Phlegm coated the slick cavern walls like coagulated jelly cobwebs. Pools of saliva had collected here and there along the way, but it was too dark to always see them, and soon Mary Ann's jeans had siphoned up the dampness all the way to her knees. She groped for Virgil's hand as they made their way along the noxious road ahead of them, wishing to be any place elsewhere.
"How far until we get to the end of this?" she asked Virgil wearily.
"If traveling by means of a throat were easy, we would call it your mother," came the reply.
Mary Ann whipped around, almost tumbling into a puddle in her surprise.
"Virgil! 'Your mother' jokes? Really?"
"What?" he asked, sounding highly affronted. "I didn't say anything."
A dark silhouette appeared in front of them. It jingled as it approached, and Mary Ann realized that whoever it was was dressed as a medieval court jester.
"Your mother is so fat, she has been declared a national habitat for condors," the man said, and he finally drew close enough for them to see his face. He was a squat, fat, angry-looking fellow, Mary Ann observed. He wore a red and white tunic over red leggings, and a harlequin cap was pulled firmly over his untamed, graying hair. His shoes were tipped with bells. He glowered at them.
"Your mother," he said, addressing Virgil, "is so old that she was told to act her own age and died."
Virgil blinked, utterly bewildered.
"I'm the welcome committee, and this evening's entertainment," the man said at last. "Piliper Savage at your service. I assume you've arrived for the party?"
"No, we–" Mary Ann began, but Virgil elbowed her in the ribs.
"Yes, the party. I hope we're not too late," he said amicably. The jester looked at them curiously.
"You're a bit pudgy," he remarked, poking Virgil in the chest. "Who invited you?"
Virgil tugged his mouth and eyes open in a moment of shock; however, he recovered quickly, and Mary Ann noticed him suck his stomach in.
"Much better," said Piliper. "You look lovely, Miss, though I doubt you have a disposition to match. Follow me, please."
Virgil and Mary Ann exchanged wary glances and fell into step behind him.
"So, you're the entertainment, are you? That's interesting," Virgil said, clearly still smarting from Piliper's unwarranted attack.
The man turned around with an indignant jingle.
"Look, wise-guy. 'Your mother' jokes aren't my cup of tea either, got it? I do what I'm paid to do. It's what Her Majesty likes."
Virgil paled immediately. "Her Majesty?"
"Yes, her Majesty the Queen of Hearts."
"Oh," Virgil said, beginning to turn a delicate shade of chartreuse. "We're going to see the Queen, are we?"
Piliper looked at him incredulously. "Of course not," he spat, and marched on. Virgil sighed in relief, and caught Mary Ann's eye. "I'll explain later," he mouthed.
They followed Piliper in silence, save for the squelching of their shoes. Soon he took a sharp right (accompanied by a loud jingle), and they found themselves facing a door.
"Right in there," Piliper said. "You'll find anything you need on the table by the back." And with that the man spun on his heels and disappeared back down the tunnel.
"What on earth?" Mary Ann said, staring after him.
"Good lord, I have no idea," said Virgil, and then began to laugh. "Ready to join the party, then?"
"Judging from what I've seen so far, I don't suppose I can really be ready for anything," she replied, and pushed the door open. They stared inside for a moment.
"Oh, look, I was right," she said, for nothing could have prepared them for the scene that lay inside.
There were perhaps fifty or sixty people inside the room, sprawled out over the many comfortable-looking sofas and chairs that decorated it. All these people were tall and extremely attractive; the men wore chic sports coats and expensive watches, whereas the women were all very thin, scantily clad, and leggy. All of them, however, were unconscious. Strange greenish shadows played over and distorted their faces; the source of the light was a bar lined with half-empty martini glasses, which glowed inwardly with acid-colored liquid.
"Are they…dead?" Mary Ann said uncertainly, bile rising to the back of her throat in horror.
"I don't know," said Virgil, who leaned over a beautiful redheaded woman whose face strings were beaded with tiny pink crystals. He swept her hair out of her face, but she did not move. Virgil looked at Mary Ann worriedly, and continued through the room.
"Oh dear…look," Mary Ann whispered to Virgil. She had come to a pause before a large red love seat, across which was sprawled a muscular black man in a handsome gray suede suit. His pants were unzipped and a hint of blue boxer peeked out. A second man – young, with chiseled features and sleeves adorned with what looked to be diamond cufflinks - was sitting on the floor, resting against the first man's legs.
"They look like they were interrupted in the middle of things quite abruptly," noted Virgil.
Suddenly Mary Ann swooped down and shook the younger man's sleeve back.
"Oh, for God's sake, look!"
A needle tumbled out and lay on the floor. It was filled with the same noxious green substance that glowed in the martini glasses. Suddenly Virgil looked pleased.
"It's a numbing party!" He said eagerly, looking around him with fresh eyes.
"A numbing party?"
"Yes! Celebrities have them all the time…to be invited you have to be really rich, or famous, or attractive. God, I never thought I would see one!"
"It doesn't seem like that much fun," Mary Ann scoffed, tugging up the muscular man's zipper. "I mean, if they all pass out before they have time to socialize…"
Virgil was excitedly peering around him for celebrities he recognized, and did not reply.
"Look…paparazzi," Mary Ann noted, pointing at a man who was asleep by the doorframe. He was resting his head on a very large camera.
"Of course! The celebrities sell press passes to these types of things, and donate the money to charities. The press takes tons of pictures of the celebrities passed out in pools of their own vomit, and then they print the pictures up in their newspapers. It actually gives the celebrities tons of good publicity, because numbing parties are always associated with charitable donations." Virgil beamed.
"That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," she replied.
"Lifestyles of the rich and the famous. Would you like a martini?"
They both sidled over to the table that Piliper had mentioned earlier (it was well stocked with glasses, injection needles, bags of powder, and Venetian blown-glass bongs) and picked up drinks.
"So…you were going to tell me about this Queen. Since when is there a Queen?" Mary Ann took a sip of her green martini and winced at its strength.
Virgil thoughtfully fished a maraschino cherry out of his glass.
"She's a socialite mostly…I have no idea how much ruling she actually does. She does execute a lot of people, but she's known for throwing killer parties." He paused, realized his pun, and chuckled.
"She executes people and likes stupid jokes. That's great. She sounds like a hoot. But why were you so scared to see her?"
Virgil looked at her. "That, my friend, is an excellent question." He popped the cherry into his mouth and made a great show about chewing it.
"Are you going to eat yours?" he asked, eyeing her maraschino.
"No, take it. Are you going to answer my excellent question?"
They both sipped their drinks pensively.
"Virgil, can I ask you another question?"
"Tell me more about the blue guy."
"You mean Chamaecyparis."
"Yeah. There's a whole lot about him that you haven't explained."
"I suppose you're right. Ah, Chamaecyparis. He's an oracle, philosopher, and general wise man to the poor class. He's a good guy…sort of mad, but he's helped many people out of sticky situations, including me. That's why I'm here with you…I owed him a few favors."
"What types of sticky situations?"
"Oh, you know…tax evasion, minor theft, that sort of thing. Everyone does it; we have a 95 percent poverty level, so a little dishonesty as far as money is concerned is to be expected. Besides, it's not like those sorts of petty crimes matter to the powers that be. But every now and then they'll target someone specific and make a great show of punishing them to give the impression of a functioning government. I happen to be a very unlucky man."
Mary Ann nodded, irrationally feeling incredibly sympathetic towards him. She raised her glass to her lips and was surprised to find that it was empty. She reached for another.
"That's just terrible," she said emotionally. "Is that why you live in an eensy weensy little tin box?"
He tugged one eyebrow up inquisitively (his other hand was busy holding a martini.)
"Yes. Is that your second drink?"
She considered her answer hard.
"Yes," she admitted.
"You should sit down. This stuff is incredibly strong."
She obediently followed him to a comfortable leather couch. Virgil gently scooted a waspy, spindly-legged model off of it and sat, guiding Mary Ann down next to him. She swayed a bit, surprising herself.
"Are you okay?" He asked, patting her cheek softly.
She laughed a deep, throaty laugh, and rested against his shoulder.
And fell asleep.
"Great," he muttered, and pried her fingers away from the stem of her glass.
When Mary Ann awoke, Virgil had disappeared, and his seat had been occupied by several pretty asian women in various states of undress. They were all awake, and through her hazy vision and pounding headache she was able to perceive that they were all kissing and making love to each other.
She got up hastily, despite the streak of pain that shot across her forehead, and scanned the room. It seemed that most of the people in it had come to by now, and were all either following the example of the women on the couch, or dancing to the loud music pounding through the stereo. Some were doing a combination of both. She stood on uneasy legs and carefully made her way through the room.
She finally spotted Virgil towards the back, chatting up a well-endowed woman who was easily a foot taller than him.
"Come," Mary Ann grunted, grabbing his wrist and dragging him to a corner of the room where, thankfully, nobody was having sex or vomiting. He waved apologetically at the blonde amazon, and turned back to Mary Ann.
"What was that for?" He asked, sounding hurt.
"I want to get out of here," she snarled. "This is absolutely disgusting. I don't know why we even came here in the first place, if all there is to do is drink and smoke and fu–"
Mary Ann was cut off suddenly by a trumpet, which blasted a proud and regal-sounding herald, and clashed awfully with the dance music. Everyone fell quiet immediately, and somebody found the 'off' button for the stereo. Thrusting couples came to a stop immediately and looked at the trumpeter anxiously.
"Her Majesty, the Queen, has arrived early from her skiing holiday on Candy Mountain, and deigns to grace you with her presence," cried the trumpeter, who was dressed similarly to Piliper.
"Oh! Magnifico!" The cry came from a slick-looking dark haired man in a purple suit, with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel. A heavy gold medallion on a thick gold chain lay nestled in his abundant chest hair.
Everyone else clapped and cheered as well, save for Virgil, who seemed to have stopped breathing altogether. He had thrown himself against the floor behind a striped ottoman, and was whimpering quietly.
"Oh God!" she heard him whisper. "Oh, God, oh God."
She crouched next to him.
"Virgil! What's wrong? Virgil!"
Suddenly a faint rumbling reached her ears, as if she were hearing an avalanche that was occurring many miles away. She raised her head and looked about. Nobody seemed to be to be too terribly worried – in fact, once the trumpeter had disappeared, they had all resumed what they had been doing. The rumbling grew louder and louder still, until she was sure that one of the walls was going to cave in. To her surprise, people had begun to thrust and dance again, all in a furious frenzy, as if the mounting danger of the avalanche was stimulating their excitement. Just as Mary Ann had feared, a wall suddenly burst forward, and a giant red lick of flame poured into the room. Before she had a chance to figure out what was happening, Virgil had picked her up around the waist and barreled across the room, to a second door. Just as many people began to moan and cry out with pleasure, they slipped through and shut the door behind them.