"Come on... Please. Pretty Please…"
I knew I was acting like a child. In fact, I distinctly remember a time where I insisted to my mum to take me to the cinema to see a film and I was exactly the same. Bless her heart, she managed to stay strong against my begging knowing that we couldn't afford to spend out during certain times when money was tight. But she never let on that things were tight to me back then. I always respected role of the single parent because of her. God, I wish I could thank her for all that.
But here and now, Rue didn't have that excuse or the strength. I had broken her down over the past hour or so since Jenelle had left us to our work.
"Huff. I suppose so." she said. "But I really would prefer to have everything done first though." She was still surrounded by clutter. I don't think she had got very far with her sorting.
"I don't know where you are but I am near enough done." I gestured to the few piles of working documents by my side, covered in coloured sticky notes on them. Getting up off the floor, I opened the filing cabinet to reveal the beautifully organised papers inside. Again, complete with pretty colour coded system. I was good when it came to pretty colour coded systems of organising.
Rue was stunned. "Woah. Wow. You have… Wow. I don't know what to say, this is incredible. You have done such an amazing job. I don't actually know how I am going to thank you for doing all this for me."
"Showing me this 'other part of the club' would be enough," I said. "Please."
She gave a small puff of exhaled air, "Oh okay. Alright then. It's almost lunchtime anyway."
Whatever did she mean? "It's three in the afternoon, isn't that a little late for lunch?"
"Oh! Blasted ticker is wrong again." She exclaimed, tapping the watch on her wrist furiously with a finger. "Hey ho, let's go though. We can pick up some food on our way."
We walked through the corridor, indifferent to how it looked earlier, back towards the familiar bar space. It looked remarkably like it did last night too. Just as busy for starters and the same bartender stood there, polishing up the counter till it glowed a little under the white spotlights. It took a few moments before he noticed we were standing there.
"Did you need something, Rue?"
"Just an Akasen will do. Oh, Gilly, have you met Lily here?" He looked at me, immediately recognising me, his cheeks a touch rosier than they were.
"Yes, though I wish I hadn't so I could have the chance to make a better first impression." He chuckled. "Again, sorry about that. Just doing what I was asked to do."
Could I hold it against him? No. Not really. I mean, who knows what would have happened if I was in the room when -gulp- it happened. Would I have witnessed it? Would I be dead too in that case? With a shiver lingering at my spine, I decided that I didn't want to consider all these dark 'what ifs' anymore. Though it wasn't the best cover up in the world (I'm sure Gilly would be the first to agree there), it did spare me from a lot. So, really, I actually had a lot to thank him for.
Now, however, was not the time to do it though it seemed, for Rue had already staggered her way back out of the room, crooning my name over and over. Gilly pointed the direction she went for me and gave me a brief wave as I ran to catch her up.
Not that I understood where she was going. We were supposed to be going to see the rest of this place, so why were we going back the same way we came? Also, didn't she just order something and leave it behind? But hey, I was still going to go along. Even if it's to make sure Rue didn't forget something herself.
"Ah, I thought I lost you for a moment," she murmured as she stopped in the middle of the second corridor, the one past the one with the stairs to the apartment, allowing me to catch up.
"Thanks for waiting up."
"Waiting?" She said quizzically, "I wasn't doing that."
"But you stopped?"
She looked around us. "Yes, but I was just about to open the door." And now it was my turn to look quizzical. Whatever did she mean? I was about to probe her on what she meant by it all, but she had already turned away from me, rubbing at the walls. Suddenly, questioning about the door comment was not so dominate in my mind.
A chuck of the wall came away and with complete surprise, I jumped out a foot back. Rue smiled widely. I imagine the words 'I told you so' was ringing in her mind at this moment. She held the door open as her head bobbed towards the opening.
I stepped inside. The space was rather small and dark, like all the secret passageways I remember reading in children's adventure books growing up. I suppose it is supposed to be much like that. Super secret. So I could only imagine what would be at the end of this very secret hidden passage.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel (excuse the super cliche line). I blinked and tried to take in the entirety of this brand new world; the wonderland down this rabbit hole.
I could describe this place, this other world, pretty well in just two words: Luxurious and velvety. So much velvet. The nice type, not the cheap nasty stuff either you find on grotty bar stools. It literally screamed "I'm super expensive!" as I hovered my hand apprehensively close with the intent of having a sneaky touch of the wine red material.
The room was surprisingly large, with super high cream ceilings, considering the cosiness of the corridor. It was so grand. And it was hidden right underneath a quiet little club.
"What is this place?"
I turned to find Rue had disappeared. I span around, but she didn't seem to be any near me. So where had she gone?
From across the room, I could see two men accompanied by some girls. Though I couldn't quite tell from my position, one gent was sharing a glass with the green haired girl perched in his lap. The other gent seemed fixated on the girl standing before him, swaying in time to the soft music that played in the background.
"What'cha looking at?"
"Ah! Where did you go?" I jumped, not expecting Rue to suddenly appear once again. She took my hand and pull me to a large counter area, covered in gold and gleaming mirrors. She pulled me onto a stool whilst she sat on the other. She seemed to have brushed straight passed my question and eyed the small party over the other side.
"That's Lana over there."
Rue pointed towards life size doll standing over the seated gent. Yes, I knew she was actually a girl. Or woman? It seemed odd really, this was the part I was thinking over. Honestly, things were starting to shock me less and less about this place. Though I really sincerely hoped she was just a childish looking woman.
"The doll?" I asked, just to double check I was indeed heading down the right path of thought. I'd hate to assume and be horrifically wrong.
"The girl who looks like a doll, yes."
"She's very pretty."
This point was true no matter what she was. Girl, Woman, Person or Doll. Whatever label she fit under. With long wavy locks and big doe eyes I could see even from this far away, she was certainly a beauty. I couldn't stop looking. Especially at her single dark eye, very different from her other, much lighter coloured eye.
"Indeed. Not so much when she first found us though. She was a right mess back then. Scars, slashes, shoddy stitches. She was like something straight out of some cult horror film." She immediately changed her tone. "I mean, I-I did what I could to save her beautiful face, even gave her a new eye - not the right colour, but it was a case of what we had at the time."
"What you had at the time?" I said, almost deadpan.
Rue stuttered and coughed, "Erm… Well. you see…"
"It was donated?" I helped her out a little with the wording. I already had a good sense of what was going on around here. I'd seen the movies. I got it more so than she probably realised.
"In a sense."
"In the sense that they died and had no real say in the matter?" Again, helping.
"As I said, it was what we had at the time," Rue said briskly.
Clearly, for some reason or another, Rue was not exactly being straight with me. Maybe that was simply the way she was about it all. Who was I to know? I had only just met the woman after all. So, I thought it was best to move on, ask the more 'acceptable' sorts of questions. "And it's all okay? As it should be?"
"It's an eye. It does eye things so it's a pretty good eye. And it's a good conversation starter with the more shy types we get in. OH!" She excitedly pointed towards another girl who had just entered the room with a red-faced gentlemen, through an archway, showing him back towards the others. "And that's Ariel."
"The redhead is called Ariel… as in the Disney princess?"
Rue smiled, "It's funny you bring up that particular character because they share more than a name and hair colour."
"No. I'm not - No…" I stuttered. She couldn't mean. "She has two legs!" I knew how stupid I sounded right after I said it. But there was no way. No way on this Earth, not even in this crazy, mixed up part of the Earth was I going to believe this was a mermaid in front of me.
"She's out of water at the moment."
Somehow I refrained from adding more colourful language into my next response, "you've got to be kidding me." Rue chuckled at me, her cheeks glowing rosy as she began explaining, slowly.
"She wears one of those professional mermaid suits; with the super-realistic tail and such. That was her old job before she came here. She wears it and, effectively, becomes a mermaid."
Alright. She got me. Maybe I wasn't as okay with everything as I thought I was.
Stunned into silence, for the first time in years, she carted me around the new area pointing out the new and strange things that we could get access to at the time. A number of rooms were still 'occupied' so didn't take much of a look there. Once enlightened with some new knowledge, we went back to the bar. The normal, regular looking bar without anything particular strange about it.
"Once again, thank you very much for your help, Lily."
"You're welcome but it was no problem, just glad I could actually be of help.
"Oh, you were. You really were." She smiled. "In fact, take the afternoon off. Do whatever you fancy doing around here." I made note on the particular phrasing of that statement. Around here. I mean, I shouldn't expect any less but still.
"You mean it? You sure?"
"Positive. You earned it."
So, what to do then? I mean, I was given this opportunity but I had no idea on what to do with it.
"Anyway, I better get back. I'll see you later." With a small wave, Rue left me there to head back to her office.
I decided to take a seat. At least until I knew what to do with myself, it seemed like a plan.
"Hey, you alright there?" I looked up to see that Gilly had returned, presumable from out the back, standing by the door.
"Oh, yeah, thanks."
He stepped forward and leaned against the counter casually. "So, how did you find the grand tour?" Now, how plainly could I put it? Again, avoiding any colourful language that I could use.
He grinned showing off prominent dimples when he did. "Not surprised really. Did you want something to drink?" My mouth was parched and I hadn't even noticed until he brought it up.
"A water would be great, thanks."
"Just water?" He asked, raising an eyebrow. Honestly, the prospect of something stronger was playing on my mind as a possibility despite it still being a weekday afternoon. I decided against it in the end; it wasn't exactly a thing to get into. "If this one gets spilt, it will be the easiest thing to clean up," I ended up saying to him.
Gilly blushed. Still rather embarrassed by that it seemed. In that case, I guess he was really sincere and actually felt bad about it. Despite, you know, the latter option of him not doing that would have ended up much, much worse for me. "I'm really sorry about that by the way."
"It's fine. Actually, I want to thank you."
"Thank me?" He seemed confused by this somehow like this was the most absurd thing I could have said. Was it really an absurd thing? In any other context, a girl may forgive a guy for knocking over their drink and ruining their outfit, but never thank. Maybe, I guess, it was a little bit then.
"I was only really doing what was asked of me; but you're welcome." And now, like some badly scripted comedy or something, it was my turn to look confused. Whatever did he mean by that? I tried to think it over in my head, be all logical, but in the end I got nowhere. My pride would have to be put aside for a few moments and hope that it was worth it. "You were asked?" I questioned him.
He smiled. "Yeah, by Nora. In her way, she asked to get you out of there." When could she have done this? At no point in time were they alone; they weren't even out of my earshot. She never asked. She never Implied anything. Three words he said though rang inside my head. I was ridiculously curious now.
"In her way?"
"Code." He announced clearly. "You'll probably pick up on some of it soon enough as it seems you'll be sticking around with us for a bit."
That point had, almost, slipped my mind in between the madness and curiosity of this place. I was Alice and I entered the rabbit hole the minute I entered those black double doors with the swirly leaves and white writing. Everywhere was something different, more twisted, more dark than the thing it proceeded.
In reality, I shouldn't feel like this. I should feel terrified, I should feel completely out of my depth and deeply concerned about my future days. However, I didn't in all honesty. The white dress girl, Shiro, chilled me to my core but other than that… That probably isn't normal to admit, is it?
"Yeah… speaking of which," I began. "Is there any tips you can give me for surviving here?" My theory was Gilly was the most normal here. He was nice, or at least nice even to listen and nice enough to have some morals. Also, though maybe closer to the others than the vast majority of the staff here who I had spotted flitting in and out during the course of my stay here, he still was on the fringe. He was enough of an outsider to be an observer. He would be the type to know these answers. Or that's what I truly hoped.
He put on thoughtful frown. "Tips? Hm. Dr Winters is alright. Most of the time."
"Most of the time?"
"Well, she's a scientist more so than a doctor. So from time to time, scientific curiosity and ethics get a little bit…" he searched for the right word, "...skewed. But generally she's absolutely fine and lovely and reserves the weirdness for the people who don't mind it or the people who can't dispute about it." A clear euphemism there.
"You mean the dead?" He brought himself forward, leaning across the shiny surface that separated us and brought his voice down low. "We avoid saying 'the dead' outright like that. Otherwise we start sounding like we're undertakers."He straighten himself back up again, "but it can't be helped with the Bailis really."
The Bailis. It kept on coming up.' Our family' Princess had even said as we met. I knew there was definitely one Baili: Jenelle, who I had just been introduced to. I didn't know anyone else's last name yet but it always seemed to be in reference to the group of them; Nora, Princess, Shiro and Jenelle. Maybe even Rue too though her name as different. It was not impossible...
"Right, this is definitely going to sound really stupid but… They're not all related, are they?"
Gilly stifled a little laugh. "Oh no, no…" he seemed to stop midway through to give me a strange look. Bizarre. I was almost about to question him if he was having a stroke when he continued on, as if nothing had even happened. "To my knowledge, Jenelle and Shiro were childhood friends. Nora met everyone during her university years and then connected them afterwards. But they all welcomed a new start which included the new name - with Doc as the exception. She still goes by her name of Winters." Well that answered that. Almost.
"Any reason why?"
"Not sure. I think she just simply prefers it."
"Ah, right. Thanks, I shouldn't go and say something stupid now. At least relating to that."
I decided to change the subject. "So how did you find your way here then, Gilly?" I wanted to know a little more about him. Mainly because he seemed so cool, so collected about everything here. But he also seemed to be- oh, how do I put it?- the most normal person around here. He probably wasn't a bad person to know and be friendly with around here.
"I've pretty much been here from the beginning," he began. He went quiet, solemn, almost as if he was remembering back to those times before. I felt almost rude observe such a private moment especially went it looked like Gilly was about to shed a tear. But he brightened up and the feeling seemed to pass by as if it was nothing to be concerned over at all. "Nora's pretty much the sister I never had so when I hit a rough patch she helped me out. Part of that was the job here. Simple as really."
"So you're pretty much the one in the know about everything around here?" I knew it. It's always the bartender you need to keep on your side. Always. Gilly gave a laugh at this. "That's certainly one way of looking at it."
One down but I still had a few more to ask about. "So what about the others? What can you tell me about them?" He didn't take much ine for thinking with this one. I believe that, maybe, he knew I wouldn't let up on this just yet. "Princess is exactly as advertised. Other than the gender query. Fortunately, you can't actually go wrong with someone who considers themselves genderfluid."
From that moment we first met, I did wonder. Particularly after that French kiss greeting. "I did wonder," I mused again.
"I think everyone does in the beginning. But nice as pie. Treats everyone just like they're extended family. So don't cause fights with anyone else or then you might be in a bit of trouble." He pressed on straight away. "Jenelle's away a lot of the time due to what she does but you can tell when she's back. She is the party girl type in her spare time. Super serious in business though, that includes her office, so don't go in there without her permission and you should have absolutely no problems."
In order to not forget these very important notes I recapped them and recited them, hoping they would stick mentally. "Don't cause fights and don't go in Jenelle's office. Next one."
"Nora's… Nora." As the aforementioned sister he never had, could I rely on any words of warning or advice? No. I guess in that area there was going to be some bias. Most people would never talk bad of their sister figure. Then again, maybe I really didn't have anything to be concerned over. After all, if what Gilly had said was true, Nora got me out of that room as well as standing up for me afterwards. She pretty much saved me. Despite that, I still had a niggling thought in my mind though. How does someone get involved in a place like this, without reason.
A dark reason.
Any ways, last but by no means least…"And Shiro?" He took a breather, that resets lister of composure. Annoying though, it made me more tense. My chest ached from the anticipation of hearing this particular answer.
"Shiro's okay really." My face dropped. I felt it. He quickly reacted in response, "I know I know, she's cold when she doesn't seem to like you."
"She doesn't like me. At all."
Despite all the truth I could manage just to get him to see this, he still smirked with an almost arrogant sense of disbelief at me. Lie it couldn't possibly be true. If he was about to tell me that girl wouldn't hurt a fly or could melt butter; I was going to call bullshit on him. It wasn't how I was raised, sure, but I wasn't taught to blindly accept what I wanted to hear either.
"Is she really icy? Distant? Looks like she's thinking about using that katana of hers against you whilst you sleep?" To my utter shock, he nailed it. Exactly. So maybe he did know then.
"Yeah. Exactly so. How do you know that though?"
"She's like that with pretty much anyone new. I remember being there. It passes though so don't worry too much. Just don't give her real reason to dislike you. This is nothing in comparison to that. And she is a real grudge holding type - she will never let it go." That I could believe.
"So, Shiro, as long as she doesn't actually hate you, it will pass. I'll make a note of that." Maybe literally too. Consider it a cheat sheet. I broadly smiled, now feeling a great weight had fallen from off my person. I almost felt relaxed for the first time since what happened. "Thanks Gilly." Coyly, he gave me a quick wink as he found his dishcloth again. "Any time."
I stood up from my bar stool and stretched out my legs. I was really stiff so I suspect we had been here longer than I realised.
"Look, there's one more thing I have to ask."
"Shoot," he said, unphased by the prospect.
"How… How well did… ugh…" I couldn't help the stuttering and stammering. Did this really matter? Did I really need to, or rather want to know the answer? I muscled up my inner strength to ask it anyway. "How well did Connor know this place?"
He blinked a few times. Creases formed along his eyes. "Well…" he started.
"Don't worry about sparing my feelings or anything. I would rather know than not. I think."
Gilly seemed to relax slightly at this. I suppose, for him, there was a little less pressure of saying the wrong thing. I think I was prepared for the truth. He knew where this tucked away place was, he knew the bouncer by name and heck, he recognised Nor like she was an old friend. He knew this place. But the ins and outs. The other places within here beyond the club, the whispers of things I had picked up through the day. Had he known about that?
"I wish I could be of help but I didn't exactly know him. I mean, I recognised him and I can tell you he came in... a lot. He never really stuck around in here though, if you catch what I mean. If you really want to know more, it's probably best to ask Jenelle or even Princess." I sighed. So he had to some degree. I was right but I still didn't feel good about it. Also, I had to keep digging too in order to find out more, it was like pawing at a festering wound.
"I… see… thanks Gilly . You've been a big help."