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Nicole M. Taylor | In the Valley

In the Valley
By Nicole M. Taylor
Date of publication: 
November 28, 2012

Vox ipsa et frigida lingua,
"Ah! miseram Eurydicen," anima fugiente, vocabat;
"Eurydicen," toto referabant flumine ripae.

       —Virgil

E’en then his trembling tongue invok’d his bride;
With his last voice, "Eurydice," he cried,
"Eurydice," the rocks and river banks replied.

       —Dryden

It was half-past midnight and the radio was out. Fee leaned forward, but kept her eyes on the road. It was flat, featureless and indistinguishable from the cold desert on either side. She was sure it would be easy to get lost out here in this nowhere and bones place. Fee turned the seek knob back and forth, restless as a rosary bead between her fingertips.

Up ahead there was a faint, electric glow and radio settled softly on a rasp-voiced woman. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey,” she moaned, as one with a heart unspeakably broken.

It was a motel, sprawling and ugly and ill-kept. The V was lit up and the NCY. Fee hoped that that was intentional. The woman on the radio sang, “the other night dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamt I held you in my arms…” as Fee turned into the gravel parking lot.

There was a rusting white van and an ancient Beretta in the parking lot. Lean, curious figures shifted on the concrete walkway. The manager’s office was lit up yellow and shadowed shapes moved inside.

“I think we’re here, baby,” Fee said, staring into the rearview mirror.

When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken. So I hung my head and cried.

~

When Fee was sixteen years old, she almost tried out for the swim team. She had her forty dollars and her physical. She had a black cap for her hair and small goggles that fit into the hollows of her eyes.

She could hold her breath underwater for a very long time and she was fast. Much faster than the other kids at the public pool, who Fee used to race in a quiet, unofficial way. She would match their strides and then leave them in her frothing wake, but she was far too shy to exchange more than one or two mumbled words with them.

Fee stood in the locker room, feet bare on damp floors, and she hesitated. She was wearing her bathing suit underneath her clothes; she could feel it like a slick, secondary skin deep beneath her worn sweater and childish jean skirt. It had made her feel strong, like a secret identity, all the long bus ride there. But it was failing her now, itching her flat chest and bunching between her legs embarrassingly. Around her, girls chattered and flittered, bright flashes of color and pale flesh. Warm, chlorine-smelling steam rose off of them and went to Fee’s head.

One, yellow-haired and yellow-eyed, said, “What’s wrong with your arm?” as Fee shrugged out of her sweater. Four other girls turned to look and Fee stared down at her own arm in an accusatory sort of way, as though it had betrayed her. “Is it some kind of birthmark or something?” The yellow-eyed girl was not mean or teasing. Fee looked at her understanding eyes and she could not speak.

It was burns on her arms, long and flat and maybe an inch and a half wide each. Some were old, some were new. They extended from the curve of her shoulder to the corner where her elbow began.

Fee pulled her sweater back on, even tugged the sleeves down over her hands. Like Clark Kent putting his glasses back on. When she got home, her mother made her tea and they sat together drinking it at the kitchen table. “I didn’t make the team,” Fee said, “I wasn’t fast enough.”

~

He’s not in there,” said the first woman, lounging underneath the sparse yellow light on the cement sidewalk in front of the manager’s office. Two bodies moved indistinctly behind her and she was smoking Camel Lights and Fee could smell it. Her mother used to smoke the same, back before she quit.

“The manager?” Fee asked.

The smoking woman grinned. “Yeah.” She stepped into the full light and she was older, much older than Fee would have guessed. She was wearing cracked blue heels and black tights. She had on a short green dress that didn’t match. Her roots were showing.

“Can you tell me where he is?” Fee asked.

“I could do that,” the woman said, still smiling.

“Oh, stop fucking with her,” objected one of the others. This one was all in shadows, but Fee thought she could smell her perfume even through the smoke. It smelled like watery jasmine, silky and pretty but foreign.

“Can’t you see she’s sad?” the jasmine woman continued.

“Sad,” echoed the third woman. She was crouched at the edge of the stone overhang, investigating the water and the stones and the garbage collected underneath. Her skirt was too short and it gapped open obscenely, but she did not seem to care. She was very young, fifteen or less.

“People don’t come here happy. Not 'here' here, at least. There’s more to here than this.”

Fee found that she could not look at this girl directly, it made her feel nervous, itchy.

“I’m…I’m just looking for a room,” she said, instead addressing herself to the laughing one.

“Sure you are,” the woman said. She stepped forward and the red end of her cigarette glowed like night eyes. “But tell me, baby: what’s in your trunk?”

~

Joshua majored in Classics and he used to tell her stories all the time. They would lay in Fee’s bed with her flowered sheets and she would rest her head on his chest and when he spoke, the vibrations that his words made were transmitted through his skin and through hers and down, down, down into her bones.

He would stroke her arms, trace and tap her pink scars like they were piano keys.

“Did I ever tell you about Orpheus?” he asked her once.

~

He fell off a ladder,” Fee said, taking the proffered cigarette from the laughing woman. She lit it with one of the matches from the book she kept in her coat pocket. She’d picked it up at on her first official date with Joshua. There were four matches left; three now.

“There was a broken bulb in one of the light fixtures at his parents’ house. They have these high ceilings.” Fee hadn’t had a cigarette in more than two years. Smoke filled her lungs up, heavy but not unwelcome.

“I found him and it hadn’t been long. His nose was bleeding and it was still wet. It was only just minutes. Maybe only one.”

The laughing woman looked at her, still laughing in her eyes. Fee’s cigarette burned low.

“The window, the window,” prompted the little girl, crouching on the ground.

Fee nodded. When she spoke, it was hesitant. Stuttered and muttered like she was a girl again herself. “You know how when…when people aren’t around and it’s like they don’t exist…or…it’s like they exist, but they exist only as you imagine them. Like you…draw them from your head into the breathing world. I went in that room and his skin was so warm and no one knew and it was like he wasn’t even dead.” It was as if suddenly the world had spilt somehow and it was just her, just Fee, who had to decide how it was to go.

“K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” the crouched girl sang, not looking at Fee.

“Very fine, but not very special. Love’s not so rare,” said the jasmine woman. Fee squinted and thought for a moment that she could see something like pale eyes, mostly eclipsed by the dark.

“What about need?” Fee asked, staring at the place where she thought those eyes might be.

“It’s going to cost you,” the jasmine woman warned.

Fee shrugged her shoulders and flicked her cigarette onto the cold cement. Her pockets were nearly empty anyway.

~

I don’t understand,” Fee said, balancing the point of her chin on the little notch where his ribcage ended. “How did he know where to go?”

“He was…he was privileged by the gods,” Joshua laughed. “I don’t know. Shit like that happens in myths all the time. The ground opens up or the sky falls. You know, magic stuff.”

Fee pressed her nose into the flat plane of his chest until darkness filled up her eyes. “Seems pretty convenient to me,” she said, muffled.

“Well, I suppose it makes sense. I mean, if you’re looking for death, you can usually find it pretty quick.”

~

Fee lit one of her three precious matches. If she had a microscope, a dusting of black powder, maybe she could have seen Joshua’s fingerprints which no doubt remained on the cardboard panel. She touched the match to its fellows, still stuck fast in the paper. And she imagined herself coated in a thin layer, a black veneer of coal dust. She imagined all the fingers, all the hands, white and whorled and resting on her skin like pale tattoos.

She tossed the flaming matchbook down at the women’s feet. It hissed and spit angrily. It seemed to burn for a very long time.

~

There was a long teal countertop, speckled with bright mineral flakes. There was a desk behind the counter and a small pink hump indicating the presence of another body. Fee reached out and tapped the little silver bell next to the ancient push-button cash register.

It was a girl, even younger than the one outside. She was eleven or twelve and she had dark hair in wispy, uneven braids. They crazed across her skull as though they‘d been done by someone with no understanding of either hair or basic aesthetics. Her face was dirty, her shirt had a strawberry on it and it said “Berry Sweet.”

“What?” she said, not sounding surprised or curious at all. Her arms had dark, circular bruises around her biceps. As though someone had gotten very angry and just reached out and grabbed….

“I need a room,” Fee told her. She rolled her blue eyes.

“We’re never full up.” She gestured towards a small jumble of plastic on the desk in front of her. They were all old-fashioned metal keys, but instead of the leather and gilt room number tags, someone had attached a series of white plastic ones, like on luggage. Each one was labeled in a child’s huge, uncertain hand.

“Does it matter which one?” Fee asked, leaning over the counter and hesitating. The girl snorted and bent back down, fully occupied with something underneath the desk. Fee picked a tag at random. Fourteen, it said. The key was very cold against her skin.

~

He got me these for my birthday,” the girl said, leading Fee down the pebbled concrete walkway. The skates looked pretty ordinary to Fee, certainly not worth all the girl’s fuss. They weren’t even rollerblades. They had four orange wheels and yellow laces with white plastic chickens on the ends. The girl was a little unsteady and she weaved imprecisely in front of Fee. The women outside the manager’s office passed a cigarette between them and watched the both of them with the same fond, passionless stare.

“I’d be better if it wasn’t for all this stupid gravel,” the girl informed her in a strident tone, as though Fee had questioned her skill. “Do you know how to skate?” All of the girl’s sentences were delivered in such a violent, precise fashion; it was like coming under a machine gun blast.

“No,” said Fee, “I never learned.” Her mother hadn’t seen the purpose and it was too much like dancing either way.

“I’m teaching myself, so it’s harder,” she said. Fee nodded at this undeniable truth.

As they passed by one room, the thick green curtain flickered from the inside and Fee saw something pale and staring. She might have stopped and investigated further, but just then a particularly large pebble caught the edge of the little girl’s right wheel and sent her reeling, awkwardly clumping into Fee.

Fee reached out automatically and steadied her with both hands. She could feel the girl shaking, but her little face was dark with frustration. “Fucking gravel,” she spat. Fee righted her silently and took up the child’s small, wavering hand in her own.

“Why did you come here?” the girl asked, figure-eighting her legs in and out. Fee had nothing to say to this and soon they had arrived at room fourteen, which was just like all the other rooms. The gilt was peeling off the door and the numbers underneath were rusting dark brown.

Fee opened the door and the little girl spun about clumsily until she was facing Fee and the empty room behind her. In the flickering light above the door, she looked familiar, as though Fee had seen her face somewhere before. Possibly with “Have you seen this child?” written underneath it.

“What’s your name?” Fee asked her.

“Snow White,” the girl answered, as though she had been waiting for the question.

Fee quirked an eyebrow at her. “Really?”

The girl only smiled before pushing herself off from the wall. She wobbled slightly, but quickly got her footing and began to glide with a weaving, jerking kind of ease. Fee watched her for a long time, chasing through the circles of dull yellow light and through the darkness in between.

~

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole M. Taylor is a freelance writer and ghostwriter currently based in Los Angeles, though she was born and raised in Alma, Michigan. A short (and by no means comprehensive) list of things she misses in the desert of LA: lakes, the density of trees, snow, the smell of collected leaves rotting aromatically, really masterful fudge, a harsh blue sky over the ragged tops of corn stalks and that very peculiar Michigan accent.

Her fiction has been published or is upcoming in more than a dozen journals, literary and speculative alike and she is currently hard at work on her first novel. She bloggerates here: www.nicolemtaylor.com