Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Bide-A-Nite

 

 

 

That night I would've followed Stella anywhere, with or without the knives.  In fact, I'd already followed her plenty of strange places in the reckless two months I'd known her.  Like to an all-night gay bar in downtown Charleston, complete with transvestite strip show.  And a slam-dancing festival at Newgate Prison, this rowdy black-light bikers' hangout in Richmond.  Plus behind the tents at the West Virginia State Fair, for moonshine and pay-to-view live sex acts. So the Bide-A-Nite was no big deal in terms of its no-tell motel seediness.  All this was eye-popping outrageous for me, a gal who wore above-the-knee plaid kilts to an all-girls Catholic high school.  Who’d never met anyone vaguely like Stell. Like I said, I would've followed her anywhere.

Especially since this excursion was going to be a "just the two of us" event, one of those rare nights she suggested we do something without a gang.  Stella gravitated to the energy of crowds, glommed onto groups like dark on night.  When she said, "What say we go to the Bide-A-Nite, just me and you?  I got a thing I want to try," I never even considered no as a possible answer.  By then I'd given up on the pretense of going to classes, of keeping up my coursework.  I only used the dorm for sleep, usually during the day.  My time was Stell's.  That's how it had to be, if I wanted to be along for her ride. 

I met her in a crowd, at a beer bash at the Gateway.  It was the motel closest to town, near my second-rate West Virginia conservative college where "party" and "off campus" were synonymous.  The entire school consisted of two dorms and an academic building and a gym, with some trees and benches strewn around. The dreary town boasted a restaurant, a gas station, and an all-night convenience store that might as well have kept the door propped open, so many kegs went in and out on weekends.  Townies like Stell didn't actually live in town; they slithered out of the surrounding hills.  And while they claimed to hate the guts of the permanent-pressed college students, a few regulars came to the motel parties.  They made us feel superior, edgy. 

The Gateway:  twelve rooms that stayed rented out all weekend.  About eight were usually designated as party rooms; the others were for key-passing, for brief coupling interludes.  The Gateway was the "happening" place.  Nobody ever went to the Bide-A-Night.  That first time I saw her Stell was rubbing up against this Brian guy I sorta knew from Sociology.  He had one hand right up the front of her black-ribbed tank top, and it was obvious he was playing with her breasts.  Caressing, slow and easy.  His other hand was edging down the front of his tight jeans.  And the two of them were talking and laughing in one another's faces, acting like they weren't even part of what was going on with his hands.  To my mind this was pretty out-of-bounds big-party-room behavior, but actually pretty stimulating, too.  This Brian had always seemed studious in class.  I'd borrowed his notes a few times when I'd slept in, and his handwriting was small and neat like a girl's.  So I was startled to see him being so openly sexed-up.  And Stell egging him on. Maybe that's what made me zero in on Stell, but I don't think so.  Something restless and daring about her I couldn't resist.  I think she'd have caught my attention even if she'd been sitting in the corner by herself eating chips.

Her hair was in a crew cut.  Not one of those shaved-head exotic looks the trendy models were wearing now, in 1987, but an actual old-time flat top, no mousse or spikes.  I knew this haircut from my parents, who collected fifties film and television trivia.  I’d seen all of Ozzie and Harriet as a child; her do was like David Nelson’s, only shorter.  My parents Nancy and Sydney had an entire room back home filled with that stuff, complete with reels of all the old TV shows and movies.  Their collection was priceless; Nancy was writing a book.  Those two talked about the fifties like it was some period of American Paradise.  In fact, that was the title of Nancy's research study:  American Paradise, the Fifties Reflected in Television and Film.  Maybe Sidney actually had a flat top in some of his childhood pictures.  Maybe that’s where I saw it. I tend to have a hard time seeing him as anything but the little Mr. Peepers character he is now, wire rims and receding thin hairline and lispy voice, but I have a vague image of those photographs.  So I recognized crew cut right off, and how odd it was for the times, not only for a girl.   Stell had a pretty face, but it was never still long enough so a person could analyze what made it pretty.  Lots of teeth, full lips, high cheekbones, a sharp chin, a killer complexion, but mostly I believe her beauty shot out from those eyes, those darker than asphalt, restless eyes that snapped and took in everything and everybody, that jumped to sound and shadow and movement.

That night when somebody yelled to me from the keg, "Kayla, you want something in that cup?"  those eyes jumped to me.

"Kayla?  That your name?  What kind of name is Kayla?"  Her hand eased up and shoved Brian's away as she pushed away from the wall and walked toward me.

"Druid priestess, I'm told." 

"What kinda priestess?"

"Druid.  Like back at Stonehenge."

"Sun worshippers?  Spells and sacrifices and shit like that?  That kinda goddess?"

"I suppose."  No point in getting into a thing about goddess and priestess, trying to yell out fine points in the midst of all the rowdiness.

"Well where'd you get it?  How come your folks named you a name like that?"

"My Dad's the medieval scholar at U of R.  He dabbles in pre-history."

"He dabbles in pre-history."  She mimicked my voice perfectly.  I wasn't aware it had such a whine.  "A kicking name like Kayla, and you talk like some rich little sweet britches."  Despite the put-down, I had her attention.  Her impatient eyes were still locked onto me, like she expected something more.  She wore no make-up, no jewelry, just the black tank top and a snug jeans mini-skirt and men's black socks and regulation Army dress shoes.  This plainness served to emphasize the tattoos that covered both her upper arms – one fire-breathing Japanese dragon, like sailors in the fifties got in the Pacific, one salmon-colored flamingo.  The bird was unfurling its wings, like it was preparing to take off, with a wary eye looking over its shoulder.  Stell was smaller than I was, strong all over, but her presence was way bigger.  I felt like I was a rich little sweet britches, standing there talking to her, wearing the designer jeans and new striped jersey I'd chosen with such care for the party. 

"You're bout big enough for that name, that's for sure."

Was she daring me in some way?  "You're so right; it's a name that wouldn't suit a shrimp."  I met her gaze.  I was what the country songs always blasting on our campus referred to as a big hefty gal:  5-10, large boned, wide at the shoulders and the hips, broad busted.  Right now my nipples were perking up, stretching toward Stella.

She laughed, a raucous barroom kind of laugh.  "Not bad, Kayla.  I like a woman who won't take any shit."

That felt like the most extraordinary compliment I'd ever heard:  I like a woman who won't take shit.  Admittedly I wasn't the Marilyn Monroe type, the temptress guys drool over when they envision their dream queen. I was more the Miss Kitty perennial pal.  I'd found out the hard way that guys keep their pals separate from their sex toys.  I was always along with the group, but even with the gigantic boobs nobody ever invited me to the key-passing rooms, or whispered sweet nothings in my ear.

"So what say, Kayla-goddess-girl—want to grab a six and go gaze at the stars?  You got wheels?"

"Out front.  But I don't have an I.D."

"Not a problem."  She was already shouldering her way through the crowd toward the door.  I followed.  Which is what I did for the next eight weeks.

* * *

 

That night we went up on Rebel Ridge, this riverbank overlook where a Civil War skirmish was supposed to have taken place.  We drank beer and talked all night.  Nobody had ever been half as interested in what I had to say.  By morning I knew Stell couldn't put two words together without lying, but it didn't matter.  My parents' white-bread reality had bored me since I was twelve; the nuns' self-serving lies had ceased scaring me at about the same time.  Besides, Stell's lying wasn't the treat-you-like-you're-an-idiot type; it was the I-want-to-impress-you kind, which made her more human to me.  Which made her like me, in one way that was important.

"Where'd you get your name?"  I finally got around to returning the question.

"I was named for Marlon Brando."

"Huh? 

"I was gonna be Marlon if I was a boy, cause my Daddy thought Marlon Brando was the bossest guy in the world.  He loved him boxing and street fighting and being a kick-butt cowboy.  He wanted one tough-ass little boy.  So when I was a girl, he named me Stella, for that line Brando screams in that movie.  You know:  STELL-LAAA!   That's how I got to be Stell."

"No kidding?" 

"Why would I kid about my name?"

Stell had maybe four years on me.  Still, I couldn't imagine her Daddy watching those old movies.  Mine did, sure.  But hers?  I didn't want to be a snob, but sneaky doubt did creep into my head. Was Stella even her name?

"So where are you from?"

"I go to college here.  I'm from Chicago." 

I'd never seen her on campus.  Her accent was no more Chicago than mine; it was pure West Virginia hills.  "What year?"

"I'm finishing.  Fourth year.  I'm doing an independent study right now."

Sure.  We sipped beer and she asked about me, and I told her about Sid and Nancy.  She about choked when she found out my parents had the same names as the lead singer from the Sex Pistols and his honey who offed themselves.  I assured her the names suited my parents much more than the punk rockers.  Daddy Sid looked exactly like a Sidney, and Nancy was tall and skinny and Nancy-plain – that's where I got my height.  Nobody knows where I inherited my large bone structure.  Maybe from the Druids. "How about you, you have any brothers and sisters?" 

"Ten.  I'm the baby.  I got nieces and nephews my age.  You?"  She managed to shift the conversation back to me.

"I'm an only.  My parents were in their forties when I came along.  Nancy thought Sid was shooting blanks, but turned out he wasn't." 

"So it was just you and the old fogies?  Weird."

"They didn't seem old to me.  Or weird, when I was a kid.  Other people seemed weird.  It's hard to explain.  Maybe like people who are suspended in space or something from a sci-fi movie.  We were always talking about the Middle Ages or the fifties; the present seemed inconsequential, you know?  They didn't even listen to the news, just kept the television tuned to the re-run stations.  I never had baby sitters.  One or the other was always home with me. I guess they arranged their classes around me, but I didn't know that at the time.  They were my playmates, my buddies, not just my parents. 

"Major weirdness."

“I know.  I mean, I finally got it: what kind of girl spends all her time looking at old TV shows or illuminated manuscripts.”

“No shit.”

"I guess I was in sixth grade when I finally realized that we were the different ones.  I thought the other kids teased me ‘cause I was tall.  Of course Sid insisted they were envious, because I was going to grow up to be a beauty like my mother.  It took me until sixth grade to realize that his notion of beauty had nothing to do with contemporary reality: the reality of the boys I went to school with.  The whole 'Leave It To Beaver' picture crashed and burned."

"Screw 'em to the wall."  Her words were sharp as broken glass

"Who?"  I couldn't believe she'd be talking about my parents with so much venom.

"God damn smart-ass know-it-all boys.  Their puny-ass put-downs make me want to vomit.  Nothing better than jerkin ‘em around, beatin’ em at their own dumb-ass games."

"Yeah, well, I went to high school with all girls, and they were just as bad."

"Preppies should be exterminated.  Blown off the face of the earth." Her voice was edgy, sharp.

"They'd be my friends one day, calling me Brunhilda the Viking behind my back the next.  It took me a while to catch on."

"Who you gonna trust?"

"I couldn't wait to graduate, to get out of there, to come to a coed school somewhere far away from my parents and my so-called friends."

"What a pack of losers."

I couldn't tell if she meant the people I'd left behind, or the ones we'd only just left at the Gateway.  It didn't matter.

"You know how to skim rocks?"  She stood up suddenly, started feeling around on the dark ground for rocks.  I was too heavy with beer to move; I guess I'd drunk four to her one.  "My Daddy taught me how to skim rocks when I was only two or three."  On Lake Michigan, I wondered? She started tossing stones toward the water.  I leaned up on both elbows.  It looked to me like they were merely clunking in the water, not skipping, but it was still dark.  "You gotta have the right kinda flat rock to do it."  She kept on tossing; I could hear her missiles hit the water with a plop; I never heard a single zit-zit-zit, like one was dancing over the surface.

"Where'd you get your tattoos?"

"San Francisco.  The tattoo shops out there are incredible.  Nothing like the small-time operations back East. In West-by-god-Virginia."  She picked up more rocks, kept throwing.

"Did it hurt?  Getting them?"

"I always got stoned first."

"So how long were you in San Francisco?"

"I worked out there a couple of summers."

"Doing what?"

"Waitressing in a topless place.  You make killer tips.  Men are such babies for titties.  I'm going back again, soon as second semester's over.  You ought to come with me, try it. 

I laughed out loud, imagining a gargantua waiting tables topless.  She looked back at me and laughed, too – not the cynical laugh from the motel, but a real, from-the-gut laugh.

*  *  * 

I left her off at the Gateway, no matter how late we stayed out.  And I always went back to my dorm room.  I had no idea what she did days when we weren't together.  I’d pretty well decided she wasn’t meeting with a professor supervising her so-called independent study. So when she said, "Let's get a room at the Bide-A-Nite, I got something I want to try," I couldn't say okay fast enough.  We'd take my car, use my money when we were together, but none of that mattered.  I figured I had until December before my parents got my grades and realized I wasn't going to classes.  I didn't think past December. 

Usually Friday nights we'd go to the Gateway bash. No matter how much Stell disdained the keg parties she had to go.  At some point we'd pile four or five select party-goers into my car with us for a road trip.  She always came up with the destination.  An aspect of her research, Stella would laugh.  Nobody believed her; it was part of the adventure.  We were the wildest of the wild, and everybody wanted to go with us.  It got to be "Stella and Kayla," like a couple.  I have to admit, I started dreaming of touching her, running my hands all over that buff body, her touching me everywhere.  In high school I dreamed of the dreamy guys who called to ask me to set them up with other girls.  But Stell was like nobody else, and to think of her in sexual terms didn't seem the least bit queer (that word batted around with a sneer at St. Ignatius).  I loved her, plain and simple, so desiring her didn't seem the least bit abnormal.  She hadn't so much as laid a hand on me, though.  Stell wasn't a hugger or a kisser. Some nights she'd leave the party for a while with a key-passer.  Afterwards she'd mock whoever she'd been with.  "God, Stell, God, Stell, I’m coming," she'd pant, then laugh her cynical laugh.  She'd double up telling me how the guy begged her to meet him the next night, and how she’d agreed but wouldn’t.  I wasn't jealous, knowing I didn't want her to use me like she used them.  But I did want her. 

* * *

I picked her up at the Gateway, like always.  She was waiting out in front of the office, holding a roll of white butcher paper under one arm and a brown canvas sack that didn't look like an overnight bag in the other hand.  It looked more like a bag some hunter might stuff ducks into after he shot them.  "What's in the sack?" 

"Knives."

"Knives?"  My voice no doubt sounded shocked.  The unexpected was the norm with Stell.  But knives?

"Yeah.  I got this thing I want to try. 

"How about the paper?" 

"What's with the third degree?  You want to go or not?"  She stood, her hand on the car door. She could go either way. 

"Of course I want to go."  She got in, and I pulled my vintage Volkswagen bug – a high school graduation gift from Sid and Nancy – out of the parking lot onto the highway.  The Bide-A-Nite was only fifteen minutes away, and Stell didn't say a word the entire drive.  She flipped the stations on the car radio, though we both knew that the only frequencies that came in clear were country, which she despised.   

"You want to get anything to eat first?  Any groceries?"  We were passing the convenience store.

Stell shook her head no, kept flipping the stations.  The static and snatches of scratchy songs made me jumpy, but I didn't complain.  Stell seemed edgy enough on her own. 

When I pulled into the empty parking lot, Stella practically jumped out of the car.  The office was at one end of the old fifties-type one-story building. The best thing about the exterior of the place was the oval neon Bide-A-Nite sign at the edge of the entrance, in pink and blue and yellow bands of light, with a coffee mug with white steam trailing along the top.  The coffee shop had been boarded up for years; I found it hard to believe that the motel managed to stay open, but I guess college events brought enough spill-over guests to make it worth their while.  Weekends like this one, with nothing special scheduled, they probably didn't even bother to make up most of the rooms.  Stell was banging on the white office storm door while I fumbled around for my credit card in my Greek bag.  I always paid, wherever we went.  Stell said she was on a grant-in-aid, said it hardly gave her enough money for books, much less food.  I seriously doubted all of this, since I'd never seen her anywhere on campus, but I didn't mind paying.  Sid and Nancy were generous, and I'd never had a friend to splurge on before.  I knew I was on borrowed time, but for now the weekly checks still arrived like clockwork.  That night I was flush.  But between the radio racket on the ride over, my anticipation of being alone in the motel room with Stell, and her cloak-and-dagger secrecy—knives?— I was pretty jangled.  My hands were Jell-o wobbly like my mother's.

"Get a move on.  We need a room."  Stell was banging on the storm door and ringing the bell and yelling all at once.  The glass globe to the side of the door snapped on, bright bug-light yellow, and the inside door opened slightly.  Strange behavior for a motel clerk, I thought.  Visions of Bates Motel only added to my nervousness, but Stell wasn't in any way deterred.  "Let us in, y’hear?  We wanna register."  Stell was pushing the door almost as soon as it was cracked.  I followed her into the brightly-lit office. 

A tiny Vietnamese man stepped away from us.  He looked as if he were walking in his sleep–his gray hair was pushed all to one side of his head, like he'd been caught in a windstorm.  I realized how I knew so easily he was Vietnamese:  he looked exactly like that prisoner in that famous photograph from the war, the man just shot in the head.  His face wasn't quite that terrified, but it was close.

"Ladies want a room?"  He continued to take tiny steps backwards in his socks and flip-flops until he bumped into the desk.  The room wasn't much bigger than a closet, with a metal desk and chair instead of a counter.  I could see a smaller room through a doorway, and a cot with a rumpled blanket and pillow.  We must've wakened him.   

"Course we want a room.  Why else would we be here?"  Stell's eyes were jumping all over the place.

"Ladies got cash? A credit card?"  He held out one sallow hand, a hand the size of a child's.  I put my plastic into it.

"Smoking, no smoking?"  He asked while he struggled to run my card through the imprint; he didn't have the newer type machine that checked the card through the phone.

"We don't care.  Just give us a room."  Stell didn't like him, I couldn't tell why, but I knew she didn't.  Maybe she just didn't like the idea of him.  He was keeping her from whatever it was she had in mind.

"Number three.  No phone.  Must come to the office to use the phone.  Must bring the telephone credit card."

"We won't be making any calls."

"No parties, please.  No guests.  No men."

Sneering, she took the key while I signed the credit voucher.  "Wouldn't want to disturb all the other customers," Stell smirked over her shoulder as we walked out, leaving him looking lopsided and dazed.  "No need to move the car," she addressed me for the first time, mocking the clerk's accent.  "Let me get my stuff."  Terse, a military command. Her voice sounded as anxious as I felt. 

Number 3 was one of those hardware store brass numbers, screwed onto the door facing the parking lot.  Stell put the key in the knob, turned it, and flicked on the overhead light beside the door.  Our room was right out of I Love Lucy:  twin beds topped with book-shelf headboards, single mattresses covered with ruffled turquoise quilts, a blondish desk with metal pulls pushed against one wall, two barreled swivel chairs placed in a conversational arrangement under the window.  Tie-back sheer curtains framed either side of the large picture window, with Venetian blinds instead of the Gateway's draw drapes.  Through a doorway I could see tiny black and white tiles covered the bathroom floor and marched halfway up the walls and all over the shower stall; the turquoise sink and toilet matched the bedspreads.  I could imagine Sid and Nancy running back to the car for the camera, holding their breaths, too stunned at such a "find" to say a word. 

"This place is a dump."  Stell stood in the doorway shaking her head.  "They don't even have a damn TV."

She was right, of course.  "It looks clean."

"Don't matter.  It'll do.  We weren't gonna watch TV anyway."  She closed the door, walked over and put her sack and paper on the bed.  I set down my bag on the chair closest to me.  "Take off your clothes.  They'd get in the way."  She pulled a black magic marker from her sack. 

"Sure.  Everything?" Knives and . . .sex? Nothing like I’d imagined.

"Well, you can leave your underwear on if you want to." 

I was in the dark about her plans, other than that knives were involved, but I stepped out of my jeans.  I was self-conscious about my thick thighs, my shins that weren't much smaller, the half-moon curves below my knees, but Stell wasn't paying any attention to my anatomy.  She was unrolling the white paper in a space on the floor.

"There."  She smoothed the paper.  "Lay down there, try to get in the middle, okay?"  She backed up, staring at the paper as if she saw something on it, already, that was drawn in invisible ink, evident only to someone with special powers, like Superman's X-ray vision.  I only saw a blank page. I was mortal.

I threw my sweatshirt and jeans on the bed, stepped out of my Birkie sandals.  I must have looked more ludicrous than sexy, in my purple and yellow-starred socks and hip-hugger black underpants and bra.  My new bra was the only black lacy one I owned; it's hard to get filmy seductive bras in jumbo sizes.  Most of mine are cotton, but I'd ordered this one special a few weeks earlier, when I started having fantasies about a steamy motel scene with Stell.  Only my imaginings didn't include me stretched out on the floor in my underwear and socks, sprawled on a roll of butcher paper with Stell's eyes running over me like I was a piece of wallpaper she was about to cut.

"Be still, okay?  This will only take me a second."  She kneeled down beside me and started tracing my shape onto the paper with the marker.  The pen smelled acrid in that little room that was empty of human smells.  I was wearing White Shoulders, and the two scents refused to blend, battled around me as Stell ran the pen all along my left shoulder, my arm, my hand, going in and out each finger, up under my arm and down beside my torso.  She sat back.  "Don't move."  She shifted a little, continued down my left leg, up to my crotch, leaned over me so her chest was touching my thigh as she went in and out with the pen.  I could barely breathe.  I laughed, and she gave me a quick stern look.  "Come on, Kayla, I don't have any more paper.  Be still."  She had to edge back away from me, crawl on her hands and knees over to my other side.  Those restless eyes were focused on the pen and the edge of my body. I'd never been so aroused. 

She scooted her way up my other side, along my neck and head, back to her starting point.  She leaned back on her haunches.  "There.  You can get up."  She smiled, reached out her hands to help me.  I couldn't have gotten up alone.  Her grip was strong, the muscles in her arms defined beneath their dragon and flamingo.  Her fingers felt warm, sure.  When we were both standing, she stared at her handiwork.  "It's perfect.  Here, help me.  Be careful.  I don't want it to tear."  We picked up the paper by its top edges, then walked together over to the wall with it.  I was taller, so I could see she was straining to hold her side high enough, but the stretching didn't bother her.  "Hold it in place right there, would you?  I've got to get the tape."  I splayed against the wall, both hands reaching to hold the corners up.  She was back in a moment with a roll of heavy-duty tape and some scissors; her sack was a regular supply closet.  "Hold on a minute more.  Here."  She handed me two different pieces, one at a time, that I used to hold the top edges in place.  She stuck tape along the sides, then stooped and put some at the bottom.  "What do you think?"

I stepped back with her.  It was strange, seeing my outline in these black, bold stop and start marks.  While I wasn't exactly fluid or sinewy, I was curvaceous.  Still, with all that white inside the lines, I looked empty.  "It's wild.  What are you going to do with it?"

"Sit down."

I sat on the edge of the closest bed, the one without the sack, and kept looking at my outline.  I didn’t know whether to put my clothes on or not.  The paper looked like one of those drawings on the detective shows, of where the corpse was found, but of course it was all wrong, hanging on a wall.

"You think this is ten feet?"  Stella was between the beds, facing the drawing, a knife in either hand.  It hit me what she was going to do; I'd seen it on Sealtest Circus.  She was going to throw knives at my paper body.  Only on the TV a real woman – usually Mary Heartline – stood against a wall, dressed in a skimpy glamorous costume that made her legs look a mile long and her breasts look like the hills of heaven, while a man dressed in a swashbuckler's get-up would zing the knives at her.  I looked nothing like Mary Heartline, particularly in my underwear, and Stell came not a bit closer to resembling Manfred the Knife-Wielding Marvel.  Stell's eyes were locked steady on the outline.  She was edging her toes to some invisible line, lining up the knife in her right hand.  "That ten feet, you think?" 

"Probably.  Yeah, I'd say so."

She threw the first knife.  It clattered onto the wall, fell at the foot of the paper.  She threw the second; it did the same.  I saw that she had a dozen sharp paring knives lined up on the edge of the other twin bed.  She took two more, got in the knife-throwing position again, threw them.  Neither stuck into the wall.  Manfred never missed.  Stell didn't speak, just got two more and went through the same motions, with the same outcome.

"You want me to pick up the knives for you?"  I hated to interrupt her concentration, but I was uncomfortable watching.  Maybe my role was over, since she'd drawn my body.  I didn't want to think I was no longer any use to her 

"Yeah."  She clipped off the word, like it distracted her to answer.

I waited until she was getting two more knives – she'd thrown eight, and all of them were on the floor – before I picked the used ones up, put them back in line on the bed.

She'd been through the knives three times before one stuck.  I sprang up, reflexively, to give her a hug, but her expression barely changed.  A slight smile curved her lips, but she kept her eyes on the paper and reached for the next two knives.  I quickly retrieved those on the floor and sat back down.  She continued to deflect more than she stuck, but over the next hour she began to get three or four out of a dozen to pierce the wall.  None of them came close to the body.  That made me strangely sad.

"You ready?"  When she asked, I honestly had no idea what she meant.  Maybe it should've been obvious, but it wasn't.

"Ready?"

"Let's take the paper down."  We untaped it, rolled it up, and plopped it in one of the chairs.  "Same spot, okay?"

"Same spot?"

"What are you, Poll Parrot or something?"  I'd told her about the talking parrot that squawked out the shoe commercials.  "You want to do this or not?"  She was holding two knives, standing in her ready position.

"Do what? 

"Be my target."

Of course.  Be her target.  Stand there and let her heave knives at me.  Like she'd thrown those rocks the first night.  A real expert.  "Sure."  I walked to the wall, trying to appear nonchalant though I shivered in every pore. I fit myself into the spot like it was no big deal, met her stare.  I had her full attention. That was all that mattered.  What was a little blood, possible pain, compared to that?  I could probably get my hand up before a knife could jab my eye. Probably. Her body was poised, her concentration on me total.  She was staring at my body, intent on every angle and curve.  I could barely breathe. 

"Hold still."  That's all she said, and she only said it once, right before she threw the first knife.  Each time she released one, my body tensed. I willed the blade to zing through the air, to stand an inch from me with a firm, tuning-fork hum, to join a knife outline of my body forming around me.  I have no idea how long I stood there, but it was the scariest and most thrilling time of my entire life.  Stell never took her eyes off me, except when she picked up the knives to start over.  Some knives hit the floor, some stuck willy-nilly in the wall.  The flat side of one tapped my hip once before it thunked to the floor.  I didn't flinch, just held my gaze on hers.  When she finished, when she'd given up on whatever it was she’d hoped to accomplish, when it was clear she was no Manfred, she flopped on the bed without a word.  Released, finally, my legs were like gelatin. I could barely walk over to her side.

"You finished? 

She sat up.  "You were great.  Thanks.  I knew you'd be great."  She smiled at me, a smile holding nothing back.  Tears pooled in her night-black eyes.

"You were great too."

"Sure."  She stood, looking away from me, started packing the knives into her bag.  "What time is it, anyway."

"Howdy Doody time."  I couldn't resist.

"Seriously."  Her shoulders slumped.  I'd let her down somehow, but I had no idea how.  I felt too exposed standing there in my underwear, so I reached for my jeans and shirt.  She pulled the drawstring on her sack.  "I'll go to the Stop-In for some burritos or nachos or something.  I'll only be a few minutes. 

"Want me to come too?" 

"Nah.  Wait here."

I reached into the jeans pocket.  Threw her the keys.  I suspected she wouldn't come back, but I didn't ask.  I wouldn't be the one to flip on the bare light bulb and expose her.  I couldn't do that to her.

"Want anything in particular?  Beer?"

"Whatever you want.  Surprise me."  I handed her a wad of cash.

"You got it."  She shut the door gently and I slipped onto the bed, exhausted.  I closed my eyes, not wanting to open them.

* * *

She disappeared without a trace.  What I didn't know that night was she tried to slit the little Vietnamese man's throat after she left me, with one of her ineffective magic knives.  When the police and the psychiatrist and Sid and Nancy asked me why she did it, I couldn't give them an answer.  What could I say:  She probably just wanted to try this thing, see?  We both knew there was no money in the office.  The guy lived, though; her knives were useless.  I could've told them that.  He was more terrified than hurt—she didn’t even draw blood.  And he swore I didn't have a thing to do with it.  Still, Sid and Nancy hired an attorney.  I knew I couldn’t stay for the hearing the day Nancy told me, all proud, “You won’t believe this, but we’ve found a female lawyer who looks exactly like Della Street.”  I screamed at her, “That is so pathetic!” 

I wouldn't tell them a thing about Stell, told them they’d have to ask about her at the college.  When they did, she wasn't registered, of course, never had been.  I acted surprised, but I wasn't.  Turns out she was the day maid at the Gateway, so they were able to track down her Melungeon family back in one of the nearby hollers.  About the only truth she told me was her name, Stella, and the fact that she was the baby of eleven children. I treasured those two mundane facts like a Druid priestess must have treasured snippets of secret wisdom as they were revealed to her.  Those details convinced me Stell was capable of telling the truth, even if only a smidgen at a time.  That she’d given me tiny pieces of her truth.

They all keep asking me where she might have gone, warning she's a danger to herself and society, and even me.  But I shake my head, assure them I have no idea.  Stell, a danger?  Stella couldn't even skip a rock. 

I hope like hell she's waiting tables topless somewhere in California.  Maybe that was another of her random shards of truth, or at least a wish she's managed to turn into half-truth by now.  It's all I have to go on, my only clue.  It’s my quest:  like Dr. Richard Kimble and his one-armed fugitive, I'll track Stell until I find her.  More than ever, I need to be with her, to be part of her reckless impossible schemes, her coven.  I can’t get that image of the black outline of my body out of my mind. No doubt she expects me to come after her. Another adventure.  There can't be that many barmaids with a mountain twang and flamingo and dragon tattoos, even in San Francisco.

 

 

  

Charlotte Gregg Morgan’s first novel, One August Day, was nominated for the annual fiction award by the Library of Virginia. One of Morgan’s short stories, “What I Eat,” is included in The Pushcart Prize Collection XXIV. She holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her husband, John Dure Morgan, is a visual artist. Together they own a contemporary art gallery, Rivermont Studio, in Lynchburg, Virginia.