by Kelli Trapnell
Like any good inverted thing, me and Ronnie’s story should start with an ending. A happy ending, or an end, at least, when things were happy.
High parts, the flashing lights sang. High parts in high waters, bow to me. Bow to me. This at one of our usual places, where the music sang again, where the rainbow flashing parted high and wide down our faces, striped our legs. The floor was hardly near, and felt too hard when I stepped on it through shoes. I wanted to take off my shoes. I wanted to be Ronnie. I wanted to be me. And I was, then.
High parts, the flashing sang. High and high and high you bow. Synth and guitar spun the air into thick slices of citrus. I scooped them halved and skinless down my throat.
I thought of how hidden we all were—every one of us, but especially Ronnie—inside the colored lights. I thought of all our recesses, our hidden houses, of our brains back home in our bed where we'd left them, and now our skulls were protecting only the dancing us, the dancing and the singing high parts, every night for a week at a time. Where were we? What were we? I'd have to ask Ronnie whenever she came back from the bathroom. I wondered if she’d shrug it off like always, or if she would let the animal she became under these lights devour the truth: when we were together here, we were one, lips and hands entwined as we transformed beneath the lights and the sound. I let my face fall, my hair swing wild down over my eyes. Then there were the dead days without music, the days when we were two, apart even though we moved through the same spaces. I hated the dead days.
Ronnie was the “mature one” and so I followed her where she said, the pinched skin where her elbows bent and where her pants began proof of her higher knowledge of the world, the opposites of my skinny bones, of my water eyes. Hers were dark, set deep, always lined in green, even when we were out of the lights. I asked her once, how she did it, how she kept the color there, even on dead days. We talked at our laundromat on dead days. It was a good space with cool metal machines that hummed, a comfort, and a place where Ronnie stayed mine, even with other humans around.
“Shellac,” she told me, and spat on the tile floor of the laundromat. “Made from beetle skin—tough as hell.” Behind her, the wall spun with rainbowed color, each in its separate cycle.
I sat across from Ronnie, keeping watch. I loved to see her move, her long black hair straight down her hunched back. It left stray black hairs every once in a while on her faded red polo shirt. I liked that. It was like proof that we were alive, even when the music was gone.
Below me, the dryer surged and spat and roared, did its best to fight the dead days, too—it was my opinion that everything that had a noise, that had a heartbeat, was made to fight against the dead days’ thinning, sterile air, but Ronnie always told me not to be silly, maybe with a little slap on the thigh or a kiss in my ear, depending on the day. I preferred the kisses. Her lime green nails were too long and sharp for the slaps to be kind, even when she intended them that way. They bit like stingers.
Now, I watched as she peeled us each a clementine.
“Why you always gotta look at me like I just kicked you,” Ronnie said, raised an eyebrow. I heard her index finger sink into the flesh of the fruit and rip back the skin. She always tried to peel the skin as wholly as possible, like that would keep the process from being so cruel. It was beautiful, and I loved her more for it. The dryer beeped, slowed to its final spin.
“Let me see that beautiful smile, baby,” she said. I looked away, and hopped off the dryer before it could die on me completely.
That was the last dead day we'd had before the new place. The last day together.
Ronnie had been gone now, I supposed, for a minute or more, but then, what were minutes, when the night was alive with music? It couldn't have been a minute, because the song was far from over. Or was this the same song? I didn't remember. I noticed for the first time that there were variations in the colors racing across all of our vibrating bodies, striping all of our faces and our hair—that day we were not all the same, no, but maybe it was okay that way, maybe the differences were what made us matter more. Ronnie was gone and the music still screamed, High parts all the high parts bowing beneath the waves.
I waded through our human sea, the sea of us, the beautiful noise our tide, and there, I saw her, Ronnie again, but two-headed, Ronnie with her clementine hands and her sharp sharp nails and her black straight hair even in the colors of tonight, Ronnie, who carried color in her person, even on the dead days, even without me.
The man with Ronnie smirked and tossed his hair up from his eyes and I loved him too, of course I loved him too, but there was hate in me a darker shade of purple, night against the vibrant midnight day that was this place with the perfect color, and I knew in a way that from that point on, Ronnie wasn’t only mine. I looked down, tugged my dress tighter. Felt myself swallow, myself turn. The music dropped, changed, and the evening ended the way it began, with Ronnie and me in the bed that we shared, but now there was this man, like there sometimes had been before, and the three of us lit the night with color so bright it spilled from the windows and into the street.
That was before the new place. Before the man with Ronnie became his own entity, with a forceful pull that moved us from the city to the outskirts, to the grey waste of Brooklyn, away from the lights, away from the high notes, from the dips.
The new place was fine, if you were dead already. Hot in the summer, and it was summer now, and everything was bleak, plain. A marble shop across the street had dead me rising from gravestones in piles of different colored marble.
Ronnie, always floating upward, was set flat on the ground next to Rodrigo, his mid-section sweaty and his thick hands on her waist, beneath the dark purple angel’s wings she had grown out for the night--to match her tattoo on her inner thigh, or maybe as a way to stay above the concrete while Rodrigo had his claws in her skin. They walk, they don’t float. Ronnie’s here, but she’s not with me, she’s colorless, and the world is hushed, but for the blood in the ears, in the forearms, all the blood of everyone everywhere contained, but only just.
I was refulgent, not that I would have been drab even had I known where we were headed. I am not a surface dweller, not in that way. Ronnie taught me too well for dead days to be without their own artificial color.
No music here. Only the grinding of steel saws and big trucks and motorcycles, the place where Rodrigo works just past a truck that’s also a grave, a truck so eaten and pulsing with yellow flowers and candlelight that I almost smile, to taste it, before I remember what it’s there for. The pull of gravity worse here. The only way to survive to tap my fingertips, blue with sequin scales, I was a pufferfish in human form in my gleaming white leotard, tights and heels. I was an entire tide pool, I was the glimmer, and Ronnie was the eel within my depths, or I would have wanted her to be.
Rodrigo was human, leather and denim clad, plain. He called himself a Club Kid, and at first he had seemed so, sparkle eyeshadow a shade so much like snow that you could feel the chill come off him when he passed. But now, here, in this dead place… he was a discarded peel, but Ronnie didn’t see it that way. I was bruised from so many nights lying outside of their room on the couch, hearing their music, hearing the highs and the dips, the feral noise of them. My skin blushed purple and blue with the remembering. So many nights I dreamed of Ronnie’s wings against my cheek. And then the real bruises, the colors I wore proud, given by Ronnie in the bathroom, away from Rodrigo’s snoring frame, precious time alone, even with the shakes that marked the dead days, because at least she was touching me, at least I could breathe her without him there beside.
“Come on, baby. Pull it together,” she’d say, quiet, after a slap or a twist-pinch to the skin on my belly. “We’re goin’ clean, love. And that means all of us.”
I’d smile at her joke, maybe laugh a little if I felt brave, or if I wanted to see her engulfed in stars. A laugh would earn me a little something rough, which was sometimes what I wanted. Sometimes it brought the music back. Once, I tried to hold her, tried to melt into her the way we used to, to bring my lips to hers, shined and plump and familiar, framed by lines and so very far from me these days. She tossed me to the floor, so the mirror behind her spun and dipped, her long black hair swinging behind her, a pendulum counting days gone and dead days to come.
“Temperance, Beth,” she said. “That’s who we are now.”
For a while I dreamed of this Temperance as a hard, black scorpion curled inside of me, a manifestation of the dead days and the bite of Ronnie’s nails. In my dreams, it lived just beneath my ribcage, on top of my stomach. It stung my esophagus and crept over my guts with a mincing, ticklish pricklestep that made me shake and sweat, that made me weak on bad days. As my loneliness grew, so did Temperance, this beast in my belly, this horrible thing borne of the dead days and of my distance from Ronnie, and at night I dreaded sleep because I knew it would eventually give birth and then all of the babies would crawl through my veins into every single part of me, and I wouldn’t be Beth anymore, I would just be a husk full of Temperance, a sack of stinging, pinching spiders that schlepped into work and didn’t love Ronnie and didn’t know who Beth even was.
And so I was surprised at the echo that the universe made—on a dead day, no less—when we got to the new place, next to Rodrigo’s chop shop daywaste with the cardboard cut-out of Evel Kneivel looking out from behind the glass-paned doors, keeping watch over the puddle of lukewarm Tecates and Natty Lights in the day old ice-bucket beside him. Two motorcycles hung on chains from the ceiling in the back, frozen in a continual moment of stop-motion.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Rodrigo said, and jerked a thumb. I thought it was an act, so I laughed, but Ronnie said, “Cool,” and smiled at him the way she used to smile at me when I made masks of the things in our little apartment and lunged and jumped and fell onto the couch next to her, laughing. He put an arm around her shoulders, crushing one of her wings flat. I looked away, toward our destination, trying to fight the water that gathered in my eyes.
Blurred, the building looked like a brick hovel, the only sign a chalkboard clapboard with a drawing of bowling pins and the name of the place scrawled above an arrow pointing into the darkness. By the door, a few sports bros hug out, smoking and laughing too loud, talking about quarterly numbers and baseball players and kinds of coffee. When I passed, they stared at me like I was a scar in the air between them and the doorway. And maybe I was, but I held my head high, so they could see the purple-shined iridescence of my painted on gills, the gelled-back points of my sprayed white hair. I was beautiful, I made sense. Maybe not here, in this shitty bar, in the sad yellow light thrown by the few beer-themed Tiffany lamps that dangled from thick cords running up to the ceiling. We approached the bar and someone called Rodrigo Craig and then said what the fuck and I didn’t have time to deal with their negative energy, because I needed a drink.
“Vodka pink lemonade,” I told the bartender, a scruffy mouse behind round glasses. Her short straw hair was shoved up under a beaten-in baseball hat. She stared at me a moment, then turned to get my drink.
The wall was packed with stupid things as though the place had once been a family chain restaurant with butter rolls and high chairs. Bowling photos, beer advertisements, paintings of horses. Barracuda slammed out of the speakers and in the next room over, framed in panelled glass windows, people bowling, the heavy balls rumbling down the wooden lanes with a sound almost horrifying. The sound reverberated through the exposed silver vents that spread like veins across the ceiling of the place. The bartender returned with a glass in hand, and I felt a crawling begin in my tights near my shins. Something bit at my ankles. A stirring beneath my ribs.
I grabbed the drink from the bartender—it was regular lemonade, only half as good as pink—and took a huge gulp, trying to drown the scuttling thing inside of me. Frantic, I scanned the bar for Ronnie, and found her cuddling up to Rodrigo in a booth next to the pool table that took up the center of the room.
“This for a birthday party or something?” the bartender asked.
The shaking, I could feel it starting again. The constant rumble of the lanes and the shatter of bowling balls hitting pins didn’t help. Temperance crawled inside of me. I thought about calling out to Ronnie, but she and Rodrigo were making out now. He had ripped off her wings, and I hardly recognized her at all without her green eyeliner on. I looked at my hands, which were still sequined and beautiful, but visibly trembling. I downed the rest of my drink instead.
“Hey, what are you supposed to be anyway?” the bartender pressed.
I set the glass down on the bar. “Myself,” I said, and it was a little hard to breathe. “Another, please.”
She made me another drink, but she was taking too long. The crawling was getting worse. I watched Ronnie and Rodrigo kiss beneath the fake skeleton wrapped in tinsel that hung above their booth. It swung on its noose as Ronnie peeled back Rodrigo’s motorcycle jacket and kissed him deeply. The way she touched his face. It was so soft, so tender.
The crawling got worse, and I started to cough. Temperance was making its way up my throat, hot and insistent. I rushed to the dingy bathroom and slammed into one of the stalls. The smell of urine was overwhelming and I vomited. Hot yellow gush spewed into the toilet bowl, but no Temperance. I knelt on the sticky, horrible floor and started to cry a little. I couldn’t stop seeing Ronnie touching Rodrigo’s face that way. Her sharp fingernails so soft against his rough skin. The way she took deliberate care not to bruise him.
Then I started to choke. Something was clawing its way up my throat. I tried to think of what my mother would say, even though we had long since stopped talking. It’s not real, it’s all in your head. And then a sharp pain in my tongue, the undeniable feeling of something squirming in my mouth, a whole bunch of somethings—I coughed and spit and a hard, black scorpion, almost six inches long, a full two inches wide, fell into the toilet bowl. It writhed when it hit the water, and its back was crawled with hundreds of babies.
I cried out and flushed the toilet, but I was still coughing as I ran from the bathroom. Scorpions of all sizes fell from my mouth, some of them flecked with blue rhinestones that fell from my face. I leaned into the sink and coughed, retched scorpions, but when I turned on the faucet to drown them, more scorpions climbed out of the drain. I looked down the hallway of the bathroom, the rest of the sinks had been overrun, crawling all over with the black bugs. Another girl came out of one of the stalls and screamed into the mirror. Her empty eyes and her gaping jaw turned toward me, and she screamed again. I felt a hard pinch at the side of my mouth and glanced up into the mirror. One of the inch-long, translucent babies hung from my lip by a single pincer—my blood bubbled up black in a pinprick and then rolled down my face, making a dark line in my white makeup. I ripped the bug off of my face and ran out of the bathroom.
The bar had descended into total chaos. Scorpions the size of my own Temperance were spilling out from the taps behind the bar, racing along the pipes and the fluorescent lights that hung from the ceiling. Babies spilled out from the vents overhead. In the back room, thousands of slick-backed, black scorpions pushed their way out of the gutters, the sheer mass of them ripping the pinsetting machines out of the backs of each lane as they charged down the lane toward their prey, awash in a sea of thousands of smaller scorpions that rushed down the lanes like a wave of black. All of the drab people in regular clothes and bowling shoes were climbing onto the ball racks and rushing the emergency exits. They tried to crash through the glass-panelled windows that separated the bowling alley from the bar, but the chicken wire keeps them from coming through. The rope hanging the tinselled skeleton frays and breaks, and the skeleton falls to the ground, a heap of bones and sparkles amid the fray.
Rodrigo and Ronnie clutch each other, rush for the exit without me. Ronnie doesn’t even look back to see if I’m alright. They make it through the door and out into the hot, cruel night.
I sit down on the nearest barstool. I reach over the bar and grab a bottle of well vodka. I grab the nearest glass and pour myself a shot. For the first time all night, the scorpion curled inside my belly relaxes. As I pour, I realize: I don’t need Ronnie in order to be me. I don’t need the bruises, and I don’t need the closeting, the shushedness of it. What I need isn’t temperance, it’s release.
A scorpion traveled up my sequined arm, its shined black body just another jewel among the glitter I’d put on before we left for the bar that night. The bartender was suddenly back, her plain, earnest face full of concern. She didn’t seem to be worried about the scorpions, though. Her eyes—dark like Ronnie’s but free of liner—were trained on my face. She didn’t flinch when a scorpion scuttled over her hand on the bar.
“What,” I said. I would survive this, I knew, but I felt smashed in, crushed. Ronnie had never loved me. Or maybe she had, in the way I’d loved the boys before her. Carelessly. “Do you want to get out of here?”
The bartender put her hand on mine. I looked up at her. Her touch was kind—intentional. What I wanted more than anything, god, what I'd die for, was to leave that shitty bar and never look back.
“I know a place for people like us,” she said, and a sly smile cracked on her face. She ducked down beneath the bar and held up a duffle bag full of neon-glittered satin and tulle. I smiled back, and watched as a scorpion crawled out of her hair.
"Okay," I said. "But first." I raised my shot glass in the air.
I didn’t even have to say, and she knew. She poured herself a shot of her own, and we clinked glasses.
"To temperance," I said.
"Fuck that," she said, and we threw back the shots.
In the distance, I imagined Ronnie and Rodrigo—no, Craig—were somewhere fighting, or fucking, and for once, I didn’t care. I watched as the bartender hopped the bar and headed to the bathroom. I wonder who she'll be when she emerges. I wonder who we'll be.
About the Author
Kelli Trapnell is a 2018 NYFA Fellow in Fiction. Her work has been featured in Gigantic Sequins, Motherboard, Tales to Terrify, Paper Darts, and more. She also writes for a short form horror story app. Kelli has an MFA from Columbia. She is originally from Houston, Texas, and is bisexual. She lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and their cat.