In response to vocal demand I will resume italicizing my biographical anecdotes so as to retain a clear visual demarkation between fiction and non-fiction. That way if you read about something terrible happening but it's in a Roman typeface you can rest assured it is almost certainly imaginary. Respectively should you read about an incursion of alien spaceships or hostile robotic drones with italicized body text know then that these reports come from the real world and may indicate the need for your imminent panic.
Now that we're agreed on what's real let's proceed with the preamble.
My yard is haunted by a boat. It's a 24' keeled sailboat that sleeps two adults and two children, and entertains as many adults if they don't mind watching each other pee. The boat has sails, and when you put it in the water it can be sailed around, and has a small motor for chortling around the marina. The marina wants money I don't have. The boat wants fixing up I'm slow to learn, with tools I don't own. I'm just trying to be a proper step-son. It's my step-father that's ga-ga for sailing. So that's why I say haunted. Wonderful boat. Costly boat. White elephant.
Part of me feels like all possessions are white elephants, but on the other hand when it rains I really like an umbrella. I think if you could reasonably carry something around with you on your person as a mobile homeless indigent it can't be a proper white elephant. Unless its very heavy, like a silver candlestick or the ring of Sauron. You know, or in some other respect fitting within the rubric of the metaphor, such as a beautiful talking parrot who shits in your ear.
My uncle once had a parrot, but my parents didn't like me engaging with it because he'd taught it foul expressions and once called my little sister a motherfucker. He also had a tarantula who escaped from its tank and surprised his girlfriend in the shower, which I thought was a cool story because every part of it was fun to imagine. He would go on to buy a bride from Cuba. Their semi-spanic lovechild is named after my grandfather who once saved a Belgian from a Nazi. He sent that kraut motherfucker straight to Gott, as was the style at the time.
I always admired my grandfather for being the only person on that side of the family who wasn't fat. I don't know how he did it. My grandmother, who rests now in the cosmic bosom of all-powerful Athiesmo, served candy for lunch when she was alive. She presented fruit pies topped with whipped cream as appetizers. She made her children gargle Ovaltine. And she painted little cherubic faces on inanimate objects so to be in her house was to be stared at by a hundred tiny chubby grins. Even the fireplace tools looked like they'd enjoyed one pie too many but didn't give a damn. The apparent peer pressure was multudinous. How did my grandfather resist? Oh, and the war hero thing. I admired him for that, too.
I'm being glib. In truth I admired his calm, friendly resolve. He was an unswervingly polite man who wore hats well.
His father, in turn, was a third-generation stage magician, the current bearer of an inherited title, and I can only imagine at least a little chagrined when his son became a banker. He left us treasures: loaded dice, marked cards, collapsible roses, and so on. Sadly the line was broken from that point forward. Neither my father nor I is a magician. Though my father is a musician, which could just be a teleological typo.
Does God use autocorrect? If so it would call for a radical re-reading of all the goslings and the specific words Jesuit poached in the Holy Bicycle.
One of my aunties got so fat she floated up into the sky like in Harry Potter. She was neither a magician nor a musician. When she got cancer she got really skinny and so presumably lost buoyancy but I'm not sure since in the interim we'd lost touch. I'd been away at college. The funeral was open casket but it didn't look like her in there.
My best friend once transformed in a similar way, when I was a kid. First he was chubby and we played Lego together, then he was skinny in a wheelchair when he visited school one time, then he was a stranger in a suit lying in his open casket. The whole thing was a mystery, especially to us kids; all we could glean from the adults' whispers was that it had all been chalked up to a bad blood transfusion that gave him "an African disease." It took me a year or two to connect that with HIV because when it first started making the news I thought AIDS was an association that put on benefit concerts.
The next person I knew who died of AIDS was a schoolteacher. He was from Jamaica and his voice was very deep. He got awfully skinny before he died, too, but I don't know how he looked after he died because he wasn't Catholic. Everybody at my school cried, even people who hadn't liked him. That wife he was always talking about turned out to be a man, and he wore a black dress to the funeral.
And that, my friends, is what we call free associative rambling!
Meanwhile, let's continue on with the current exciting science-fiction serial, shall we?
(The story unfolds beneath the fold.)
by Cheeseburger Brown
Somehow the sun rose again.
The morning was clear. The sky was yellow. The plateau was littered with the scattered remains of our equipment, tools, supplies and selves. None of us had slept much except in the dreary, quiet hour before dawn when the winds had finally faltered. Everything was coated in a crisp layer of frost knotted with hail stones and teethed with icicles, the violent motion of the storm captured and stored in the form of intricate convolutions and sprays and whorls that decorated the ice surfaces, stopped in time, sparkling in the dawn glow.
I peed. I unwrapped a snack. I blew on my hands.
Svetlana looked forlorn. The skin on her face had dozens of tiny pink nicks in it. She was dabbing at them with alcohol and then wincing because of the sting and because of the cold. Suzumi stared into space. Scotia tugged her parka tighter around her shoulders as she walked over from the edge of the ledge. "There's a problem," she said flatly.
We followed her back to look at the next section of the Felician Stairs, the risers run through with glistening cracks and slick with orange mud. As we looked on bubbles slowly formed on the stone, the taut surfaces clear and pristine. Idly they popped.
"It's been explained to me," explained Scotia, "that last night's storm blew loads of hail up over the ridge, and when the sun rose it all melted and started running down through natural fissures in the escarpment. Basically, all the ice is bleeding out through the stairs."
"So the stairs -- they're slippery?" prompted Svetlana, arched brow raised.
"No, no, no," said Scotia, "it's worse than that. The stairs are pretty much floating on a bed of liquid mud." She turned to us and shrugged sadly. "They could come apart under our feet. Word is a car from the parks commission is on its way up to close the trail, so. I mean I guess that's it."
"At least the failure wasn't ours," reasoned Suzumi.
"Perhaps we'll make another attempt, another time," said Svetlana.
"I don't know what to say," said Scotia. "I want to cry," she said, but she didn't cry.
I looked past them as a skinny old Hyper-Christian monk in rough woolen robes extended his foot and touched the first riser experimentally. Its base bubbled but did not move. He cast his eyes skyward and mumbled something and then hefted himself to the next step. He paused to test it, again glanced skyward, then lifted himself again. An ancient Buddhist woman in a bright orange sari followed after him using her cane to feel out the footholds. One of the steps came apart under her foot but she was able to scamper ahead and continue. The monk caught her hand and held it until she was steady. Together they proceeded upward.
Scotia traced my gaze. I chewed the inside of my cheek thoughtfully. "If we go now," I said, "we'll be through the washout before they come to close the trail. If we wait, they'll turn us back. I think maybe we should consider trying it, um, sisters."
Ignoring me, Suzumi turned the discussion to what gear we should bother to haul with us on the journey back down and Svetlana pretended to pay attention so I walked away. My tent had finished dragging its sorry remains up inside my backpack so I knelt down to show it I was ready to be mounted. Once the backpack had secured itself I straightened my jacket and marched to the sweating stairs.
I wasn't ready to go home yet.
Cautiously I started picking my way up the stairs. I didn't look behind me. I didn't have to. I knew there was no way Suzumi and Svetlana could live down my going on without them. That's the secret power of being somebody people look down on -- they can't help but fall over themselves to avoid being less than you. Shame is persuasive.
The team caught up to me when I finally stopped, stunned, unable to continue.
The stairs ahead were riddled with cracks. The riser under the feet of the nun in orange had torn away and she remained on the escarpment only because the monk in brown was clutching her around the middle. A tepid slurry of brown water was washing out of the cliff-side and over the nun, her boots scraping against the increasingly slippery rock in an attempt to find purchase. The monk adjusted his weight slightly. More water spurted out from between the cracked risers.
I couldn't breathe. Scotia, Svetlana and Suzumi pressed into me from behind and started to speak but stopped. I heard Suzumi gasp.
The nun and the monk tumbled off the escarpment. Neither screamed. They were just there one second and then gone -- a blur of fabric and a whisper of wind. Gone.
"Oh my God!" cried Scotia.
"Excreta," I sobbed.
We all stood there frozen for what felt like a long time. I blinked and turned when I heard the murmuring of other hikers carefully coming up behind us. One of them drove a spike into the rock when he lost his footing but the spike came free in a flood of mud and pebbles. He rolled end over end back down the way he'd come, knocking his fellows down as he went. Thankfully none of them went off the edge.
Scotia swallowed loud enough to hear. "It sort of looks just as bad going back down as it does going up," she said. "What do you think, Svet?"
"I don't know," said Svetlana. She crossed her arms so it would be harder to tell she was shaking.
"We should just go down. I think we have to go down. People are dying. We've got to get down."
Maybe Scotia turned to ask me next and maybe she didn't, but I didn't know because I saw a goat. I tilted my head at her and made little clucking sounds like my tongue. The goat blinked at me. I blinked back at the goat.
I reached into my pocket and withdrew a bag of snack. The goat took a tentative half-step forward.
"That's right," I assured her seriously. "Yummy-nummy."
"What's she doing?" hissed Suzumi. "This isn't a good time for her to play petting zoo, Scotia."
"She's in shock," suggested Svetlana blankly.
I tore off a tiny piece of snack and tossed it toward the goat. She tried it out and was duly impressed. She stepped closer, hooves clicking on the stone. I showed her the bag again, and then tossed a handful of snack upward along the eroded staircase ahead.
She tracked my throw. So did Scotia. "Claire, what the hell are you doing?"
"Quiet," I said quietly. "Watch," I said, pointing. "Remember where she steps."
The goat chose her footing precisely as she hopped from ruined step to ruined step, alighting from spot to spot methodically in order to nibble up every last morsel I'd thrown. When she was done she turned around and bleated at me.
I retraced the goat's steps, though much more slowly. When I came too close she skipped up higher, stopping just shy of the entirely washed out section where the monk and nun had made their worldly exeunt. I showed the goat my bag of snack again. She didn't blink.
I threw another handful up the flight, the last pieces falling beyond the washout. Without hesitation the goat picked her way after each mouthful. I studied how she flitted across the ruin.
"If this doesn't work out," I whispered to myself, "I really am really sorry Maddy."
I put my boot on the same hunk of sloping riser the goat had touched her hoof upon. It squelched and leaned, making my heart hammer in my chest. I closed my eyes and pushed off it, landing on a second piece of debris that began to foam at its base when I applied weight. With a little shriek I skipped over the next three hoof-marks in the mud and launched myself at the intact stone stairs beyond.
When I was able to turn on my back and sit up and I waved to Scotia. "Come on," I said as I worked to catch my breath. "It's pretty easy. I mean, I did it, so. You know. You all should be fine."
They didn't look like they believed me, but I knew they couldn't stand to stay there looking up at me from below. I felt a little guilty that it made me smile to know they had no choice. Maybe Suzumi and Svetlana would see that I had valuable contributions to make to this effort, too.
"I don't think it's safe," said Suzumi. "We should call for rescue, Scotia. Damn the fee."
"Don't be stupid," said Scotia, shouldering past her to begin the ascent. "Claire's totally nailed the spirit of this adventure and I'm surprised you haven't yet, Sue."
"We're not all going to live through this," said Suzumi.
"Nonsense," said Scotia. "Ridiculous. You've got to believe, sister."
I grabbed Scotia's forearm and she grabbed mine. I hauled her up onto the firm step beside me. She put her hands on her hips and gestured at the two women below with her chin. She was daring them to turn back, I realized. It was a pissing match with my initiative at the fulcrum. Weird!
And on top of not falling off the cliff and dying Scotia also got my name right twice in a row. Pretty much everything was coming up Claire. The scariest day of my life was also the best one so far.
Goats are awesome.
My legs quivered in protest but obeyed, hefting me up to the last riser of the flight so that I could take a moment to lean against the rocks and pant. While I panted I watched an ant wend its way among the pebbles, over the toe of my boot, and on down the cliff, scuttling carelessly beyond gravity's grasp.
When I was able to look up I lost my breath again.
I stood at the top of the Felician Stairs. Behind me the world dropped away to haze and ahead of me the world bulged up into a belt of thick, smoky cloud. Between me and the mountain was the rest of my team hobbling slowly toward a series of low buildings and gardens set into the rock: Spa of the Statues.
"Wait up!" I called, launching myself after them.
I caught up in the lobby. It was ornate and temple-like, with grey stone walls overgrown with various species of green and red ivy. The floor was packed copper-coloured dirt. Behind a gnarled wooden counter which itself seemed to have smaller plants actively growing out of it stood a portly man with a blonde moustache and twinkling eyes, smiling graciously as Scotia bent his ear. "Oh yes, madam, oh yes," he nodded, "and congratulations on your conquest of the Felician. Your reservation has validated and your arrangements will be just so in a mo. Would you be so good as to impress, madam?"
Scotia pressed her thumb into the goo pad. It chirped and turned green.
"Further," he continued, "we have accepted receipt on your behalf of your mountaineering equipment and sundries for the second leg of your ascent. I have taken the liberty of having everything roboed to your sleeper."
"Thanks," said Scotia. "That's awesome."
"Finally I would remind madam and her party that every guest at the spa has the right to the assumption of pseudo-privacy. Please refrain from interacting with guests outside of your own party except when within designated socialization zones. I'm obliged to tell you that these rules are rather strictly enforced, and the consequences for straying from policy are swift, severe and utterly without appeal. At this time I must ask you to signify your acceptance by saying ‘I understand.'"
"I understand," claimed Scotia.
His grin returned. "Capital. Tonight's special in the dinner hall is probiotic muck à l'orange. Enjoy your stay, ladies. We are so very pleased to have each of you here."
The doors to the inner sanctum unlocked and swung themselves open once a clear passage had been calculated by the house. Lights nestled in the ivy guided us through stone corridors to our reservation, leaving all other ways dark. As we walked we passed ivy-choked stone statues here and there. Some of them were posed in an attitude of walking, while others were sculpted with their hands extended to hold real objects, like drinks trays and piles of folded white towels.
I mean, that's what it looked like. But I wasn't born under a rock. I'd heard about the place, obviously.
I knew the statues were actually staff.
"But they're all robots, right Scotia?" asked Suzumi with a lingering sneer as she crept past one of them. "They'll all start moving again once we're gone?"
Svetlana smirked. "I think most of them are robots," she said, "but from time to time flesh is needed. But we're never to know the difference."
"That's a myth, Svet," snapped Scotia, "made up by perverts. Of course there aren't any actual people. That would violate the whole point of pseudo-privacy. I wouldn't just let some random stranger see me relaxing!"
I cast a sidelong stare at a marble maiden posed in front of a closed door carrying a plate of sandwich crusts. She couldn't be real. Nobody real could stay that still. Plus her algae-streaked eyeballs had no pupils. Still...
I shuddered and moved along faster.
Our reservation was comprised of a cluster of hemispherical stone rooms housing a series of interconnected pools of varying temperatures and mixes. Round apertures around the tops of the chambers were both vents and skylights, so the air was criss-crossed by beams that revealed twisting and circulating whorls of moisture. At the centre of the largest hemispherical room was a waterfall cascading down over hot rocks, the tumbling droplets turning to steam.
After so much coldness and stiffness and sleeping on stone ledges and weary step-climbing the place seemed like heaven itself. I said, "Wow. This is really nice, Scotia."
"I know," she said, "it's like the brochure wasn't even retouched."
Svetlana stepped out of her boots and unpeeled her parka. She tugged off a sweater then unsealed her shirt seams and suddenly she was standing there in her underwear. I didn't know how best to not look at her and while I was trying to decide about that her brassiere unclenched and fell away, and as if she didn't even notice that she put her arms up over her head and stretched out her spine.
It was like that time I stumbled into Mr. Jones-Cobalt's office when he was watching holographic pornography: so awkward.
"So I guess she's pretty uninhibited," I said as I turned to Scotia, but Scotia wasn't there because she was bending down to get her pants off. "Oh!" I said instead to no one.
Suzumi scampered past me and slipped into the closest pool, naked as the day she was born. She closed her eyes and sighed and then disappeared beneath the surface. Svetlana waded in beside her. Scotia kicked her underwear off and followed.
"Oh my God," she moaned. Then she opened her eyes and looked over at me. Svetlana was looking at me, too. Suzumi resurfaced and traced their gazes. She went back underwater. Scotia shifted. "Sister?"
I was pawing through my bag. "I was just trying to find. You know. I was just."
"Trying to find my bathing suit. But."
"Oh no no no, don't be stupid," giggled Scotia. "You don't need a bathing suit! That's what pseudo-privacy is all about, darling -- having no worries."
"Yes," I agreed vaguely, letting go of my bag. For the first time I noticed the alcoves around the perimeter of the chamber, each decorated with a sculptured humanoid form. I wasn't buying the premise: I certainly didn't feel like nobody was looking at me. Even the walls were looking at me!
"Don't be shy," advised Svetlana languidly. "We're all girls here."
That was true. But we weren't all the same kind of girls. I turned back to my pack and was startled to see a statue standing over it, half-hidden behind a veil of steam. The statue was of a young man. He had moss growing up his legs and it made him look like a satyr. In his outstretched stone hands was what looked like a black bathing suit of a conservative cut.
I wanted to hug him. But then I felt stricken. I turned back to the pool. "Scotia, one of them has a bathing suit for me. It's okay if I wear it, right?"
She said it was. I backed away a little bit deeper into the steam to try to find a place to change. When I turned around three statues were frozen in a half-circle, their hands intertwined playfully, forming a wall between me and the team. I thanked the statues and wormed my way out of my clothes and into the bathing suit. The bathing suit fit. I looked down at myself once but then tried to avoid doing so. Bashfully I stepped out from behind the statues and went straight into the water.
When I surfaced the others were smiling at me. I felt kind of dumb for feeling so dumb. The warmth of the pool was unbelievably great. "This is awesome," I said. Everyone agreed.
We tried different pools. In some the water was mineralized and bubbly and in others it was flat and heavy and hot but cut with streamers of refreshingly cold current. There was a pool with oily yellowish water that left our bodies feeling baby soft, and there was a pool with rough-feeling water that peeled away dead skin. Svetlana swam laps in a wider expanse of water while Suzumi was massaged by moving jets. Scotia sipped a drink and lounged on some shallow steps. If we needed anything we just talked about it, and before long we'd come across a statue posed with our needs.
"You should try one of these," she said, talking around a colourful paper umbrella floating in her glass.
"Is it fruit juice?"
"It's a Marineris Delight."
"Those have alcohol in them."
"Well, a little I suppose. Not much. Do you like grapefruit?"
"I like it okay."
"You simply have to taste the grapefruit in this, Cleo! It's beyond awesome."
I tried a sip. It certainly didn't taste like it had much alcohol in it. I agreed to have one of my own and then we both turned our backs so it would come quickly. When we looked again a frosted glass stood at the side of the pool right where I'd been sitting. I admit I probably drank that first one pretty fast.
By my third one I was pretty much just laughing at whatever anybody said. "You're hilarious!" I told each of them several times. I even agreed to let them help me pick out an outfit for going down to dinner. They did my hair and make-up as if we were at a secondary school slumber party, like me and Madeleine used to do when she could still move around more.
They made me make a drunk diary entry, and I cried a little bit because we were all having such a nice time together.
"I can't wear it like this," I told Svetlana, shaking my head. "People will be able to tell. You know. What I'm shaped like."
Svetlana used a safety pin to adjust the way my dress hung. She snorted. "When you're stepping out for an evening people are supposed to be able to tell what you're shaped like. People like one another's shapes."
"It's all in good fun," agreed Suzumi as she tugged off her wedding band and dropped it into her pack. "I want to go dancing!"
"Totally," agreed Scotia, turning around to look at herself in the mirror from different angles. "Are we ready to go?"
Once we'd touched the exit pad it took the spa a moment to calculate our route. When ready the door to the dressing room grumbled aside into the stone wall, presenting us with a lit length of ivy-grown corridor. Svetlana took Suzumi's arm and Scotia took mine, and together we paraded our way to the dining hall.
The dining hall was situated in a vast underground cavern on the shore of a submartian lake whose waters had been turned bone white by natural mineral salts. The lake faded away into pitch blackness outside of the strip of shore illuminated by thousands of candles. The air smelled rusty, like a perfume of old Mars. The maître d' was human, ancient and dignified, his tuxedo immaculate. We followed his little bony bum between the tables until we came to our own. He untucked my chair for me as if I were a royal. I giggled then felt embarrassed. His smile was genteel and reassuring. He talked like a robot. "Madam."
I leaned aside and whispered, "Scotia, why are there no prices on the menu?"
She waved dismissively. "Don't fret, darling. Sometimes you've just got to treat yourself. Are you hungry?"
My stomach gurgled audibly. "Not really," I told her.
She looked me in the eyes. "I'm going to get a little something extra, just in case you want to share it with me. Just something on the side. But I'll order it. What do you think I should get?"
"Oh if I want something I can just order it."
"Nonsense," she said. "I want you to feel comfortable."
Part way through dinner a waiter walked over with a tray of four tall colourful drinks. "From the gentlemen in the corner, ladies," he said as he set one down in front of each of us. "With their compliments."
"Be cool," Scotia said to me while barely moving her lips. "Act like you don't care. Don't look over."
"Shouldn't we say thank you?" I whispered to her.
"No, no, no," said Scotia. "That's not how it's done."
"But I feel rude."
"Now we should all share a little laugh together. Everyone ready? Three, two, one."
We all had a sophisticated chuckle at nothing at all, then deigned to sip our drinks. "What happens next?" I asked.
"When we're finished eating they'll come over," explained Scotia.
"What if they come over sooner?"
"Then they're cads and we should ignore them. What kind of a man interrupts a woman while she's eating? I'd never dance with a man like that."
"I'm not really the biggest dancing fan in the whole world, kind of, anyways."
"Don't talk like that. Of course one of them will ask you."
I flushed. I wasn't sure if I was angry or embarrassed. "That's not what I said."
"But it's what you meant," replied Scotia without looking at me.
Was Scotia nice or was she horrible? I felt guilty and stupid that I still couldn't tell for sure. On top of that the whole cave seemed to be slanting eastward but nobody else was disturbed in the slightest so I tried to ignore it.
When desert was cleared four men with wide smiles came sauntering over to our table. I didn't know where to look so I looked at Scotia. Scotia sipped her drink and looked at them over the rim of the glass. Svetlana raised one arched brow. They wanted to know if we'd enjoyed the drinks. Scotia said we had.
"Ah," grinned the tallest among them, "you're from Mangala Valley. I'd recognize that valley girl accent anywhere."
"It's very sexy," said the man to his right.
"Oh yes, it's among the sexiest of accents," agreed the tallest man. "You could say anything to me in a Mangala accent and I'd be helpless. Utterly helpless."
Suzumi laughed behind her hand. Scotia rolled her eyes. "Is that the best you can do?"
"No, we've got more," the tallest man assured her. "May we sit down? Let us put our best material on the table."
"An audition?" said Svetlana languidly, eyes half closed.
"They're sirens," said the baldest fellow. "I don't think we should sit down. If we do they'll never let us leave. Look at this: one raven-haired, one ginger, one brunette, one blonde. A collector's set. Too good to be true."
For some reason he looked at me when he said "too good to be true" which made me turn pink. I hid inside my drink but found that it was empty, so I waved for just one more.
They sat down, their captain opposite ours. Scotia's counterpart was called Bao. They sparred verbally a bit while the rest of us looked on. I wrapped and unwrapped my fingers around my glass and watched my ice cubes melt, looking up to laugh when everybody was supposed to. The balding fellow to my left scooched his chair closer and leaned in. "You're not entirely comfortable here, are you?"
"No the food was great," I said, shaking my head. But then in order not to focus on the food I said, "And the cave. It's great, too. So...cavernous. I can't believe I just said that. I totally sound like a fool."
"Not at all," he told my collar bone or thereabouts. "Bao and Wei are right about that Mangala Valley accent -- you could read the li-comm references index and I'd swear it was poetry."
I couldn't help but giggle a little. "You're trying too hard."
"I'm overcompensating for my pate."
He was nice. Really all of it was nice. We did end up dancing. Everyone did. He showed me his ring and warned me he could only flirt and dance and not anything more intimate because his marriage was exclusive. I shrugged and told him I was too repressed and neurotic for anything else anyway. We agreed that we were a good match for the evening. "My name is Feng. It means ‘summit.' I think that's why I'm along, actually -- because it's good luck to have your success eponymous within your party."
"Clarity is a good thing to have, too."
"What do you mean?"
"The words share a common root. I know they're pronounced completely differently from one another now, but a few centuries ago they sounded almost the same. Claire and clarity."
"I guess I can almost hear that," I claimed.
He smiled. "I'm being didactic. Please forgive me. When I'm not climbing mountains I'm a schoolteacher. What do you do, Claire?"
I thought of Madeleine. "Nothing," I said quickly, and then laughed. "I do this," I added, gesturing at myself. "When I'm not climbing mountains I dance around summits and get drunk. Oh, that sounded awful. I don't really get drunk often."
"It's okay, I can tell."
"By the way you're drunk. It has an air of authenticity."
We went out to get some air. We actually did end up kissing a bit, but don't tell anybody. There was no one on the terrace to notice except statues of waitstaff. And about a million stars.
When we returned to the cave the lighting had become pulsing and lewd. The music was louder. My eyeballs quivered in rhythm with the bass, blurring the world. Feng held my hand while I dragged him across the dance-floor in search of any member of either of our parties. Finding none we shouted in each other's ears that there was no point in hanging around.
He walked me back to our sleeper and gave me a gentlemanly bow. "Thank you for not being a wretched insincere bore," he said. "I wish you the best of luck in your ascent, Claire."
I laughed. "Thank you for not being gross," I said. "Maybe we'll meet again in the calderas."
It was hard to believe the evening had been passed with such a very small amount of painful awkwardness, but so it seemed. I had the sleeper all to myself until the others returned from their respective adventures. It seemed appropriate to do a little pirouette of happiness in the middle of the domed room but somehow I miscalculated and ended up in one of the beds instead. I tried to get up but it was harder than I thought it would be. Something made me laugh. And then I was dreaming.
I dreamed of a mouse. She wanted cheese. Squeak, squeak, squeak.
My eyes snapped open. The sleeper was dark. From the next bed over came the unmistakable noises of human coupling. I stifled a gasp. Oh God. It sounded like somebody clapping with a handful of cold-cuts.
Embarrassed and horrified I decided to try to make my escape while the couple was distracted. I slowly raised myself on one elbow and blinked against the dark. What could I do? Where could I hide?
"Yeah Wei!" moaned Svetlana dramatically.
I repressed my gag reflex and made a firm decision to crawl along the floor quietly until a better idea came to me. But instead of extricating myself from the bed in silent slow-motion I just fell off it and hit the floor with a boom.
I cringed and froze.
The grotesque applause continued without interruption. I dared to exhale then careful got on my hands and knees to make a go for the washroom. I was thinking maybe I could sleep on some towels in the bath tub. I had reached the threshold of the room when Svetlana and Wei reached the threshold of climax.
It was very theatric.
Afterwards while they were quiet I didn't dare move. In mumbling voices they gave each other positive reviews.
They started chatting and chuckling. I resumed my retreat. I was almost far enough into the washroom to consider sliding the door closed.
I didn't think I was listening to them but I guess I sort of was because I heard it when the talk turned to me. "What's the fat one's story?" asked Wei.
"Don't be cruel," she teased.
"Seriously though. How does she fit in?"
Svetlana sniffed. "Someone has to summit last."
"Are you stupid, Wei?" she said into the dark. "Her function is to lose."
It was at that point that I was surprised to learn just how enthusiastically my stomach wanted to throw up. I was a little too late to stop it. With a bestial croaking sound like the world's biggest frog I covered the washroom floor in probiotic muck à l'orange, ensuring that when the lights came on my humiliation would be total.