Babz looked at the clock, nervous she would get on the road late and miss her appointment. She had received the ticket for free. Otherwise she would never have thought to go.
She ran through the last set of jobs. The bathrooms were clean, the sheets washed, ironed and folded tight over all the beds, both the master bedroom and the guest bedroom. The hallways shined and the carpets were white, again. Soon, the kitchen and living room, both dishes put away and couch cushions vacuumed, stood completed.
She never knew much about the families she worked for. But signs existed, and Babz was always quick to notice those details.
A wedding ring on the sink in the master bedroom. A half-packed bag of luggage in the hallway. A few blankets on the couch, and a glass with the melted remains of some whiskey with ice.
She put away the vacuum, the mop, and the rest of the cleaning supplies. Except for her bucket of the heavy duty weapons, the rest belonged to the house. She stepped out of the house with both hands full of trash bags, dropped them into the trash barrels next to the recycling bin, and she walked down the driveway.
Since she couldn't park in front of the house, she walked halfway down the street until she reached her car.
By then, she could hear a voice call her name. It came from the house she had just left. Sure the woman wanted her to do something else, she ignored her.
Sometime ago the hills had grown spotted with the growths. Streets spirals spiraled out of the lesions in geometric shapes. No two alike.
They reminded Babz of drawings, the arid land between like a blank sheet of paper.
Long spines of housing rows twisted over the graded hills, the eroded topsoil stapled down by plastic sheets. Some billowed up from the winds, and when they did, she could see the shiny glare of a nearby VisionCloud. Lit up. In full broadcast.
The scenery barely changed. Only her location did. She came home, one among many municipalities along the concrete thoroughfare of traffic.
Neighborhoods of fake gardens and lava rock lawns. Drought resistant bushes that lined shadowless boulevards lit by halogen lamps. Withered palm trees and fake boulders. Facsimile mountains painted on overpass walls.
Abandoned houses lined her street, and already the halogen lights had begun to pop on. No shadows, no place to hide. A stray dog greeted her on the broken sidewalk. It didn't have a collar, so she didn't reach down to pet it.
She gave it a fake kick, and walked on.
She saw a broken down riding mower in the dirt yard. A bbq grill was rusted. She gave it a kick, and walked on. Through the swinging swing door, to faint music, video game themes, and a shouting in a backroom. The place was dark, until she came into the kitchen. The southern California sun assaulted her.
-Well if it isn’t the biggest whore in the world!-
Babz saw her brother with his head stuck in the fridge. He wore his high school football jersey, cut off midriff. She could smell old food and Freon waft out of the fridge. Her brother had a half carton of eggs in his hand. On the counter...a mess. Some flies escaped the swamp in the sink. A half-sunk can of spiced pork struggled to stay afloat. The smells made her sick.
She could have answered her brother, and the same predictable dialogue would have ensued. Stupid. Bitch. Fat bitch. Fag. It would all come down. Not today--no time.
-Tell mom I'll be back Sunday night. I have my burner on me. It's the unlisted number that is on her phone since lunch. Bye.-
Taivale barely looked.
-You can't go. Where'd you go anyways. Someone has to stick around. I won't be around...-
-Make yourself around. Bye bro.-
-You're such a fat slut....-
By then, she had reached the bedroom she shared with her little sister. On her bed, a bag. She stuffed some clothes inside, and a ratty hoodie for a coat. She didn't know how cold it would be in Santa Barbara. She saw a cassette tape for the drive. The ones in her car were old. She ran by the living room, saw her brother's friends parked in front of the console. Gunshots and screams erupted from the set. Taivale nearly ran into her.
-Man, you're such a fuckin dumb cow Bar-ba-ra....-
-Love you too. Take care of everything. You're a moron.-
By the time she had left the freeway gridlock, the sun had set and the constellations of the lighted cities came on. Onto the 101. Ventura and Oxnard snarled her up, and she had to wait. There was no escape, so she turned the cassette player up. She had to leave Los Angeles.
Withered palm trees from the decade of drought, and reduced allocations of NoCal water since the Separation.
Babz had parked her car far away from the address. With her ticket in her hand, she checked the address a dozen time, confident she went in the right direction. When the palm trees died, and the cars turned louder with obsolete gas-driven engines, she was there. Where there were closed down warehouses, some rusted oil tanks near the chain-linked beach, and more potholes than she'd seen since her last set of cleaning jobs in Old OC. She checked the address again.
An old motel stood by a sign that said "Rt. 101 Business." There was a mission bell and a sign that read "El Camino Real." Mission schlock on a weathered iron plaque bolted to a post hit repeated times by cars and their drivers.
She looked at the address on the ticket once more. People milled around outside the californian hotel. They were all women, like her. She couldn't identify with any of them, she knew that right off. So she kept her distance, acting like she was reading the ticket...the invitation. They began to file into the door. She waited until they had gone, then she walked closer.
Kids had always picked on Babz for her size. When she'd lost the baby fat in elementary school, they'd made fun of her thick arms and legs.
She was strong, but the motel door still gave her trouble.
She particularly liked the waterless fountain in the lobby with the crumbled mortar between old spanish tiles. It gave the place a nice touch of decline. The women in the lobby with their African scarves and crystals and died rainbow hair made her want to turn around, and run. The laughed and hugged - a few had started a drum circle. No one could keep a beat. One even looked at her, and greeted her with a smile, ready to welcome her. She had some kind of tribal spear in her hand.
She entered the lobby, and immediately knew she should not have come - free ticket or not. White guilt on parade.
Babz backed up to run, and stepped into someone. She spun around, conscious that she might have hurt the person's toes. They used to call her the Behemoth in high school.
And the minute Babz said it she felt stupid. Why was she sorry? Why should she be sorry?
-Wait till they getta look at me.-
Babz didn't ever have a chance to answer. She'd stepped on a girl - a woman - Babz reminded herself, maybe half her size, but really bigger than that. Some punk girl with black hair to her shoulders, shaved underneath with a quarter of an inch left, and a series of lip rings.
-Never seen so many leftover deadz in my life.-
Babz agreed with the punk girl. She noticed the pink highlights in the back of her hair. She motioned to the sign. Womyn's Majick Clinick.
-You expected something different?
The punk girl's black eyes looked darker from the heavy mascara. Noticeable, and applied liberally. She smirked at Babz, who liked it immediately.
-Not really, I guess. This is north town. But you gotta go pretty NoCal to really see these types.-
Babz kind of agreed, and for a second they both studied the covens of white-haired women.
-It's money. They're probably from all over.-
-But do they have the winning tickets, that's what I want to know?-
Babz crossed her arms, seeming to study that gaggle of cackling. But she kept watch over the punk girl through the corners of her eyes. A mention of the winning ticket. How many had the intra-nets given away?
-What brings you here? The inner warrior? The mistress of the beasts? The birthpangs of the goddess?-
Babz realized how distracted the punk girl seemed. She pulled a smartz out of her jean's pocket, looked it over, then took the sunglasses off her head, and put them in an civ-corps army bag she carried.
-I like drugs too much. I like to get high, so much so, that I don't care what I do to have to get it. That, and other general feelings of self-loathing that make me want to crawl out of my skin and set it on fire. You?-
Babz thought she understood. She tried at least. But the new arrivals of witches and midwives took her off guard. They swarmed from behind her, and Babz could feel herself pushed into the throng of menopause. She never had to chance to tell the punk girl how much she hated herself too. She did have the chance to make things quick though.
She made sure when she shook the punk girl's hand that she didn't grip too tightly. When she felt the smaller, smooth hand in her's, she almost thought she could sense a grimace.
Babz knew she was wrong. The punk girl hardly fidgeted, and Babz knew she was used to rough touches. She almost seemed to relish it. Babz could always tell people's stories when she met them.
Babz found her assigned room. The hallways that greeted her with scenes of rancherias in Spanish California continued with cattle drives, missionaries, and natives reading the scriptures. Two beds in the room meant Babz shared it with a large woman already spread out on a bed. Asleep with an oxygen mask on. Babz went to sleep, for want of the sound of a snorer, rather than the hiss of air to cure sleep apnea.
She woke the next day. They met one another in the old dining room of the hotel with a mural of a vaquero on a mountain trail, and the angelic girl in white who flew away at his approach. The head womyn was the complete opposite. Jovial not sad like the subject of the mural, she welcomed the assembled smiling, happy people, smiling. But Babz could sense the sadness beneath the veneer of excitement at the weekend schedule of activities. Meditations, beach hikes, and tours to the last grove of Monarch butterflies could not hide the doom. Babz briefly took pleasure in it, but she was wise enough to know that some question had guided her to accept the ticket and the invitation. She hoped in some way - even strange for her - that they found what they looked for.
The first person she looked for was the punk girl. But she didn't see her at any of the breakfast tables of fruit and toast and juices of some kind. Babz guess she had left, and mused over more second thoughts for her own arrival, as she drank a coffee and tried to eat a banana. The smells of cooking eggs and bacon made her feel sick and disgusted with herself.
The day's activities began. Babz was assigned to the group called Astarte. Some kind of queen of heaven. As soon as they began their morning meditations, then, sent on their way to hit pillows with plastic bats and make tarot cards out of cut-out advertisements, Babz realized how much these women needed these activities, this place. The Womyn's Majick Clinick.
Their interactions with each other seemed forced, compulsory, awkward, badly timed. Each halt of communication with one, another would ask and second guess their question, and Babz would wish she could drop out of the picture. Long gone. But she got used to each moment, and even learned to enjoy them. Sorta.
The crones, she thought of them - they enjoyed it more.
Babz thought that in each interaction she could detect their intentions. As if they pass something onto her. She didn't know what it was. She thought of her relatives, got confused about who meant to press loads of food into her arms. Western Samoa was a long ways from home.
The Astarte group hiked to the beach to watch the sunset, and she thought of all these things, none of them taking any real shape, formless, as she looked out over the ocean, and the sun set, and for a long time she sat there, as the image burned her eyes, for she should not have looked into the glare, but she did, she had to, she had a free ticket after all.
The sounds of the women's voices blurred into the calls of gulls, and other beasts of the sea, and she thought she heard them sing to the twilight, and for a second she could almost remember.
-Quite a sight isn't it?-
Babz turned towards the punk girl - Kimberly - as she swayed down a dune, her boots digging in the sand, little slides of earth that moved upon her touch, the flannel tied around her waist caught the first winds from the water, the same ones that had Babz's short brown hair in a bunch.
-The women have nice voices. A little capella group we have. How bitchin' is the name of your group?-
Kimberly plopped down next to her, sharing her flannel for a second with Babz.
-Not really. Some girl friend of Jesus, or something. Some puta.-
Babz laughed through her teeth, subconsciously taking a cigarette out of the pocket of her black hoodie.
-Respect the sisters, girl! Damn. Anyways. Didn't see you at breakfast. Places to go?-
Kimberly caught her eye, and Babz realized it was the first time the punk girl had ever held it with Babz. There was a certain terror behind it. For a second her whole personality transformed, wiped away.
Babz thought she heard herself for a second. And she thought of the invitation, the whole reason she was here. At this retreat. A gift. Thank the gods for cousins. She still believed in that.
-Is that why you're here?-
Kimberly said nothing.
Kimberly sprung up.
-You like rock?-
The quickness of her thoughts took Babz by surprise. She slowed things down, stood up stiffly, and cupped her hand in front of the cigarette in her mouth. With a flick of the lighter, the flame caught the end. She noticed that Kimberly had broken the wind with her hand too. Babz could smell mint on her breath. Alcohol.
-When people ask me the music I like, I tell them 'acid rock.'-
Kimberly caught her eye again. Babz liked her eyes. Very blue, really long eyelashes. They smiled at her.
-There's some shows in Goleta. Punk houses. They do rent parties. My brother would kill me if he saw me go to these places. He says we should stick with our kind.-
Smoke took off with Babz's thoughts, and with it, the crash of the first breaks of the incoming high tide. She couldn't tell what Kimberly meant.
-I like the punk.-
Kimberly smiled and stole Babz's cigarette. She could see the blond roots under her hair.
Babz wore lipstick, contrary to the PR points she might lose. It always took forever to put the stuff on. Dull red. She looked at the copy of herself in the mirror, someone she tried to connect with, but could not. What she saw was her fictional reflection of herself formed of someone else’s inventory.
Babz picked Kimberly up in front of the Californian hotel. The punk girl twinkled with the glitter around her ears. Shee jumped into the mess that was Babzs car, a bottle, a box, in a sea of wrappers and receipts. She reached down into the mess, pulled out a cassette tape.
-You listen to this?-
Babz looked at the cover of the cassette her cousin had made for her. A line drawing of a fly. Scientific looking.
-My cousin gave it to me.-
-Is he a culter?-
Babz put the car in drive and bounced the car up a dirty on-ramp to Highway 101. She turned the stereo up, and looked over at Kimberly. She watched her, they smiled. Their ears grew heavy with the music of misfits. Return of the Fly. The highways turned into swap meets and dune fields, and pretty soon—wild dogs. Babz turned her car into a parking lot full of gravel and very drunk punk kids doing drugs and drinking strange brews until they were puking and heaving. There was a thrashed house in the middle of the woods. And kids. The whole lot of them. Swaying and baying to strange rhythms. Men with cloven hoofs danced. A group of kids with skateboards talked shit to everyone. Some leather-clad and studded belted girls with pink hair made out with their copy.
She and Kimberly paid at the door because Babz was doing it for the Cause. They entered. The music got louder, and a space full of kids with claws. Onstage, four children in painted faces rode guitars and drums to a bloodfeast of feedback bedlam. Kimberly knew the way through the mazes of bodies that slammed against each other. There was a light in her eyes that blazed to the bar. Some tables with chests of ice guarded by shirtless toughs, and other liquors in plastic bottles. Babz could smell ganja, and with the first whiff of smoke, she heard yelling and pushing bodies and cries of recrimination. Go home hippy!
Kimberly bought two beers in cans, handed one to Babz. Even just pulled from the ice, it was warm. The alcohol was going fast. Some kids in jean jackets pushed past them, Babz looked at the patches on their backs. Some Amero-Celt interlace dragon. Culters….
Kimberly touched her beer to Babzs. She smiled with the blues of her eyes a sea beneath storm heavy skies of mascara. A lip ring quivered in the night.
Babz smiled more than she wanted to. Kimberly didn’t wait.
-I saw your sticker…-
For a few seconds that seemed like minutes, Babz tried to hear what she said, until she could finally make out her words. The music had somehow gotten louder. Kimberly yelled.
-Your sticker?! On your car?!-
Babz only had one sticker on the bumper of her car. Samoan…Living Large and Loving It!
Kimberly became very scientific, or a lab rat. Someone like them, anyways.
-Warriors…its in their blood.-
Babz drank her beer as fast as she could.
-Next one’s on me.-
She bought more beers, Kimberly grabbed both, punched holes in the tops with one of her rings, gave Babz a look. Babz smiled, pulled the top of her beer. Foam shot down her throat. Shotgunning. A group of skaters whooped, one gave Babz a high five. The two heroines of the emergent alcoholocaust ran onto the dance floor. The music went to 11. They danced on the edges of a swirling pit of thrown elbows and wild kicks.
Kimberly and her danced closer, and for a second, Babz thought this might be her night….
Babzs uncles had always told her to stick around for the last drink—that when things got interesting.
She’d noticed two boys with short hair and the obligatory sleeve tattoos of the southland kindred checking Kimberly and her out, and dancing ever so closer, standing over them, protecting them from the strays of the slam pit. Very soon it turned into introductions, weak handshakes because Babz could care less. But Kimberly did, and soon, they leaned against a graffiti adorned wall with band stickers plastered over each over in a war that no one would win, talking to boys that Babz could care less what their names were.
-Where you two from?-
-How old are you?-
-What are you doing in a place like this?-
-You want to go somewhere else?-
Babz could fee the usual feelings of intuition curl up around the base of her skull and push the pins into the back of her head.
These boys were only interested in Kimberly. The lead was tall and groomed way to well for a place like this, his shorter friend more so. The tattoos actually didn’t throw her off that much. Everyone had them. Definitely southland pop-punk.
They shouldn’t be here. Not on this ghouls night out. And now…Kimberly wanted to take off with them. Another party they said…Babz knew how this would go.
-You wanna go, right? Im not forcing, you right? They’ll drive. You can leave you car here. Or go home, if you want. Unless you want me to…-
Babz thought, yeah I want you to come back with me. But she didn’t say it.
-Sure, lets go make party with these upstanding young men.-
Kimberly threw a drunken arm around her and they paraded back through the crowd, as it parted upon the sudden brutishness of their boy-toy escorts. They liked to manhandle….
Babz tried not to say anything. When they came upon the boys car, she really had to try. Sports car, jet black. Not even a hybrid, but the re-pioneered petrol series. The in-your-face-I’m-an-American kind. She hated Fords.
The boys held the seats back for the girls. Babz noticed how the shorter boy’s interest in her was fleeting at best. A loyal wing-man, but ill trained. She smelled the brand new fake leather interior, with not one speck of dirt, and she held her breath, her tongue and every thought that told her to get out of this car. She guessed it wouldn’t be the first time she did.
Had it really been nearly three hours? It could have been all night, an hour just might have passed. But there was no denying the misery of the time spent in the company of two boys who had increasingly showed themselves to be something very far from the truth.
Of course, the party they were supposed to go to no longer existed. Of course, the other show was sold out. When they whipped out their smartz to scan the closest intra-net vendors, Babz got that feeling...something wasn't right.
Predictably, the next option revealed itself as the first option.
-Let's go back to my place. I got the latest streamz on a set with the fastest frame rate. Pics look too good to be true, just like you're there.-
That was the lead. His blond was much too high and tight for her liking. Something screamed order to her, but beneath it, a major attitude problem just recently kicked out of him. She could sense something very cosmetic about him. The friend he brought along - him of so little interest in her - merely confirmed what a strange place this was, where they were, how this might turn out, and why things seemed out of place. She had never hung out once with someone like him. her friends had, maybe. Chased around the playground, or called fag in the locker room.
Not in his house, no. The place seemed furnished straight out of a catalogue. The couches and chairs - the silly man-boy Nagelesque posters in their frames - made her wonder when he had suddenly come into his money, what he tried to hide, and where he had come from.
Drinks were poured. The expensive liquors, straight up, in glasses that matched. She expected to see the box for them, somewhere in the recycling.
Babz decided at that minute to stay sober. It arrived on the wings of music really. The high-and-tight coiffed man-boy put some music on the entertainment station. Rough house vocals and machine gun guitars. She couldn't stand it. The song meant to put her under his thumb...that girl who once pushed him around.
-You don't like this?-
He spoke to her now. She didn't have a chance. A slight change came over Kimberly, just enough to tip the balance.
-She likes culter jams.-
Babz broke. She knew Kimberly referred to the cassette tape with the fly on the cover, and when Babz spoke, she only spoke to Kimberly.
-Not really. It's from my cousin.-
The lead man-boy barked.
-Is he a culter?-
Babz didn't care about dogs at this point.
-Maybe, what about it?-
The dog hadn't finished.
-Where you from?-
-L.A. That's where I'm from. L.A. Where you from?-
The dog leaned forward.
-You don't seem like you're from around here.-
She didn't like his eyes. Too close together. Fetal alcohol syndrome. Babz got it. How come everyone had to act like neo-nativists these days?
-I'm from the United States, like you.-
Kimberly laughed nervously over a potent cocktail chased down with a bottled beer and her own mild sarcasm. Drinks always made things better. Babz knew that drunken words were sober thoughts. She suddenly felt interested in hanging out and having a good time.
Kimberly continued, not once did she look at Babz. Pretty soon, over laughs and stories about this riot and that, the lead man-boy had his paws between her legs, his arms around her neck - and Kimberly seemed to like it, one of her legs nearly looped around his legs and all-to-ready-to-thrust hips.
The wing-man tried small talk with Babz. She answered in grunts. When those didn't work, he gave one or two word answers, until she had to go into detail with a sentence.
-I'm from Samoa.-
A few forced conversations and he left, the wing-man that is. He bowed out with a handshake among bros. That left Kimberly, lead man-boy, and the third wheel - Babz. She had to get out of here. The must have felt it too, because it didn't take too long for Kimberly to get a tour of the house, where the trip began and ended with the sights of the man-boyss room.
Babz just sat on the couch. A little dejected, deflated, but for the first time in hours, she could relax. With a warm beer in her hand, she decided to replace it with another. Off to the perfectly furnished kitchen she went, the refrigerator called to her. Pictures were on it, more bros with shit-eating grins. All the same haircuts she noticed. One of man-boy in a jungle.
She just wanted a beer, all she wanted was a beer.
She opened the fridge, grabbed another beer, popped the top off with her lighter, and the cap tumbled to the ground with a tin clatter, until it rolled around on the tile and out of the living room.
She could have left it, but Babz wasn't the passive aggressive type. She tried to approximate where it traveled, followed its path. It had taken her down the hallway. Near his bedroom door. She thought she heard mouth noises. Imagined it, anyways. She saw the bottle cap, the King of Beers. After she bent down to grab it, careful not to make any noise - lest anyone think she spied on them in the bedroom - she popped up and saw another picture on the wall. It was man-boy shaking hands with another man, an older fellow. Incorporated by the suit and tie. He handed man-boy a piece of paper, something like a diploma.
Needles of thought pushed themselves into the back of her brain. With a quick dash, back to the living room she went.
More quiet than she should have been, Babz scanned the room, the memory soon came back to her. She’d seen something. A book. She'd kicked it, inadvertently, while on the couch. Her feet near the coffee table, the Ikea best buy, she walked over and pulled out a book. A binder, a memory-clipper. She opened it up on the coffee table, the first digital stills played with her mind. The auto-pages turned. Nothing. More dudes on the beach. More guys in the jungle - there she saw it, it made sense. He wore green and brown khaki, jungle-issue. A helmet, an automatic at his side. Shit-eating grins. From the looks of it, he'd served. Maybe South America.
The next auto-page turned. She already knew what would turn up. A picture of him in a uniform. Not municipal issue blue. The grays of the corporate sector. He was a private security soldier. The other auto-page had a certificate.
>Welcome to the Regeneration!<
>State-Mandated Officer of the Diversionary Acts.<
All that was missing was the confetti.
They had to get out of here. There was no way...
A gunshot jolted her out of her plans and she waited for the knowledge that it came from outside. No. It was too loud. It came from inside the apartment.
She had to get out of here. Needles began to press...to tell her...
She got up, ran out of the living room.
She smelled smoke.
She ran out of the living room. Got to the front door. And stopped. She looked back at the bedroom door. She said something to herself that she couldn’t even hear.
Needles pressed into her head...
…smoke passed underneath the door.
She was now at the bedroom door. She opened it. Gore. Blood. The smell of smoke. Blood and brains all over the bed sheets and Kimberly. The man-boy was laid out. Kimberly clutched the gun, tight to her chest, what was left of his face dressed her. Her nakedness, unpleasant. She broke up.
-You...have...to...you have to...help me....-
Babz ignored the needles that pushed into her brain.