Boldly Gone is a story of nine chapters, posted serially by me, your host best served chilled, Cheeseburger Brown.
It's cold. It's really cold. It's like sunny-day-in-Edmonton cold.
The worst thing about winter is the way people try to kill me with their cars. My fellow commuters become indiscriminate assasins as they fish-tail diagonally across three lane highways and zealously force me to test my anti-lock brakes. I don't know what I did to make them so mad at me, but there you have it: dozens and dozens of people whipping tons of steel at me.
For my birthday I want a train that goes from my house to work. For bonus points it could be an old timey steam locomotive. Red, please. The caboose can be yellow.
Also, the train should have free Wi-Fi and dancing girls who sell breakfast sausage and hot, hot coffee.
(SPAM: Why delay grabbing a copy of the new I am a Cheeseburger anthology today!)
And now, we conclude our tale:
"Can I help the next customer, please?"
Lansing stepped up to the teller's counter. "I'd like to speak with the manager," he said, his sweaty hands clutched behind his back.
"Is there a problem?" asked the teller.
"No, I'd just like to see Sandy."
"Ms. Markovitz is our manager here, sir. Are you sure you have the right branch? Maybe I can help you: can I get you to swipe your bank card here please?"
"I'd just like to see the manager."
"Ms. Markovitz isn't in today, but if you'd like I'd be happy to mark a meeting request on her calendar and she'll call you back to arrange the details. Is this about a loan?"
Lansing turned around wordlessly and rushed out of the bank. In the parking lot he found himself loitering on the stretch of curb where he'd met Sandy after work, and as he searched up and down the row of placards reserving employee spots he noticed for the first time that none of the names were hers. Her job, then, was also a lie.
He didn't know what to do: he was too distracted to return to work, too upset to mope alone.
He decided he needed company, and perhaps counsel. The only person he knew who was at home during the day was Melody. Perhaps a woman's perspective would help him see things more clearly, he reasoned, hailing a fresh cab and giving the driver Scott's address...
He called work, told a lie. He hung up with shaking hands.
When the cab jerked to a halt he was startled out of a thoughtless place, overpaid for his ride, and then climbed out onto the sidewalk. He immediately had to dodge a moving crew carrying a bed between them up the ramp of a large trailer. The lobby doors were propped open for the movers so he didn't have to buzz up.
He craved sympathy. More, he craved an alternative explanation. He wanted somebody to hold his head and tell him not to worry, that it was all a complicated misunderstanding.
It should've been Sandy, but the thought made him ill and hungry and mad.
He strode the corridor with purposeless purpose, faltering when he turned the corner to see Scott's door wide open, the threshold being trampled by two movers wrestling a heavy chest of drawers between them.
The movers squeezed past him down the corridor and then he stepped up to the jamb and called, "Scott...? Melody...?"
Melody appeared from inside the unit looking disheveled and tired, a stained tank-top and jogging pants hanging off her carelessly. "Lansing?" she replied, furrowing her brow. "What are you doing here?"
Lansing was baffled. He felt numb and surreal. "What's going on?" he asked, peering past her into the denuded condominium.
"Didn't Scott tell you that we're moving?"
Melody nodded cheerfully. "We found the most amazing place. I can't wait for y'all to see it! Waterfront view and everything. And we're going fifty-fifty on it so I don't have to feel like such a heel."
"Did you get a job?"
"A job -- how are you going fifty-fifty without a job?"
"Oh yeah, I got a job. It's great."
"Just some place. Pretty boring stuff, really -- just reception work. But you've got to tell me: why are you here now, Lansing? Aren't you supposed to be at work? Oh my God, y'all didn't get laid off, did you?"
"What's wrong, sweetheart? You look like somebody just ran over your dog."
"Can I sit down?"
"Sure thing, pudding. There's some furniture in the livingroom. I'm still packing up in there. Come on in."
She disappeared inside and Lansing followed. Melody's bum was no longer hypnotic to Lansing -- it just reminded him of Sandy's. The livingroom was full of cardboard boxes but there remained in place an easychair and the television, currently tuned to the lobby camera. As Lansing sat down the movers carrying the chest of drawers passed by on the screen.
"Can I get you a drink?" asked Melody, wiping her sweaty brow ineffectually against her sweaty forearm. "Lord knows I need one. Packing's hard work."
Lansing nodded gratefully. "Water, please."
He sat down in the easychair, gawking at the emptiness.
When Melody returned from the kitchen they gulped from their glasses, draining them. She took his glass, put it aside, and then crouched next to the easychair and rested her chin on his arm. "Now are you going to tell me what's eating you, Lansing dear, or do I have to work it out of you?"
Lansing smiled fleetingly. "No, I'll talk, I'll talk."
She smiled fleetingly back. "What's the matter?"
"It's Sandy," said Lansing. "Or it's Aaron. I don't even know. No, I do -- it's Sandy."
"Honey, you're not making a lick of sense."
Melody sat up on the arm of the easychair, which was still faintly green with Cassie Ten's paw-prints. She ran her fingers through Lansing's short, black hair and made an exquisitely feminine, soothing sound. "There, there," she whispered. "You're all bent out of shape now, aren't you?"
Lansing closed his eyes, the afterimages throbbing. He licked his lips and said, "Aaron says he has reason to believe that Sandy is a con artist who's setting me up to be fleeced."
Melody's hand froze, stopped still on Lansing's scalp. "...What?"
"He says she's been doing it for years -- something called a sweetheart scam," continued Lansing, opening his eyes and feeling them well up against his will. "He had pictures and everything. I think...I think it might be true."
"Lord Jesus!" breathed Melody, her face stricken. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," said Lansing sadly. "It doesn't seem real. I'm very confused. I should be at work. Fuck. And then just to make the day weirder than weird I come here to find somebody to talk to...and you guys are moving? Like, right out of the blue?"
Melody looked down, then continued running her fingers through Lansing's hair. "I think Scott may have kept all y'all in the dark for fear that the news might get a bad reception. There's been some tension, we can't deny it, can we?"
"I suppose we can't."
"We're getting more serious, and I think he worries that not everyone thinks that's such a good thing."
"Nah," said Lansing dismissively. "Everybody likes you, Melody."
"Aaron doesn't like anyone. But more to the point, you're not the one he accuses of being a scammer. No, Scott gets a real girlfriend and I'm the loser who's duped into thinking someone might be into me. Why am I even surprised?"
"Why say a thing like that, kitten?"
"Are you kidding me? Scott can talk to people. He's good looking, he makes good money, and he doesn't look like him mom dresses him. He's always been about a thousand times cooler than I've ever been on even the best day of my life. He fucking deserves a girlfriend."
"And you don't?"
"I should just move in with Aaron and turn myself gay. Why fight?"
"Yeah, well, I'm ridiculous. A ridiculous loser, getting owned by a cougar. Just kill me now." Lansing mimed a self-execution with his thumb and index finger. "Pow."
"Aw, Lansing, don't be that way. You're not a loser."
Lansing shook his head hard, his near-tears quickly replaced by another flush of indignation. "I am a loser, Melody. Even my best friend is keeping secrets from me -- not about little things, but big shit going on in his life. He's too fucking worried about getting ragged on that he won't even give me the benefit of the doubt. I'm not even worth that, evidently."
"I'm sure he has his reasons, pudding. Don't get all mad."
"Fuck it," declared Lansing, fishing in his pocket for his phone. "I'm calling him right now. I'm not staying mum. This is bullshit. Is he my friend or isn't he?"
Melody reached out and grabbed Lansing's wrist. "Don't call him at work, sugar, he's all stressed about the deadline he's on."
"But I want to tell him how --"
"Hush now," she said softly, gently easing the telephone out of his hand and placing it aside. "I know you're hurting," she told him, continuing to stroke his head, "but going off on Scott ain't going to make things right. Not like that. You need to find a calmer place."
"I don't have a calm place today. Will you pass me my phone back please? I have to do this."
"Don't, Lansing. Let's you and I just chat a while longer until you feel more even keeled."
"Okay, fine -- I won't shit on him for keeping secrets. But I still need to ask him what he thinks about this whole Sandy thing."
She pressed her lips together sceptically. "What's he going to be able to tell you?"
"I don't know, but Scott's always been there to tell me something. We're best friends. He has a way. He knows how to cut through the crap. He...cares about me. I know that sounds sort of gay, but it isn't. The truth is that Aaron's not the one in love with Scott: I am -- because I've fucking wanted to be him since I was twelve."
Lansing trailed off and they both sat in stony silence as the movers tromped through the livingroom on their way to the bedroom to start disassembling the computer desk.
Lansing sniffed back tears, feeling stupid. "Fuck," he said dully.
"Lansing..." said Melody soothingly.
He suddenly leaned forward and scooped up his phone, unfolded it and started thumbing through his numbers. He gasped in surprise when Melody struck it out of his hands. The phone bounced across the carpet and meeped. Before Lansing could react he found himself pressed into a warm and wet kiss and Melody was sitting on his lap.
"What...?" he mumbled.
"You need this," Melody said, pushing her lips into his again.
Despite the embrace Lansing managed to squeak out, "Scott!"
"You need attention," whispered Melody, her breath hot on his face. "Don't worry about Scott. Let me give this time to you. He doesn't ever have to know."
"No, I can't."
"You're hard. That means you can. Come with me to the bathroom. We can lock the door. I know how to make you relax, Lansing. Trust me."
She took his hand and dragged him from the chair. He stumbled after her, resisting but without zeal. She pushed him up against the washroom doorjamb and kissed him again, her hand stroking over his pants. "Melody..." he protested weakly.
She shoved him into the washroom. She glanced over toward the bedroom and then back again. A coy smirk played over her features and then she rolled off her tank-top and tossed it aside, leaving her chest bare and shiny with perspiration.
Lansing gasped. Melody winked saucily.
And then she slammed the washroom door, casting Lansing into darkness. He heard a sliding, knocking sound as Melody hauled over a diningroom chair and jammed it under the knob. Her light footfalls retreated.
"Melody?" called Lansing. And then again: "...Melody?"
A blurry, negative impression of her nipples and beauty marks drifted untethered across Lansing's scintillating shadow-blindness.
He stumbled into the door and tried to open it, but he could not. He stumbled backward again and barked his shin on the toilet, then set to slapping his hands along the wall in search of the lightswitch. Then he remembered that the lightswitch was on the outside.
He sat on the toilet, his heart hammering.
"Melody what the fuck?" he bellowed. His voice echoed dully. He smelled pineapple shampoo.
He became quiet. He heard Melody suggest to the movers that they break for lunch, listening to their heavy boots clomp past the washroom and toward the front door.
Lansing was more bewildered than ever, and it made him furious. What was the term Aaron had used -- a toy?
Unbidden, rage rose and his eyes burned. He leapt up and threw himself against the door, repeatedly smashing it with his rapidly numbing shoulder until, at last, he managed to collapse the upper section with a loud crack. An adrenalin powered kick bashed out the bottom half of the door and then he tore the diningroom chair away and tumbled out onto the splinter-covered carpet.
Melody was closing the front door behind the movers. Lansing screamed, "What the fuck, Melody?" as he barreled up behind her.
She turned around. Without premeditation Lansing punched her in the face.
Melody fell back against the wall, striking her head, and then slid down to the floor with a stunned expression. A trickle of blood showed from one nostril.
"Oh my God!" cried Lansing, suddenly aghast. "I'm sorry!" he blurted.
He knelt down in front of her and then, without warning, she kicked him in the testicles with both feet at once. Lansing toppled over backward with a pitiable moan, clutching at his groin. Melody climbed over top of him, got to her feet and ran.
Unwilling to play prey, Lansing played predator. He let his anger wash through him as he plunged after her.
He caught up with her on the far side of the diningroom, tackling her sideways against a box of plates that rattled alarmingly. She dragged her nails down the side of his neck as she scrambled to get free. Lansing howled, squirming after her.
At the mouth of the hall he caught the back of her jogging pants and yanked them down, tangling around her ankles. She fell hard and uncontrolled, her ass sticking into the air, her face pressed against the carpet with pink friction burns blazing on her chin. Her underwear had little hearts on them.
She kicked him in the forehead, entangling him in her jogging pants. She pulled her legs clear and dashed into the bedroom.
Lansing got to his feet, winded and aching, and threw the pants aside. He started making for the bedroom when Melody appeared on the threshold. Lansing looked down at the device she held in her hand and winced in anticipation an instant before she jammed the taser into his midriff and engaged it.
He was overwhelmed by a brief but sharp-edged pain, a cruel cramping that hit him everywhere at once, his muscles suddenly jellied and utterly out of control. Lansing pissed all over himself and dropped to the carpet, twitching and moaning feebly.
Melody hovered over him, weapon trained. Lansing didn't, and couldn't, move. He wondered in a disconnected way whether he were about to die.
He could see up her shirt. Not a bad last sight, he reasoned in a disconnected, giddy way.
Without taking her eyes off of him Melody leaned down to scoop up her jogging pants, pulling them on awkwardly as she kept the taser leveled. "Now," she said, all traces of her smooth Southern drawl suddenly gone, "you're going to lie there like a lamb or I'm going to stick this thing in your ass, got it?"
Lansing nodded from the floor, pins and needles tickling uncomfortably throughout his body.
He watched as Melody crossed the room and picked a roll of duct tape out of one of the cardboard boxes. She straightened and pulled out a long strip, the tape croaking in its particular way. To Lansing the mundane sound was filled with new threat, and it made him jump.
And then the television showing the lobby camera went to static. Then the screen went dark, crackling quietly.
Melody looked over, frowning. A second later the lights died and the refrigerator went quiet, leaving them in the uncomfortable wake of sudden silence. Lansing lay in a narrow shaft of sunlight spilling in from the windows, trying to regain his breath, his ears ringing, the urine making his pants feel cold.
"It's a goddamn blackout," muttered Melody distractedly.
She knelt down next to Lansing and bound his wrists behind his back. Lansing felt he might have the strength to resist just as she finished. Then she set to tearing off another strip to bind his ankles, heralded by the tape's ominous croak. "Why are you doing this?" he managed to whisper.
"You got in the way, kid," she said. "This is business."
"You..." he said, his chin quivering, "you're the spider."
"Spider?" she chuckled, pulling the tape around his ankles. "You're mental."
The front door banged open, startling them both. Melody jumped up. Lansing craned his head to see. "Oh Scott please save me..." he prayed. "Please."
But it wasn't Scott who walked into the livingroom next: it was Sandy.
She glanced at him but did not react, her face a steely study in determination, the taut muscles a kind of harsh masque that transformed her to the edge of Lansing's recognition. She said, "This is finished, Dana," and in that moment Lansing realized that he was caught in the middle of something bigger than himself. He lay helpless at the crosshairs of a brewing battle.
Whatever Melody was up to, it was not surprising to Sandy.
"I told you to mind yourself, old lady," said Melody, her chin high. "I can't even begin to tell you how sorry you're going to be for coming here today. My people are on their way."
"No," said Sandy with coldness and precision, continuing to advance slowly into the room. "They are not, Dana."
"You don't know anything."
A tiny smile curled the corners of Sandy's lips. She said, "You are utterly transparent to me, Dana, in every respect. There is no line in your inventory that will dissuade me, Dana."
"I have a gun."
"No, Dana, you do not."
"Stop fucking saying my name!"
"No, Dana, I will not."
Melody suddenly ran at Sandy with the taser extended but stopped short when Sandy blasted her in the face with pepper stray. "Fuck!" screamed Melody, her face contorted as she staggered blindly backward. She tripped over Lansing and hit the floor, pawing at her eyes.
She wasn't hit as bad she made out, apparently, because when Sandy walked over Melody jumped to her feet. Through red-rimmed, squinting eyes she saw enough to rake her nails down Sandy's face, then threw all her weight into the other woman and both tumbled, knocking over the easychair with a percussive double thump.
Lansing managed to roll over and sit up, his tied feet pinned beneath him. Melody and Sandy were tumbling over one another, hitting and shrieking, clawing and grunting, leaving half-crushed cardboard boxes in their wake.
He wondered what he would do if Melody won. The idea of Sandy being hurt horrified him, which only served to further confuse his feelings. He bellowed, "Kick her fucking ass, Sandy!"
Sandy grunted as Melody clubbed her in the temple with a die-cast Excelsior-class starship. She raised it to strike again but was bucked aside. In the ensuing scuffle Lansing lost track of whose limbs were whose.
"Sandy!" he cried out desperately.
And then Sandy was up again, straddling Melody, smacking the girl's head back and forth repeatedly. Blood was now running from both of Melody's nostrils and dotting her cheeks as it sprayed laterally with the impact of Sandy's swinging, careless blows.
"Sandy, stop!" Lansing shouted. "You'll kill her!"
Sandy stopped, her chest rising and falling heavily as she panted. She looked at the red on her palms, then looked down at Melody's running eyes and bloody nostrils. Melody stirred faintly, her lids fluttering.
For a second Sandy's face softened and Lansing could see the her in her, but it was quickly gone and she was hard again, eyes narrow and lips pressed into a thin, grim line.
Sandy stood up abruptly and walked out of the livingroom. She returned with a large canvas knapsack, which she opened and extracted from it a neatly coiled bundle of white silk rope. She sat down cross-legged on the floor and began to industriously and expertly tie Melody up. Without looking over she asked, "Are you alright, Lansing?"
"I don't know," he said lamely.
"Did you get tased?"
She grunted as she pulled Melody's bindings tight, then set to gagging her. Melody was awake but offered no meaningful resistance, her eyes bleary and her cheeks red. Sandy said, "I'm sorry I flipped out on her. I...wasn't expecting to find you here. When I thought you were hurt I -- lost it."
"What are you going to do to her?"
Sandy pursed her lips. "I'll take her back to my lair and give her some education, then she has a date with the police."
"You're not going to hurt her, are you?"
Sandy snorted, her eyes on her work. "Why should you care? Who knows what she would've done to you if I hadn't arrived when I did? She's a predator, Lansing. She's very dangerous. Trust me."
"Trust you?" he spat, shaking his head wearily. "That's what she said."
Sandy scooted across the carpet and deftly cut the duct tape with a butterfly knife. Lansing carefully peeled the remaining strips away from his wrists, cringing as they caught the hairs. He watched Sandy as she cut his legs free. A strand of her hair had fallen loose from her bun and she blew at it, then flipped the knife closed and stashed it in her jeans with a practiced motion.
"What are you?" he asked.
"I told you," she said, eyes flicking up only briefly. "I'm a superhero. I clean up scum."
"Jesus Christ. This can't be real."
She reached out to touch his face but Lansing whipped his head out of the way. "Don't fucking touch me," he said.
"Just get away," he shouted. "You and Melody -- you're both monsters. You're both something awful. I don't want anything to do with you. You fight your fights but you leave me the fuck out of it, you understand?"
Sandy stood up. She unfolded a long, Naval duffel bag out of the knapsack and then put the mouth around Melody's feet and covered her up, drawing the string loosely at the top. "Don't worry," she said quietly. "She can still breathe. I'm not a killer."
"So you say."
Sandy flinched but did not immediately reply. She went into the corridor again and returned with a shopping cart, which she then loaded Melody into. Melody moaned. Sandy threw the knapsack on top of her unceremoniously and then hefted the handle experimentally, testing the weight. The cart rolled clumsily on the carpet, wheels twisting.
"Listen, Lansing," she said, dabbing at a cut on her temple. "I know this is fucked up. Don't presume to tell me, because I live it. And don't even ask me why, because the answer is longer than we've got."
"Fucked up is an understatement."
She considered this. "I think you'll agree that it's better than being taken for everything you have. I've been doing this a long time, Lansing. I know these people. They're ruthless and they're heartless. Dana here has been busy working up a pattern of spending on Scott's accounts that was going to come to a head today, leaving him penniless and his credit ruined. Look around -- she was even taking the furniture. Everything he had. Everything. Do you get it, Lansing? That's what I'm fighting against. So what I do may be fucked up, but it's less fucked up than the alternative."
"That's not as clear to me as it is to you," he said, and then, against his will, he started to cry. "How could you use me like this?" he begged, his voice catching in his throat.
"I never meant to hurt you, Lansing. Honestly, I didn't. I think you're a really great person. And maybe you think I'm horrible, but what we shared together was special."
"Bullshit," he blubbered.
"I mean it, Lansing. I'm going to miss you."
Lansing shook his head in disgust. "You're the same as her. You two are exactly the same. You exploit people -- Melody for money, you for some insane idea that you're a superhero and you're somehow doing something good. But you're not, Sandy. You're destructive. You're just a sick vixen with delusions of grandeur."
"Would you rather get robbed?" she asked sharply.
"Maybe, I don't know," shrugged Lansing, looking her in the eye. "Being violated is being violated. Maybe you took my virginity but you also took my trust. I don't know what the fuck you've really done to me, in the end. I guess I'll find out. But I do know one thing, Sandy or Justine or whatever you name is."
"What's that, Lansing?"
"I wish I'd never met you."
Sandy's face froze, and then she slowly began to nod, the skin under her eyes quaking. She hung her head sadly and said, "I understand."
And then she turned and wheeled the shopping cart filled by a bound and gagged girl out the front door of Scott's naked condominium, and away. Lansing leaned into the overturned easychair, hearing the squeaking of the shopping cart's wheels echo off the corridor walls and diminish.
Far down the corridor, so did Sandy.