Authors: Max Ellendale
This is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or
are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to
actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely
Copyright © 2016 Max Ellendale
Cover Artist: Victoria Miller
Editor: Deadra Krieger
Editor: R.M. Bruce
All rights reserved. No part of this
book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written
permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
A bang sounded and my eyes shot open. "Jilly?" I called
out, sitting up from the sofa where I passed out. I glanced over the back of
the couch expecting to see her unpacking groceries. "What'd you decide for
The dark apartment told me I'd slept for longer than I expected. I
rolled to my feet and shook off the chill that shuddered up my spine. Grocery
shopping didn't usually take this long. I flicked on the kitchen light and
yawned. No coffee meant no Jillian.
I checked the bedroom and found the bed still made. Then the guest
room. The clock radio beside the bed blared an ugly green 9:00 PM at me. Six
"Jilly?" I asked the nothing and my heart set to
pounding. The only other place I thought to look was in the studio. I bolted up
the steps, flung open the door, and found more nothing. I dropped down on the
stool beside the easel and just as the thought of a cell phone crossed my mind,
I noticed a folded piece of drawing paper pinched between two paint brushes in
the cup. I snatched it out and opened it.
I'm sorry. I love you. I'm sorry.
I died in that moment.
For weeks, I didn't know what
meant. I thought it
meant "see you later" or "I'm sorry that I wasn't there when you
woke up." Eventually, when she didn't come home, I learned that "I'm
sorry" meant that I'd done something terrible to push her away. So
terrible that I didn't deserve to get out of bed, not because I didn't want to,
because I couldn't.
Everything she'd done to the condo—decorated walls, colorful
curtains, soft linens—transformed into objects of sheer torture. The worst, the
absolute worst, was Graydon's portrait in the living room, and hers upstairs.
By the time my mother showed up six weeks later, the condo was in
ruins. Both from my tantrum and from neglect.
"Jeslyn, open the door," she called out from the
"Go away, Mom," I muttered with my lips against the cold
wood of the door.
"Jeslyn, if you don't open this door I'll—"
"What? Call my father?"
"Yes, precisely. Or worse, Declan."
"Mom, please go away."
"No!" The door banged against my cheek.
It went on for half an hour but the threat to call the police
finally did it. I couldn't risk an old colleague showing up here. So, I let her
"What… have you done?" she asked as she stared
open-mouthed at the rubble of my living room.
"I'm fine, Mom. Just leave."
"I don't know."
"What do you mean you don't know?"
"I don't know! Can you just leave?" I shouted and raged
in the same way I used to. "Just leave. Get out of here just like everyone
else does. Just like Graydon and Jillian and everyone in between. Just
"Jessie, come on now." Her words, soft and motherly, did
nothing to soothe me. When she stepped closer, arms outstretched, I shoved her
"Stop saying my name and go," was the last thing I said
to her before slamming my bedroom door.
And just like that, everything was back to how it was after
Graydon. I was alone in a silent house, except now I had no desire to paint.
Rhoda called my phone half a dozen times a day. Every painting sold off the
internet site. I had no desire to replenish any of it.
The thing about Rhoda, I forgot that she had a key. It took her
two months to use it but eventually she did.
"Oh my God," I heard her voice say from somewhere
outside my bedroom door. "Maybe we should call the cops."
"Is that blood?"
"I think it's paint."
"We need to get out of here and call the sheriff."
"No," I croaked, cringing at the sound of my own voice.
I cleared my throat and said it louder the second time.
"Wait here." Rhoda's voice dropped to a whisper and the
bedroom door creaked open. Dressed in her fanciest purple suit with matching
heels, she stepped over a pile of clothes and paused beside me. I stared at her
knees until she crouched down to look at me. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm calling an ambulance."
She stood up, her hand on my head, and I heard her say something
but couldn't comprehend what it was.
By the time I
understand words again, bright white
lights blinded me when I opened my eyes and I pulled the scratchy blanket over
my head. My mother sat at my bedside while a monitor beeped beside it. My
stomach ached, my head throbbed, and the IV in my hand pinched. A nurse told me
I was dehydrated and malnourished from whatever norovirus I contracted. What
was a norovirus anyway?
I forced the doctors to make my mother leave and refused to see
anyone else who visited. It took them half a week to make me feel any better. I
let Rhoda bring me clothes but I refused to see her, too. It was her fault I
was here to begin with. When they released me, I didn't tell anyone and walked
out the front door.
Maine is cold in March. It's cold in April, too. Valentine's Day
wasn't cold. It was the warmest day I could remember, and we had a blizzard. We
had two Valentine's Days together. Jillian made everything warm.
Rhoda should've let me croak.
Maybe I could walk to visit Graydon. Except they buried him in
Arlington. He belonged there, they said. Where war heroes go. Where men and
women who sacrifice themselves for freedom and their brothers rest their heads
Maine is not Virginia. It didn't seem that far.
How I ended up in a hospital in Portland was beyond me. Two hours
from Eddington. Walking home didn't seem impossible. Virginia seemed closer.
I walked the central part of Portland forever, or at least until
it got dark. Under the glare of bouncing headlights, people walked past me in
groups. Laughter and the smell of alcohol wafted from some. Cigarette smoke
from others. It must've been midnight by the time I made it downtown. Women,
and some men dressed as women, tucked themselves into corners, pocketing off
from the tourists and bar hoppers. Cars drove up and left, one after the other,
in almost a rhythm. I stopped to watch for a while, counting the time in
Ten years ago, I would've nabbed that john, charged him with
soliciting a prostitute. Charged that girl for prostitution then give her the
number to a rehab where she could get herself together. Tonight I just watched.
"Excuse me," said a small voice beside me. I started
when someone touched my shoulder.
"Have you seen this girl?" The kid, barely fifteen,
showed me a picture of a blonde woman. She smiled while she hugged him, her
lips pressed to his cheek.
"I haven't. Is that your mom?"
"Does she…" I nodded toward the women whispering as they
stared at me.
"Maybe. She's on drugs. I want to help her."
"It's not the safest place for you either out here, you
know," I said.
"What about you?" he said
"I'll manage, too."
"How long has she been missing?" I asked.
"A month about. You?" He tucked the photo in the pocket
of his hoodie and gazed down the street.
"I'm not missing."
"But you're looking for someone, too, right?" He glanced
"What makes you say that?"
"People like you and me, we only come here when we're looking
for one of two things," he said.
"Missing people or drugs. You don't want drugs."
"How old are you, kid?"
"I'll be sixteen next month."
"You know too much. Go home."
"I gotta look some more. If you see her, tell her to call
"Is that your name?" I cocked a brow at him.
"No but she'll know what I mean." He smirked and
shrugged as we broke apart. "Peace."
I wasn't really looking for her here. I wasn't really looking for
had me wondering why I hadn't looked for her. Did it
even matter? She made the choice to leave. No matter how much
matter how much
I love you
, she still left.
Except the choice to leave the earth wasn't his. Images of our
last goodbye flooded me. At the airport, right here in Portland. Dozens of
uniformed army members boarding their flights, weaving in and out of civilians…
"I'm sorry, babe," he said. "I love you. This one's
only six months and I'll be back. My contract is up in February and I'm
"I love you, too. Come back to me," I said while
stroking his stubbly chin.
"I will," he promised.
He always promised.
The street ended and a bar appeared in front of me. Magical, it
seemed, or I hadn't been paying attention while walking. Sometimes I believed
in magic. The blacked out windows, thumping music, and burly man at the door
told me it wasn't just a regular bar but one especially for shady characters.
Tonight I felt a little shady.
I also didn't have anywhere else to go and didn't have a phone.
The bouncer waved me in, despite my water-logged rat appearance,
and I watched over my shoulder as he did the same for most of the women, but
only some of the men. Darkness bled from the entrance, shadowing the room and
the faces in it. In the center, a silver pole on a circular platform drew my
focus forward. No one was on the stage, but I figured out what kind of place
I'd walked into. I parked myself at the bar in the back of the room, beside two
thick guys while a woman stood between them, her elbows on their shoulders.
They laughed about something but I didn't care. I knocked on the counter and
the bartender nodded at me on his way over.
"What can I get ya?"
"Whiskey sour," I said, fishing a bill from my pocket
and tossing it at him when he returned. Hopefully it was more than a dollar. He
didn't complain though.
While I nursed the drink for ages it seemed, people poured into
the place behind me. Eventually, every table filled up and the lighting shifted
from cerulean to a more ambient white. The music kicked up and I noticed the
wait staff suddenly became all women dressed in skimpy black getups. None of
the male servers lingered about.
An overhead voice announced a few random names of performers and I
knew I'd have to make my way out before things got too
after the other, nearly-naked women, with fancy hair and done-up make-up
pranced on to the stage. Perfect figures, feathery boas, and cheeky accessories
belonged to all of them. The first girl, an ebony-skinned beauty, put on some
sort of kinky magic show. The second set followed with a burlesque style
routine that wasn't all that bad and pretty tasteful. Or maybe the second drink
made me think so.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen, our fan favorite is next.
Give it up for The Ginger Man," some deep-voiced announcer said. All I
could picture was a giant dancing Christmas cookie or a cross-dressed hooker
falling out of a car. The audience erupted in applause as the performer
appeared center stage with a stage light circling only her. Or him. Or
Black trousers, high heels, a white blouse, suspenders, and a
bowler hat sent images of an 80s Michael Jackson video. Maybe this dance was a
, too. The heels weren't an easy giveaway. The clothes hung just
right to cover any overt feminine features and her hair could've been tucked up
in the hat. When the music started and she walked down the runway, I quickly
learned, from her walk and demeanor, that she was indeed, a woman.
It wasn't a strip show, none of them had been so far, but when she
grabbed that pole and swung herself around, I couldn't help watching. On a
spiral swing, her unbuttoned shirt revealed perky, but not large, breasts, and
when one of the suspenders slipped from her shoulder, a few men hooted. She
smiled, though I couldn't see her eyes or where she looked from this far away.
The way she held onto that pole and finally, bending herself backward so far
that her hat tumbled into the lap of a man below, had me mesmerized to say the
least. Claps and laughter filled the room again as I watched a thick mane of
red tumble toward the stage. I shot up from my seat and the whiskey glass
crashed to my feet.
My heart thundered as I watched her dismount and finish her
routine. Pale skin and flaming red hair. I bolted through the crowd and by the
time I made it halfway through, hands grabbed at me. A bouncer rushed the stage
and tugged Jillian away from me as I leapt onto it just as he ushered her
behind the curtain. I shouted for her, maybe screamed out my rage.
I tore it open, dodging the grabs and commotion around me until I
found myself face to face with a woman holding a red wig. Her cheeks, pale even
with the makeup, had no tell-tale freckles and the blonde hair told the rest of
"S-sorry," I stuttered but had no time for anything else
while the big guy from the front carried me out the door. He dropped me down on
the pavement, lecturing me about something I could barely understand. "I'm
not drunk," I spat back at him.
"Well, you're acting it. Get lost," he said, nodding
toward the sidewalk.
I listened to him at least.