My somewhat Sabina, my moon-assed twin. Come play with me among the distorted furniture. She laughs, shows bare skin. So get me, fella. The reflective glass in the ceiling reflects her grace, but not her cruelty. She bounces up and seems to move closer to the floor. I extend a longing hand. Elusive as rainwater, she skirts out of the way and throws her arms up high, as if her last goal was to reach herself, make love to herself in the mirror, the ultimate act of Narcissism.
I lunge forward, skiing with bare feet on the upset couch and spilt wine. A candle encroaches whitely on an avalanche of cigarette butts. The wick has almost reached the brass holder, settling fatly into itself like a dying Buddha. In the candlelight the waitress spins bare-bottomed in a puddle of ice and slaughtered pig remains. I feel a hand touch me somewhere, by someone. The shape of the shadow as it swerves recklessly against the wall suggests Steven, maybe Jeremy. Our darks and lights confuse themselves with entry wounds in the wallpaper, hanging over us like the claws of paper tigers.
As my fingers move over cool skin, I flash upon a time when we used the courtyard and the blades of summer grass would cut upwards into the low, low sky. The dance was long and tireless, and I bled faster, then. But the courtyard and its fauns soon melt away like the candle, like my inhibitions. Here the walls and mirrored ceiling seem to press down upon our writhing flesh; the Devil's trash compactor. It pulses, the night, a nameless creature.
Finally the candle allows the darkness to swallow it. Twisted together in a shape that suggests a crown of thorns, we lie there in the harsh afterburn, smelling our sweat and various sins. It's time, but it's hard to leave, hard to digest the metallic furies and dangerous appetites that await us downstairs. Down where the machine waits. To trade flesh for chrome is almost unbearable in the slight flicker which is all it takes for the light to leave us.
Beside me, a woman's breath rasps against my ribs. "Hanh... hunh... I can't move."
"Can't or won't, dear?"
She moans, an appealingly animalistic sound that gutters its way up from the deep place where satyrs beat against the bars. "W-what's down there?"
Muttering trickles around the circle. Must be a newcomer. "Stick with me, honey," says the softly inquiring voice from before. I can't tell whether it's male or female. "I'll show you the way to dance. It's simple when you get the hang of it. Think of it as a game of 'Simon Says', dearie; all you have to do is keep your eye on the leader and your mind in a pencil case-" A falsetto giggle. "And don't forget to stay on the... balls."
We stagger upright to the stairs, where a primal tang greets the air like a lit match to kerosene. Tenants lemming their way to the basement steps cry out, pulled between the twin horses of pain and pleasure. Wine stains cover the more heinous evidence. We hear the Captain's voice from below, where the machine gripes and starves for lack of meat. The room fills with hungry dancing shadows, all young, mostly male. Overhead, through speakers gone tinny with age, Tiffany's voice scratches our eardrums with an arsenic rendering of "Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)".
She's gorgeous poison. I rock backwards, clutching at sweaty skin pulled tight across naked muscle and organs. Up above, the Captain's huge visage juggles its way across the dais where the machine sits. Its gleaming contours reflect the shining crowd. Tubular innards and oily blood rupture the chrome curves, an organic, orgasmic computer. The Captain barks a command and lights drizzle over the copper coils, nestled partially hidden like pubic hair in a soft porn shot. A moan, and maybe it's me. We dance to our own heartbeats, waiting for the hard moment when the knives come out.
As the music plays, most people don't notice the huge mesh drum behind the stage. It rotates when hand-cranked and is filled with ping-pong balls, each labeled with a different number. The numbers are carved deep into the plastic, so each ball bears an ancient rune, a primitive scrawl that marks the end of someone's days. Somewhere in that drum is Jeremy's soul; mine is in there as well, joggling harmlessly against every other tenant in the building. And the message the ping-pong balls seem to give is one of welcome; welcome to the new, disposable flesh, welcome to the hollow skin.
As I dance I watch the drum from my peripheral vision. The balls stare back at me, a multitude of glowing white eyeballs, scarred with the names of the damned. I fling my hair back, heavy with wet, and feel the edge of the crowd as surely as a finger feels the blade of a freshly sharpened knife. I am acutely aware of the dance, while a few minutes ago was an unstoppable force, gradually dwindling. A star collapsing into itself as it prepares to go supernova. Our bodies, crude biological apparati, wind down gently as a clock might, until finally we stop with a little sigh as the last bit of frenzied sped-up time spills out from between the gears like a puff of dust.
The crowd at rest is an alien sight, no matter how many times it's done. Tenants tax the room with their restless limbs and perpetual motion, until this moment, when the Captain performs the draw. This is when the drum and its cargo are brought onstage. The spotlight focuses on it alone, where it consumes the stares of the crowd like the black hole it has become. Our collective appetite, man and machine, rules and fuels the world.
Tiffany climbs the stairs to the light and faces us, turning slightly in her white dress. She wears white always. White like the candles, white like the ping-pong balls. The Captain keeps himself enshrouded in browns and grays, where he remains locked in, a prisoner in his own muted clothing. Their twin silhouettes are backlit by the stage lights and cast monsoon shadows over our upturned faces. The sex and song have not yet sated the multitudes.
Next to the drum, Tiffany raised her arms for silence. What Tiffany wants, Tiffany gets. We all know what she wants; her spoils sway around me, grinning wolfishly, glistening with body oils. Young, virile males, lax at her feet. The Captain makes a small bow.
"Here we go," he says, so quietly that the proof lies only in his stealthy lips. He reaches out and grasps the metal handle. The drum rumbles, gathers speed. The ping-pong balls cascade hypnotically around the perimeter of the canister, like foam on the crest of an eternally breaking wave. The absence of the music lies heavy in the air, a ghost trying to escape a padded room.
The crowd holds its breath as one being when the drum comes to rest. The Captain reaches out and drops a hatch. A single ball falls from its peers and lands with an inconsequential clink in the metal receptacle.
There's a number scratched there. Our heads track the tiny sphere as it's dwarfed by the Captain's bearish fingers, disappearing into the ragged leather of his palm. He considers the ball as if it were a diamond. Then he raises it over his head and shouts, "Twenty eight!"
"God," someone near me says. I look and it's the skinny kid, the one that knocked Jeremy out after getting cut. People turn towards us, globe-eyed, and suddenly it's as if we are no longer part of the singular organism that was the crowd, like we've been cut off from the rest of the body and left hanging on a hook. Excised meat. I step back into the protection of the other tenants and watch as the sea of flesh parts, forming a path to the stage. The silence cauterizes this loss to the collective's body.
Slowly, tenant twenty-eight climbs the stairs. We regroup behind him as he walks into the light, blinking. The Captain gives him a hearty slap on the back, which nearly knocks him over. "Lucky twenty eight!" he howls, with a grin as big and full of shit as all outdoors.
The crowd laughs, a single burst of sound like a radio being turned on, and then stops abruptly. Onstage, Tiffany's kissing the meat, hoisting his balls in her fingers as if judging how he might taste later. Twenty-eight wears on his face a drippy mixture of fear and ecstasy, which slides from his eyes in thick rivulets like tar. The Captain watches this display with a look of amusement.
Tiffany's twisted, she's death with a .45 caliber grin on Cheshire lips. One of her eyes is gold, the other blue, and both are calliope-crazy. Pheromones cling to her like static. Her fingers knead the sacrifice until he's bleeding from the entry wounds, forcing him to his knees. As she's straddling him the machine pumps to life, announcing its resurrection with spitting wires and a heave that shakes the floor. The crowd screams.
"Are you ready?" yells the Captain above the gnash of steel.
The crowd doesn't even say yes, we just howl unintelligibly, pounding with our feet. Above us, the machine goes into its final transformation as Tiffany rides number twenty eight harder, grinding her diamond teeth harder than the gears. The skinny kid thinks he's already dead, been drained of life, until he hears the last synapses clicking into place and he throws back his head and screams so loud blood runs down his chin and from our ears. That's the scream the meat always makes, and it always turns Tiffany on like nothing else.
The machine has blossomed, like a schoolgirl in summer, or a galaxy in heat. Its glittering contours split open to reveal, not an ugly and chaotic maze of circuitry and wire, but thousands upon thousands of tiny blades, all chittering at once, so when you're up close it sounds like the locust plague of an electric god. They jab continuously at the air, and with nothing solid to consume, produce a high-pitched keening that loosens bowels and sets teeth to vibrate until, eventually, they disintegrate to grey powder.
If you could somehow get even closer, you would see that each individual razor is made up of thousands more tiny razors, also pumping frenetically so the entire surface of the blade seems to shimmer with demonic energy. And I've heard that, if you could get even closer than that, each of those thousands of razors would contain millions more of the most minute blades, so that not even the meanest particle of flesh could escape the rotating hell of the machine's last and most perfect interface.
Twenty-eight hears those chittering locusts and his entire essence just seems to slip right off his body, like he was covered in a sheet and someone ripped it off. Tiffany clambers to her feet, licking her lips. "Go for it," she tells the crowd, gyrating in the heat of the moment. "You all want supper, don't you?" She smiles, baring teeth gone pinkish under the stage lights.
With that the crowd surges forward in a suicidal rush for the stage, climbing over debris left by the machine's all-consuming mouth. The sacrifice's legs and arms are grasped by other tenants as we gleefully position him over our heads, to the beat of the new song pouring off the billions upon billions of polished edges that clamor eagerly for their meal, as they spiral inwards to an infinite microcosm of pain.
A single heave turns the machine's empty whine to a thick sputter of delight and then to a consistent moist crunch that pounds unendurably through the nervous system of the common flesh. On surface level, the bones splinter into fragments, which are then crushed to nothingness. But listen closer and there, the sounds of the smaller blades as they rip sideways into cell walls and mitochondria, and further still into the dark recesses of the places in between, where the soul might have once resided before it was torn away andhurled into the mystery of the machine's unseen internal engine.
Tiffany appears to be dancing behind a red veil. We dance with her, lifting our heads as if it's snow that's falling into our gaping mouths. Eventually the machine finishes its meal and retreats into itself to begin the process by which it returns to us, clean and cold, every evening. We don't know how it chooses which one of us will leave by it, or whether anyone will. Some of us have never touched it, for all the time we've spent here. Others are destroyed almost as soon as they arrive. One tenant, I forget whom, was only partially consumed, and nobody was able to figure out why. They had to be collected from the ceiling in salad bowls.The machine is our god and golden calf all in one, and we don't question it. Not even Tiffany questions it.
Afterwards, it's suppertime. We seat ourselves at the long, oak table and wait for Tiffany and the Captain to make the first toast of the evening. The crate is smashed open and the wine is passed around. It's thick as thieves' blood and twice as illegal. The waitress smears the bottle with her lipstick and I lick it clean, and we pause to drown ourselves a little in the moment. Liquid sounds fill the hall. One of the bottles smashes along the way and tenants crouch down to salvage the wine with thickening tongues, not knowing or caring how the blood from their cutcut bare feet oozes along the knotty floor to mingle with their saliva. I watch them with a mind half a mile away. The Feast is almost ready to begin. I suck as much breath as I can before it starts.
Tiffany raises a full bottle brimming with some clear spirit. She speaks into the silence like wind into a microphone. "Guests of the Captain, we welcome you to the Hotel California. We're open all year round, and we'd love for you to stay with us. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies."
"Hell," the Captain says in a monotone.
"There are no exits here, lads; no pearl gates, no yellow brick road. All there is, is us... And you. So on behalf of the staff, it's time to eat."
When the plates are filled, we dig in. Sensory residue fills the room and I am revisited by the chittering of the steel teeth, the pulp spinning round the frightful maw, and still I force myself to keep chewing, swallowing, drinking the dark wine.
I later learn his name was Simon.