Hartwin stands by the coat drop of the basement club and watches Ray's kid sister while holding a bottled cheap beer he can't afford. He rations each drink and lets the souring taste sit in his mouth before swallowing. Teasing his thumb over the bottleneck, his grimy fingernail makes an indent into the chewing gum he stuck near the rim. He toys with it while it cools and hardens, then he draws it across the glass with his thumb, forcing it to stick. Harper told him only people who were sexually frustrated played with beer labels and fidgeted while drinking. She would frown, tell him to cut it out.
The club is cramped and painted black from floor to ceiling, projections of bright white-on-black themed comic panels large and distorted on each squat wall, shaping dizzy in pixilated swirls of timeless villains and superheroes. The circular center bar is small and flooded, the dance floor full and the music too loud. Hartwin isn't the only one leaning against the coat-drop wall watching the crowd. Every tiny round table dotted on the floor is taken, and even the far booths brim with shouted conversations fracturing and rumbling low. Wren says something Hartwin can't hear and he knows he looks stupid with his AKGs, so he draws them down around his neck and pretends interest in watching the shifting comic pinholes against the wall behind Ray's kid sister. The music doesn't sweep him up, it just causes him to grind his teeth.
The last time Hartwin watched Ray's kid sister, he saw her tonguing Harper on a couch the color of ash and charred river wood at a summer house party. He left through the kitchen into the backyard, where Ray smashed colored recycled plastic into a twisted bonfire, shifting the flames into lizard greens and searing blues. Now the memory eats as he waits and stares, anxiety almost melting him onto the cramped dance floor. He imagines touching her shoulder for her wanted attention. She won't look towards him, but it steals him time to remember her name. He thinks it might be Emma, but he isn't sure.
He swigs the last of his beer and looks near the bar, where he glimpses the wave of Harper's long hair swished in thick dub, the ghost-flesh of her skin flashed in whiter strobe. He sickens with fresh shakes she caused. Pins prick up his arms and into his chest. He's known Harper as long as anything else he's known. They'd gone to the same flipside school, one of the last in the states that still had teachers hand-grading. Uniforms. Hall bells, lockers. They'd kicked the system at sixteen and moved East river where they squatted and hacked up with shiny Arc jobs, skimming and selling cheap scrap parts underhand. Things were good. They made cool credit and learned to love each other. Then they'd been caught and it was over as quick as it started.
It was Harper's idea to go cold off web technology after they'd been caught. They quit everything. For awhile he felt like he'd never catch up when he started running hacks for Ray only months after vowing quits. His hands felt strange on the input devices, but he could code faster and fresher, key clean. So while he worked for credits he let Harper live in her retro low-technology dream collecting broken landline telephones and soggy printed books. She'd walk her dog on wasted river paths in the morning and read the 1984 15th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica in late evenings. He remembers feeling impossibly upset with her. She made low-tech living look easy. She made loving him look easy.
In the basement club Hartwin doesn't feel anything towards her except desperate, with a hunger she caused late last week after she cut craving from his chest when she stole his console-server before disappearing. Maybe they fought before she slammed the doors and shouted she wasn't coming back. He doesn't remember. If she said anything to him it was muted by terminal space and command line interfaces. In her absence he doesn't ache for her, just for the things she stole from him.
Now Hartwin sinks into the crowd after her, unthinking. His mouth runs dry and he feels sweat drip between his shoulder blades. Her mane of hair flicks, turned, back and forth, her eye catching him, her look a swarm of things left unsaid between them. She's wearing her high-waisted blood red skirt and a blue buffalo T-shirt he used to wear before she took it from him. White hot light brightens her red lipstick as he watches her mouth curve into a pout made worse by harsh synth and thick pop. She reaches and touches his shoulder. Her hand is corpse cold against his neck and her voice is blue velvet in his ear: "Hartwin," she sighs, "you're the worst." Her searching eyes are two impossible glittered stars.
He feels his hand clutch tight around the bottleneck of his empty beer. After she left he tried to cry. He tried to act upset about all the things she took: his VR console-server, his coding cheats, his Nintendo handheld. But he could only slump into his bed and stare at the moving shadows, letting his addiction eat underneath his skin until he started getting the shakes and Wren kept sounding snipped alarms. Maybe he's been flipside six whole days. He doesn't remember. She's wrecking him to the core and she knows it.
Her pout turns into a smirk and her hand cups at his waist. Something wet drips down his arm from the palm of his hand. She parts her red lips, on the verge of saying anything or everything... But then she disappears. He watches her unwind like conjured smoke, long wisps, everything twirling gone for good right before his junkie eyes glaring metallic the glint of white strobes.
He's holding his bottle upside down, high above his head and ready to strike, the flat beer dribbling a trail to his elbow.
Ray's kid sister looks fierce and upset. She hits him across the mouth and he drops the bottle, stunned. When it drops, it cracks on the floor and he imagines the noise but doesn't hear it above the pulsed broken jazz music. A dark wave rolls nausea in his chest and stomach. He groans, his body convulsing into shakes and a cold sweat, and he feels himself fold just before Ray's kid sister is pulling him through the pressing crowd and into a cramped set of bathroom stalls. "Big macho man, huh!" she's shouting, voice thick and whole, "about to hit a chica! Jealous pinche shithead!"
He bends and goes sick into the toilet's colored water, weathering each rolling wave. The taste of soured stale beer thins on his tongue and he hears Ray's kid sister laughing somewhere behind him. He gags and spits until there's nothing left but watery saliva, the toilet's auto-flush on a broken loop. The stench of stale piss and bile chokes, and he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and arm before he drags himself standing.
Going dizzy, he sees stars tinkling back and forth across his peripheral vision while waiting for bathroom to right itself. A woman shoves past him into the next empty stall and he sees a man with his back turned at one of the urinals. Ray's kid sister isn't there. The door-woman stares at him with a hooked sneer and he pushes his AKGs up around his ears, swinging his Arc from the front pocket of his trousers. He barely hears Wren: Forty minutes until the Dakota Dunes 22:45, his hands shaking, each bony finger unsteady. When he looks up two women are laughing at the sinks, sliding hooked looks in his direction.
He emerges from the bathroom and Ray's kid sister perches, yanking his AKGs around his neck, her look swirling drunken resolve. She shouts at him. "Why're you here? You're all junked up with glares. You looking for Harpy? She toss her Arc again—force you outside for once?"
"You're Ray's kid sister, right?" he says, playing it cool.
She snorts with disbelief, says just loud enough for Hartwin to hear: no no pido disculpas! Then shouts: "Harpy told me you were some big hacker-estupido! How'd you know I'd be here? You tab into my Arc?" She looks like she might hit him a second time and he braces, his teeth grit and jaw set. She's covered in dazzling light, smacked with each strobe, true blue feathers floating from each earlobe and skin hued warm brown. She looks the way Harper would look after a night out, all sequins and golden fish scales, shouldering scents of sugared cherry vodka and leaving silvered glitter in his hair, stamped into the bedsheets near dawn.
"Hey, por favor, you know where she is?" he says.
Ray's kid sister throws her head back and laughs at him before clawing her talon-like fingers at his shoulder and hunching him close. Her painted blue lips brush his ear. "She said you came out flipside and couldn't think to remember her name. You got big guts, showing up here like this. You went and broke a poor girl's heart, you know?"
He doesn't say anything and he's glad Ray's kid sister doesn't act like she expects a response from him.
She lets go of his shoulder and moves her talons to her hips. "Heard she stole all your tricked VR gear, that what you want from her?"
"Yeah," he says, trying to steady his hands by digging them into his pockets. Hartwin's shoulders press into a wall swirling with a Lex Luther panel. Think you got me this time, Superman?
"Besame el culo, junkie-joder," Ray's kid sister shouts, "even if I knew I wouldn't say! If I were you, I'd find some new tricked gear." Her sneer grins and he thinks she might've winked at him, but he can't be sure under the spin lights. "It costs a whole lot to skip town, yeah? Harpy was talking Colorado last I heard!"
"Okay," he says, hollowed. The memories of leaving his hometown with Harper mute. He turns away from Ray's kid sister and the credit price of a new console-server worms his thoughts. He remembers staring at the web price, more expensive than the used ones in the Tyson district. Even used, the price was too expensive. He hadn't done a run for Ray in months.
He shows his wrist for the woman at the coat-drop to scan for retrieval of his run-pack, and she smacks her gum, disappearing into the closet of racks and shelves. He feels a hand pull at his shoulder. Blue lips press against his ear. "You're an awful person," says Ray's kid sister, smirking like she's unearthed something no one's ever said to him before. He wonders if she can feel him trembling underneath the grip of her talons, warmed against the clammy skin of his neck.
"Yeah," he says, an afterthought.
But she's already gone, and he doesn't think she heard him.
(C) EMSL (lookingwest) 2009-2013 (id423768); protected under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.