Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hunger, part 5

“Thank you, Adele,” the man said dryly, “It was a pleasure, as always.”
            The snap of the driver’s door closing was the girl’s only reply. Seconds later, the back seat door opened. Adele stood hipshot, leaning one arm on the frame in a pose of impatience. The man stepped out into the night and Amber scrambled after him.
            From what little she could see of the houses that lined the street, they were imposing — baronial even — with pillared entries and turreted second stories. The building they faced was narrower, with a mask of ivy covering its tall fa├žade and shadowing the front entry. Amber followed the two of them through the door and into the dark.
            Adele, whose movements when she was not pouting were so quick and smooth that Amber hadn’t sensed her flit forward, switched on a hanging lamp. The soft light illuminated a large, high-ceilinged room. It was lightly furnished with low couches and end tables that managed to look antique and mod at the same time. A thick rug in asymmetrical, geometric patterns was thrown across the polished wood floor and there was a series of abstract paintings on the walls. The effect of it all was luxurious, original, and somehow dated, as if the designer had been at the forefront of a generation long passed.
            Amber turned from her examination of the room to find the man watching her closely.
            “I hope you like what you see.”
            Amber nodded cautiously. “Not everyone can have a house like this.”
            He smiled with another flash of teeth. “No, indeed. This is one of the — how shall I say it? — fringe benefits of my position. It comes with getting everything you want.”  He let that statement hang in the air between them before turning towards the other girl still standing at the far end of the room.
            “Adele, I think a toast is called for. It is appropriate to honor a new era’s beginning, as I think is about to in Amber’s — existence. I’m sure we have something in the back that she could drink.”
            Adele gave another of her expressive half-shrugs, but she turned and disappeared into the shadows. Her scornful voice floated back, “I’m not sure what the point is, sir. It’s not going to change anything if she drinks this stuff.”
            “Adele,” he was still smiling, but his voice had gone hard again, “you don’t appreciate the finer things in life. Just do as I say, and you will learn, eventually.”
            There was a rustle and Adele was back, carrying a bottle in one hand and a single wine glass in the other. The man tsked.
            “That is not a very genteel presentation, my girl.”
            Adele held them out to him, her posture suddenly diffident. “I’m sorry, but I hurried because I need to go out as well tonight, and we don’t have much time left before first light. I was waiting for you most of the night, and I still have to hunt…”
            “As you should.”  The man took the wine from her, and set the glass on a lacquered tray, before pouring out a careful measure.
            Adele was watching him intently, and in the moment that he was turned away from her, Amber caught sight of the look in the other girl’s eyes. It was a look she recognized.
            The other girl’s beautiful, alien face was drawn, all trace of her earlier petulance and sarcasm gone for the moment. She stared at her master with a kind of bitter longing, a constrained and frustrated desire intense enough to be almost indistinguishable from hatred.
It was the same helpless wish for recognition, the abandonment of self in quest of a superior’s approval, that Amber knew her fellow students felt for their teachers and ballet masters; that she had felt herself. She felt icy cold, weak from lack of food and sleep, and suddenly, terribly afraid.
The man turned back, offering her the glass full of dark liquid. He nodded to Adele, although his eyes barely flicked away from Amber’s face. “Time for you to go, then. You shouldn’t waste the darkness, and we are perfectly capable of keeping each other company here.” 
“Yes sir.”  Adele’s mask had come down again, and her mouth curled slightly, but her tone was obedient. In a moment she had turned and disappeared.
The man barely acknowledged her departure as he proffered the glass again toward Amber. He stepped closer, and his face seemed to swim and fill her vision.
Long ago, when she still had friends who weren’t other dancers, they had dragged her to a Six Flags park one summer, insisting that she would enjoy the roller coasters and other thrill rides. She had discovered almost immediately that nothing was farther from the truth, and that the adrenaline surge as she fell helplessly away from the world without was both bizarre and horrible. She had frozen against the seat restraints, her limbs heavy and shaking. She felt some of that same paralysis now. It was all that prevented her from cringing away from him.
“What, lost your taste?”  He was standing close now, his shadow blocking out the light. “Or is it that you do not need to whet your appetite before the main course?”  He smiled and the tip of his tongue flicked over a tooth.
Amber tried to speak, tried to recall the reckless nihilism that had powered her actions for most of the night, but all she could think of was the haunted look in Adele’s eyes, like a promise of an endless future, repeating the patterns of the past without relief. There was no escape.
After a moment of silence, he shrugged and stepped back to set down the glass. Amber jerked as if from a recoil, and self-consciously attempted to mask the movement (as if anything would have escaped his attention), by shoving her hands into her pockets. Her right hand closed around the small, ovoid object she had left there, and she felt the flash of a sudden realization.
Click — light. Click — off. Just like that.
            His eyes were still on her, speculative and greedy, but now she looked him full in the face and stepped forward herself, lifting her jaw and tilting her head back. As he caught her up tightly, she wrapped her thin arms around him in turn, nestling the lighter in the small of his back before flicking it on with one blind thumb-stroke.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hunger, Part 4

Amber sat silently and searched her mind for some reaction. After the unease and discomfort (mixed with the persistent, unwilling fascination) that her seat companion had evoked, this latest revelation settled around her like a fog. She wanted to feel disbelief or — failing that — fear, but it was too late, and too much had happened to her. Her mind seemed to stumble over the consequences of this knowledge, going instead to worry over the inane and practical questions: “How does this work?” “What are the limitations?” “Do you have to sleep all day?” “How strong are you?”
She began to ask them hesitantly and he answered, more or less directly, but using the plural first person perspective, rather than the singular.
“Are there more of you?”  She asked, suddenly wondering who had received this offer before her.
He almost laughed at that. “A few; but don’t worry, my catling. The pride is not that big. It is hard for too many of us to share territory. And rest assured: you will shine among them.”
Her next question should have been, “What is your prey? Who is it?” but when she tried to hazard that thought her internal void began to churn again, so she asked instead, “How old are you?”
His smile flashed toothily again. “Old enough to have seen and traveled; to have remade myself in my own image; to have vanquished my enemies. Old enough to have learned languages, made fortunes, cultivated the rich and powerful, known my desires fulfilled…” He paused and his eyes shifted towards the window again, where the lights of San Francisco had appeared on either side of the highway, piling up on the horizon where the arching filaments of the Bay Bridge stretched like tendrils.
When he spoke again, it was as if he was talking to himself. “I remember when I first saw this city. It was nothing like it is now; the buildings that stood then, young as they were, would turn to rubble in a few years, and children’s grandchildren have grown old with offspring of their own since then. They pass away as quickly and meaninglessly as the leaves that barely turn color here. It is always a fresh memory for me, though…
Amber let his stories wash over her, taking in their promises of luxury, beauty, and power, with the sense that she was forcing her mental gaze away from their source, from the wellspring of his power.
There was always a price — but ignoring the price exacted from living flesh was one of the disciplines that the ballet world imparted to its students. One path to damnation seemed much like another.
When the bus finally pulled into the San Francisco terminal, she got up and, with a clear-eyed glance at the man beside her, left her duffle bag on her seat. Leaving the bus, she heard no sound of movement behind her, but as she stepped down to the curb she felt a hand on her shoulder and tried not to flinch. The man guided her with a light but possessive touch through the drab cavern of the terminal and out into the misty dark of the very early morning. The space in front of the terminal was almost deserted; the few other travelers dispersing quickly into the fog. Within moments a low, black car of a visibly expensive make had pulled up at the man’s booted toe.
He leaned forward and opened the backseat door, gesturing for her to get in. “Evening, Adele. I brought a new friend with me, just met on the ride up from the city of angels.”  He slid in after her. Amber blinked in the dimness, trying to make out the form of the driver, who was looking back from the front seat.
The man’s voice next to her sounded as if he was amused by some private joke. “Adele, this is Amber, a young woman whose,” he hesitated as if he was savoring the word, “hunger has distinguished her in my view.”  Amber felt a chill go through her when he mentioned the name she hadn’t told him, but it hardly felt like surprise. “Amber, this is Adele Trillot, my associate.”
“Did you have a busy time in LA, then — sir?” The woman’s voice was as low as his, smooth and husky, but there was a hint of bitterness in her tone, and the passive aggressive pause before the last, abrupt honorific suggested disgruntlement to Amber’s ear.
“Now, now, Adele;” the man sounded as if he was almost laughing again, “Did you get up on the wrong side of bed this evening?  I didn’t meet this young woman in the other city. As it turns out, we were seat partners on the ride up the coast. She…suggested herself to me, and I told her a little bit about the possibilities I saw in her.”  In the darkness, his hand brushed the back of Amber’s in another possessive little motion.
The girl gave a short laugh herself, but with very little amusement in it. She continued to look back over her shoulder at Amber. “Oh, he told you his stories, did he?  Did you ‘see his visage in his mind’?”
“Enough.”  The man’s voice was suddenly steely. “You’re not here to speak out of turn, Adele. When I want your input, then you will be allowed to give it. Now, please, drive us home.”
Adele’s didn’t reply, but her silhouette swiveled around with a toss of the shoulders expressive of distain. The car growled and surged away from the curb.
            They were quickly rocketing down streets Amber was grateful were near-empty. Adele drove recklessly, and Amber hoped that they would not cross paths with any cop trolling for late-night traffic violations. It was all she could do not to cringe as the vehicle lurched painfully around corners at unsettling speeds or ran stop signs without slowing. Beside her, though, her acquaintance sat imperturbably. Of course. He would probably walk away from a car crash — unless the car caught fire. She snuck a glance in his direction, trying, with her new knowledge, to perceive any differences in him.
            After cresting the last of the series of hills that defined downtown San Francisco (and nearly leaving Amber’s stomach behind in the process), Adele directed the car toward the northern part of the city, bringing them within a few minutes to wide, tree-lined streets. The car slowed suddenly and swerved towards the curb before jerking to a halt.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Hunger, Part 3

Amber felt as if she had received an electric shock, one that rocketed up from her solar plexus. She gaped at him through the dimness.
            “I…I’m sorry?” she managed.
            “Whoever it was who let you go, who filled you with such regret and anger.”  He paused for a moment, but continued to stare at her intently. “They did not see how much you had to give, and how much you could have taken, had they but given you the chance.”
            Something moved under the numbness that had been holding her up; the void was threatening to rise up and swallow her.
            “Who are you?”  Her voice stayed low, miraculously, but it shook with a mixture of emotions that even she couldn’t have named. “How do you know anything about me?”
            The answer was gentle, and it calmed her a bit, despite all rationality. “I am a stranger, but I see things a little more clearly than most.
“I see your hurt, but not only that; I see frustrated ambition and hunger, and also great strength.”
            “Strength?” Amber had no idea why she wasn’t staggering down the aisle to find an empty seat out of speaking range. “I’m sorry, but you’ve got that wrong. I’ve always been weak. All I’ve ever had is potential.”  The word was a curse. “Potential is an empty promise.”
            “No, that is a grave mistake. I can recognize these things when I see them. With that power and desire, you could consume the world whole, and leave nothing left.”  His gaze was unblinking.
            “And you see my — power?”  The man was likely playing her, but a perverse curiosity pushed her to ignore the guidelines of self-preservation. In the midst of the ruins of her life, in the middle of the night, on a sparsely-populated bus, recklessness seemed inevitable, and meaningless.
            “I do,” was his imperturbable reply. “That a few arrogant fools, a coterie of inadequate masters blinded by politics, prejudice, and insufficient imagination, rejected you does nothing to negate your real talents.”
            This was too close to the bone; too close to the fragile comforts she had told herself and never quite been fearless enough to believe. Amber dropped her eyes, skin crawling, and fiddled with her headphone cord in her lap.
            The silence (or lack of speech, rather, since the bus kept up its own rattling accompaniment the entire time) stretched on and on, so that Amber had time to go through the entire evolution of social anxiety, from feeling that she couldn’t possibly look back up at the man because she had waited too long, to becoming possessed by the conviction that she had to to check if he was still regarding her with that continuous stare.
            When she finally looked up, she saw that he had gone back to looking out the window, as if nothing had happened. The line of his nose and prominent cheekbones was crisp against the background of the highway lights, and almost glowingly pale. There was something about him that was not right — and it wasn’t just his troubling perspicacity. But still — “You are capable of greatness.”  How long had she waited for someone to believe that of her?  In the dance world, you could be dedicated, talented, and ambitious, and nothing would distinguish you from the scores of other dedicated, talented, and ambitious candidates, all yearning for the same handful of spots — unless you had a teacher who saw you, and wanted to show the world.
            Maybe it was just the aftermath of rejection (which wasn’t so much a sting as a giant, pulsing burn on her consciousness that she couldn’t quite bear to look at) but the possibility of having someone choose her was tantalizing.
            It took another half hour of mulling and staring and working herself up to speaking again.
            “What did you mean — what kind of greatness?”
            He smiled, but with his lips pressed tightly together, before turning to look at her again.
            “Yes. You are hungry.”
            The nonsequiter shook her all over again, and made her regret her temerity in speaking up. She was hungry, yes, although not more than usual. This late in the night, the disruption of her circadian rhythms usually masked hunger under tiredness and a sense of general malaise. His observation was even more pointed, and less welcome, than the earlier had been. Hunger was nothing she needed to be reminded of.
            He seemed to sense her blanche. “Do not misunderstand me. I mean that you comprehend the weight of desiring something with you whole being, body and”  — he hesitated a split second — “soul. There is a great power in appetite restrained; and in appetite gratified.
“You are full up to your skin,” he reached out one long finger and almost, but not quite, touched the skin of her wrist where it lay on the armrest between them, “practically bursting with frustrated passion. You could be very powerful, if that passion was diverted into other — channels.”
Amber was certain that she was out of her depth now, but the recklessness had taken on a life of its own. “What do you mean?”  Her voice was almost soundless.
The man did take her by the wrist then. His finger smoothed over the soft spot where her pulse leaped. He smiled again, and this time his lips parted wide, revealing long teeth that glinted in the darkness.
“How would you like to live forever?” he asked.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hunger, Part 2

Although a handful of people drifted on after her, it seemed as if the bus was not going to be even a quarter full. Amber hoped that they would not cancel the run. Her trip was far past long enough already. She squirmed down in her seat, trying to get comfortable.
A shadow moving in the dimness fell across her, and she looked up. She must have been dozing, because the driver was in his seat, the bus had rumbled into life, and she did not remember seeing this last passenger come down the aisle. He was a tall man, nicely enough dressed in a dark suit that he looked odd aboard a greyhound bus, and he was waiting now just at her elbow. Amber craned her neck to look up at him. He was silhouetted by the glow of the cabin lamp, so that she could not easily make out his features, besides the fact that he was wearing dark sunglasses. Somebody taking the stereotype of LA living a little too seriously? I wonder how he got down the aisle without tripping over anybody.  The flippant thought flashed through her mind and then disappeared to be replaced by something resembling unease. Perhaps it was only the narrow confines of the bus’s aisle, but she felt, for a moment, an almost-physical sensation of being pushed back against the acrylic plush of her seatback.
She pulled out an earbud, cautious and irritated.
“I’m sorry to disrupt your rest, but I believe I have the adjoining seat.”  The man’s voice was deep.
            Amber had did not quite roll her eyes around at the rows of empty seats surrounding her, but it would have been pleasant to point out that there were a dozen places to choose from, if it was all the same to him. Find a new damn seat, she wanted to tell him, but instead she found herself nodding of course and scrambling out into the aisle to let the man in. Years of wanting constantly to please, to impress and to be found good enough made it hard to say no, even to the most banal of inconvenient requests. “Make yourself at home,” she muttered, and immediately wondered guiltily if the man would take offence at her sarcasm. He didn’t say anything in response, though, although the corner of his mouth lifted in a quick smirk as he slid past her.
            Settled into his seat, she could see his face partially illuminated by the dusty glow of the LA streetlights. From what she could make out, behind the shades he was odd-looking although not unhandsome. His features were narrow but regular, with a high forehead. His skin was very pale, and seemed almost delicate; it was parchment-thin over the prominent bridge of his nose. His hair was thick and dark, and it curved over and almost hid his widow’s peak. He turned his head to, presumably, stare out into the night. Amber found herself glad that he did not look over to meet her scrutinizing gaze.
            She took her seat again, and tried to get comfortable, making an effort to curl her legs up under her without overstepping her narrow allotment of personal space and brushing against the smooth fabric of the man’s suit.
            The driver put the bus in gear, and pulled it slowly away from the depot. The bars of light and shadow cast by the window frames slid over the man’s face, throwing it into darkness. Amber tried to focus solely on her music, and hoped that she would sleep.
            Under the bridge, that’s where I drew some blood
                        Under the bridge, I could not get enough
            Under the bridge, I gave my life away…”
            She did sink away from consciousness, but only into an uncomfortable half-sleep in which the reality of the swaying bus merged with troubling but shadowy dreams. It seemed as if she felt a chill breeze moving air against her left side, raising goosebumps on her forearm and making her hunch one shoulder up against the cold — but when she drowsily tried to squirm her body away from the window the bus was suddenly hot and stuffy, the air was lying heavy and unmoving all around her.
            She finally woke up fully when the battery to her ipod died. The bus had driven out of the rain was zooming along the anonymous artery of Highway 5. Amber gazed idly out at the oncoming procession of headlights on the other side of the median, looking past the shadow of her seat companion.
            He sat so still that she had assumed he must be asleep, although the dim outline of his figure had none of the uncomfortable slumping shape that usually characterized sitting sleepers. Amber found herself scrutinizing his sharp profile, trying to make out the least sight of movement, but there was not so much as the shift of an indrawn breath. She realized that she was holding her own as she waited to see slight expansion and contraction of his outline, and she released her air in a sudden rush.
As if the sound had alerted him (but how could he have picked it out, over the steady thrum of the bus’s engine?), his head turned, with shocking suddenness, in her direction. He reached up and slowly lifted off his sunglasses, folding them dexterously with one hand. Amber could dimly make out dark eyes, whose eyelids drooped lazily as he regarded her.
            She dropped her own gaze, and was about to squirm around in her chair so that she was facing the aisle again, when he spoke softly.
            “Those foolish bastards. They made such a mistake, giving you up.”