. The fact that he never fully remembered it was one of his life’s many tragedies.

 

Everything inside of him struggled against the outside. His flesh contained a battle of rebellious muscle. His eyelids held in terror, and his teeth held in a scream. They slowly relented when a high squeal quickly became a shriek of pain, then a roar of rage.

 

He bolted upright and turned to face the young prostitute. This was the first time she saw him in direct light. His eyes burned like the ember in his flesh. Were it not for his close-cropped hair and the sloppy prison tat on his neck, he could have passed for an archangel.

 

Likewise, this was the first time he had truly seen her. When they worked out the details of their arrangement at the front door to the apartment in which they now stood, he had been in a daze, muddled. From the moment she let him in until this one, he had paid little attention to anything except the knowledge of what was to come, and the closing of that chapter of his past it would signify.

 

The ritual complete, his flesh screaming at him—he was now fully present. Everything was heightened. He took in the girl’s pale face, as smooth as porcelain, and the look of sadness that must permanently rest on her lips. This look was momentarily offset by the wide-eyed alarm she now expressed. In different circumstances, it might have seemed comical.

 

Her hair must have been naturally light, though it was dyed black. A short skirt hugged her hips. She was skinny, though her curves were still feminine, telling Sean that hard living and bad choices had only just begun to eat her alive.

 

“So… how’d I do?” she asked awkwardly. Instead of answering, Sean began grabbing at a spot between his shoulder blades he could not reach. “You want some lotion, or something?”

 

“Do one more thing for me,” Sean said. He finally found the spot between his shoulder blades and ripped away the bandage, flinching slightly.

 

Chico, CA, freshly tattooed and vibrant, was marked by a brand new, untainted heart.

 

“Get out of Chico.”

His shirt slung over his shoulder, Sean again entered the night. Given the pain in his back, he let his ratty old backpack dangle from his fingertips.

 

The oppressive heat was now being stabbed by forceful, strangely cold winds. Clouds had appeared from nowhere. The darkness was cut every few seconds by flashes of lightning from every direction.

 

The train tracks were just beyond an intersection a block away. At the road’s end, a single streetlight flickered.

 

Sean heard a train whistle blow far off in the distance; he sighed, allowing himself to feel the longing which that sound awakened in him.

 

“Hey, now, don’t get any ideas. You got work to do here.” A middle-aged black man stepped into the streetlight’s radiant circle from the darkness just beyond. He was toothless and looked homeless, wearing a tank top that was much too big for him. Still, he wore shades, looked like Chester Cheetah, and walked like there was nobody cooler than him.

 

“Are you the guy?”

 

“Now they’re saying there’s a tornado warning, of all things. Mm-mm.” He shook his head at the sky.

 

“Say the words, or I keep walking.”

 

“Oh, that’s right. You a bad man, ain’t ya?” the stranger said through a wide, toothless grin.

 

“Say the words, asshole.”

 

“All right, dawgy.” He paused, enjoying himself and in no hurry. “Before the phantom of false morning died—”

 

Sean studied the strange transient a moment, then proceeded, “—methought a voice within the tavern cried, ‘when all the temple is prepared within—’”

 

“‘—why nods the drowsy worshiper outside?’” These last words he said with obvious delight, as if licking something sweet off of each syllable. The toothless grin never wavered. “Words to live by, dawgy.” The strange man produced a pillow case from among a compact pile of possessions. The pillowcase was wrapped tightly around some much smaller inner bundle. He handed it to Sean and produced a wadded up piece of paper. “Get yourself to this address. Someone there will need your help, and someone else needs a hurt put on ‘em. Don’t drag your ass.”

 

Sean stuffed the pillowcase in his backpack and started walking.

 

“Well, you’re all business, ain’t ya? Just one more thing, Sean…”

 

Sean stopped and turned.

 

“When you got no more room for hearts and cigarette burns, what then? What are you gonna find, you didn’t find before?”

 

“What I’m looking for, I hope.”

 

“And what might that be?” But the transient noticed his own voice growing louder as the last of Sean’s footfalls was swallowed by a shadow down the street. “You just give our poor little town a fair chance! Hear?” The transient shook his head at the lightning, wind, and troubling thoughts in his head. “Poor little town.”

 

Sean Vessler was gone.

 

Please look for the second installment of Round Robin: Fiction in our August 5th issue!

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