When I enter the darkened room he grunts and throws a fat, pale arm across his eyes to block out the beam of light from the hallway. Smelling strongly of the cheap whiskey sold in the bar downstairs, he’s spread out across a thin patchwork blanket, wearing only filthy brown pants cut off at the knees. I focus on the dried blood under his fingernails and crusted around his knuckles before shutting the door quietly behind me. There’s no rush.
It’s mostly gibberish, a slurry mix of boozy sleepiness, but I understand the words from hearing them from hundreds of men over the past ten years. I slink through the reddish light given off by the old lantern’s nightlight until I’m near the foot of the bed. The sour smell of sex fuels the fury coursing through my body until I’m burning red hot with it. I wonder if he can feel the heat radiating off me.
I sit on the golden, velvet bench at the foot of the bed to unlace my black boots. He’s fallen asleep or passed out, I can’t quite tell. His heavy breathing, in and out, feels like a knife slowly tracing the length of my spine. While he’s sleeping in this comfortable room, Viv lays on a mattress in the cellar being stitched up by Doc Baker. Tearing my boots off, I fight hard to unclench my teeth and relax. There’s an order to these things. They take time.
My stocking-covered feet are cool on the wood floor and I close my eyes, traveling back to the windswept coast and swelling ocean waves of my childhood. My red hair whips around my freckled cheeks as the pockets of my yellow dress bulge with partial and whole sand dollars. The foamy white edge of the water laps against my bare toes as I watch a crab scuttle by with a missing claw. My sister sings sweetly to herself behind me—my happy little shadow.
This memory is before pappa came back from fighting the war in Texas with a dreadful dead look in his eyes. It’s a good one. The last time I felt truly safe.
“H-hey, dar-dar-lin’, ya-ya a t-tad ollllld fer m-me likin’.”
Propped up on his calloused elbows and clearly still drunk, he smiles at me with bloodshot eyeballs and cracked thin lips. There are bits of black tobacco stuck along his inflamed gums. I bet he spits blood. I won’t regret this. I never do.
“Need a drink?”
Standing, I lean forward and press my breasts together giving him the smile I know all men like. His hungry eyes travel from my lacey white corset to my thin, black knee-high stockings. Although I’m far from the age of my girls, he’s definitely noticing I’m not without my charms. He sits up and licks his lips. It’s showtime.
Crossing the room carefully and moving so my hips sway slowly, I take out a miniature glass bottle shoved in my garter and set it on the table beside the lantern. It’s hardly noticeable, this tiny bit of nothing filled with red dust. It could be paprika or cinnamon. It’s common enough that if he dares to look beyond my body it won’t raise any alarms, but he won’t take his eyes off me. They never do.
“I-I ain’t pa-paying n-no ex-extra…”
His slurred voice begs to differ, desperate and a bit whiny, but I’m not looking to provoke him. I’ve had my days of fisticuffs, of brawling on the floor when I couldn’t contain my rage, but I’ve outgrown those childish urges and can control myself. Mostly.
“Oh, this is on the house. For being such a loyal customer.”
Turning back to him I smile and lift my left leg so it rests on the edge of the wooden dressing chair. Slowly, while staring at his ugly face, I inch up the edge of my shortened petticoat until he can see the lacey ruffled top of my stockings. I’m giving him a little show, a rehearsed choreographed number honed after years of infuriating mistakes. Within seconds, he’s panting and drooling.
“May I recommend the bourbon? Best around.”
He watches me with twitchy fingers and I wonder where he stashed the knife he used to cut Viv up. It doesn’t really matter though because he won’t have time to retrieve it. Making a show of reaching deep between my breasts I pull out a small bottle of dark bourbon. Using my teeth I pull off the top and take a swig. He shifts. I can tell he’s enjoying the show.
With a little kick, I press off the chair and begin dancing around the room with the bottle in one hand, flicking up my petticoats with the other. The ghostly shape of bloody clothes peers at me from under the bed and I move away from them. Fury thrums through me as if I’m some divine instrument being played, but I know better. There’s nothing Godly about what’s about to happen.
Letting him touch my thigh as I pass, he moans deeply. If I wait any longer he might rush at me and I’ll lose control of the situation. Twirling back to the table where the lantern sits, I bend over to pick up a small lowball glass from the bottom shelf. With a quick practiced movement, I flick in the red powder before standing.
Pouring the drink as I walk toward him on tiptoes leaning slightly forward, I swirl it around to mix it up. Once I reach him he takes the glass, swallows it back in one gulp, and smashes it against the far wall. He’s on his feet in a flash rushing toward me. I let him chase me a bit before jumping onto the bed and patting the space beside me.
“Be a good boy and lay down.”
He jumps on top of my body pressing his groin instantly against mine. Holding my breath as best I can, I allow him to kiss my neck and grind into me with frantic, wild, nearly rabid energy. I’ve been through this part enough to know I must do something to calm myself. I close my eyes and count backward from 30. I only get to 10 this time.
He’s stopped moving now so I roll him off of me. There’s foam at the edges of his lips and he’s begun to twitch. Wiping off my body with the edge of the blanket, I make sure to get all the places his grimy hands and mouth touched. He can’t move but his eyes have bulged out and I spit in his face.
It’s his last word and it’s honestly a bit disappointing. I prefer when they plead a little, beg forgiveness or ask why. He didn’t struggle nearly long enough and it makes me reconsider this almost humane way of killing the men who hurt my girls. Then again, it’s easier and far less disruptive to do it quietly. Better for business.
My heart beats wildly in my chest and I stand still to savor the moment. What used to be fear draped around my shoulders like a shawl now is power. I took his life because he deserved to die. Part of me knows remorse should still be there somewhere but I feel none. Maybe this makes me evil.
I walk to the window and pull back the thick red curtains to look at the street below. There are several horses still tied out front but most folks have gone home as sunrise is an hour away. Piles of dead leaves have blown against the buildings creating shadowy homes for the rats to hide in. The wind howls and whines to get inside with crackling claws and it makes me think of the first time I saw this godforsaken Gold Rush town.
Draped across the back of a stinky old horse, with my feet and hands tied with thick scratchy rope, I watched the town appear in the distance as a black silhouette against a layered sky of orange and gold—a late autumn sunrise. The man my father sold me to grunted “welcome to Bicknell” as the wooden buildings took shape and slowly came into focus the closer we got. Black crows circled high above calling out a warning I wish I could have heeded.
Bicknell is a grimy town made up of a single smelly street dripping with broken promises and broken men. The creaky wooden sidewalks slant towards the dusty road, so when the drunks fall down they roll into the dirt and piss themselves there. Summers are so hot the men become possessed, walking from the mining camps and descending upon the town like locusts—loud, angry swarms of hot-headed frustration. They fight and fuck in equal parts, filling the night with screams of agony and pleasure.
Still, I prefer the heat to the winters. When it rains everything swells, making the doors impossible to close and the feces from the outhouses run in rivulets down the backs of the buildings to form a sludgy mucky mud that sucks at your feet like a monster. You have to tie a cloth across your face to walk outdoors or else you breathe in the flies and the smell until it nearly eats you alive. The only way it’s comfortable inside is to keep the fires roaring and let the smoke do the rest.
The sheriff pays the small orphan boys to clear the shit from the center of the road and cover it with layers of hay so carriages can pass through. Sometimes these passerbys come inside—women in big-hooped dresses and men in crisp suits. They gawk at the shocking nature of our establishment, but it’s only luck separating them from me and my girls. Smiling, I take their money and spit in their food. They gamble, drink, and sometimes stay the night and pay for my discretion as they invite one of my girls to join them upstairs.
I’ve learned to profit from the lusty wills of the ignorant and to build a business where I feel less like the victim I was when I arrived and more like a protector. It’s not been easy as the miners drift in and out of this grimy soul-sucking place and I’m proud of who I’ve become. Madame O. Even the sheriff tips his hat when I pass him on the street. Nobody messes with me anymore.
My thoughts return to young Viv with her dark, black hair and almond-shaped brown eyes who has been working here less than two weeks. I found her laying behind the butcher shop with an eye infection so bad she was nearly blind. Doc Baker fixed her up for me, as he does for all my girls, but now she’ll have scars across her face. I’ll give her an exotic costume with a silk veil but she’ll have to learn how to take control of the situation better or she might not live next time. Some girls aren’t cut out for this work. I wish I wasn’t.
Closing the curtains I make my way through the semi-darkness to where the miner lay dead and motionless—a stupid nobody. He probably has family somewhere but they won’t ever know what happened to him. My boys will take him out in an hour and throw his body off the side of the mountain to be eaten by wild animals. My girls will clean the room and burn the bloody clothes. Tonight business will continue like nothing happened and only Viv will hold the haunting memories of what took place here for the rest of her life. May he rot in hell for what he did to her.
Opening the door I see Opal standing in the hallway with her hands in the pockets of her little calico dress. A freckle-faced kid who looks so much like my sister did when I left that I often have to restrain myself from pulling her to me and hugging her. I found her wandering alone one night outside by the garbage looking for scraps and made her a kitchen girl. I’ve tried to shelter her from the real business of this place, but here she is standing barefoot in the dim hallway. Darting around me she runs into the room with a slight giggle.
“What are you doing in here?”
She runs to the windowsill and retrieves a rag doll from the ledge but stops when she sees the man on the bed. He’s got black blood running out of his mouth and he’s shit and peed himself. There’s already a terrible smell. The girl sticks her thumb in her mouth and makes a scared little whimper.
“I left my dolly…”
“Why were you up here? You know you aren’t allowed up here!”
“Viv…she let me look out the window…”
Spotting the bloody clothes under the bed, she inches along the wall as if they might spring to life and attack her. I know she’s probably seen lots of horrible things before coming here, but my inability to shield her from another horror flashes red hot inside my chest until I’m shaking with rage. I rush toward her, but she runs from me with a terrified look in her soft green eyes. She’s scared of me.
“Come back here!”
“No! You’re like all of them!”
It’s too late. By the time I reach the bottom of the winding staircase she’s run through the bar and out the front door which creaks and swings wildly in the fierce winds. Leaning against the wooden frame I search the darkness for signs of her, but I know she will run as fast as she can without looking back. It’s all she knows. I’m just another boogeyman, another villain in her story. Maybe she’ll find a real hero to save her. For now, I’ve got work to do.
Author’s note: This week I tried my hand at writing about one of my daughter Lola’s favorite time periods in history—1800s California during the Gold Rush. I loosely based the location on The National Exchange Hotel in Nevada City which claims to be the oldest continuously operating hotel in California. It was built in August 1856 under the name “Bicknell Block” and has survived many fires.
The photos I used are from a visit I took last year where I had lunch at the restaurant Lola, which was named after the infamous performer and all-around badass Lola Montez. She lived in Grass Valley from 1853 to 1855 where she performed her scandalous “spider dance” which was supposed to imitate a woman with spiders climbing within her petticoats.
This story is quite a departure from my sweet story of last week, but it was challenging and might be some of my best writing to date. Let me know what you think and thank you to everyone for your continued support.
Here’s my girl and me during her 4th grade trip to Malakoff Diggins. Aren’t we the cutest?
Short Story Challenge | Week 40
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where the villain is really the hero. We had to include the words witchcraft, recommend, sand dollar, fisticuff, paprika, eyeball, nightlight, gibberish, infuriating, and dreadful.
Write With Us
Prompt: Tumultuous soulmates are on opposing sides of a conflict
Include: apothecary, bow tie, ladylike, sprocket, mushroom, scrounge, frenzy, match, oust, prisoner
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room
- Week 37: With a Touch of the Tapestry
- Week 38: Meet Me at the Elephant Ears
- Week 39: The Wheels on the Bus