It was late, in the early, dark hours before the approaching dawn. The once lively crowd had lulled. Most of the partygoers either had left the club on the lower east side of Paris for the night, or had fallen asleep wherever they could rest their drowsy heads. The band played a song, a last call for the night, as workers swept the floors, preparing to close for the coming day. The trumpeter blew loud notes with quick, lively action, his cheeks ballooning red, his fingers nimbly pressing the valves, purposely waking the sleeping heads, rousing them to go home.
Of the handful of patrons remaining, one young man in particular, had left his slumbering girlfriend inside for some extra rest before stumbling out into the cool, dark street to clear his dizzy head. With a few deep breaths of briskly chilled air, the young man slowly woke from his hard nap. He looked up at the dark sky, what was sunny and warm when he last recalled, was now black and an unusually cool night at this time of year. He watched his breath crystallize upward, mixing with the air, forming clouds of fleeting vapor, filled with misty frost. He robotically glanced up and behind his shoulder, as the club powered down all the lights out in front on the street where he stood. The bulbs, too bright to stare at, in chorus dimmed until their electric spirit had drained out. Yet still, the music blared throughout the club, filtering into the mostly abandoned and now darker city lane. A worker closed the front side windows to the club, muffling the loud trumpeter’s horn. No longer feeling the warm air from inside, the young man huddled his shoulders, flipped the collar of his jacket up against his neck, covering his skin from the cold, along with a black and red scorpion tattoo, which stretched south under his earlobe about five inches. He vigorously rubbed his hands together, blowing, sucking in, and puffing breaths into them. He peeked in through the windows, between the chipped wooden panes at his girlfriend, but the back of her head remained unmoved on the tabletop, so he turned and uncontrollably shivered as the cool air gradually woke him evermore.
Across from the club, past the broad, empty main road, in the shadows of a long narrow street between buildings, the young man saw a large pile of trash move without cause. He once more looked back through the club’s window at his girlfriend, before trotting across the street to investigate. He slunk cautiously as he neared the rustling trash pile. He paused stiffly whenever the pile frantically shook. Nonetheless, curiosity inched him forward. On the tips of his toes, he stretched his neck out in order to catch a glimpse over the shifting heap of rubbish. However, the mound of garbage was layered with bags and stacked too high and wide for a view around or over top the pile. Closer he quietly shuffled his feet, stepping to the side for a full-on view. The murky night, along with the shadows cast by the alley, made it nearly impossible to see, but something slouched and recessed in the dark corner on the other side of the bags of garbage.
He looked back at the club, now at a greater distance than he had realized. An ominous, pungent rot filled the air, infecting his nostrils, and dropping an uneasy weakness upon his chest, as his stomach turned.
He readied himself for a silent retreat out of the dark alley and toward the people still working inside the club. But at that very moment, a mass of clouds parted in the sky, showering beams of moonlight, raining scattered lines of ghostly rays upon the alleyway, illuminating a sight so foul, his body seized, and grim fear halted even his breath. A grotesque, clumsy, and diseased-looking creature, with its back facing the young man, feasted on the remains of the day’s waste. Spiny, finned vertebrae protruded from the beast’s back. Grayish green, waxy secretion covered its glossy skin, giving the beast an oily appearance. Its joints had branched bony growths, with a few sacks filled with a watery fluid, and it was totally bare, with the exception of a single, tattered loincloth. When the darkness parted upon the alley, a thin sliver of the moon descended, slanting a pale stripe crosswise the beast’s eyes. They were large black, reflective saucers, dead as coal, and devoid of emotion. The young man saw his perfect reflection in the creature’s dark, lifeless globes, as they dilated into a black horror. The unworldly beast held a stare at the young man, each sizing up the other. The young man’s eyes widened, as the creature’s eyes narrowed. One was prey, the other was a predator, and for a brief moment, each knew what the other one was thinking.
The creature growled and snorted warm puffs that drifted upward in smoky clouds of wrath. And with a low pitch, its body angled, springing back into a bestial, pouncing position. The young man panted heavily, refusing to blink or look away. Time slowed, with each subtle move amplified a hundred fold in the tense alleyway standoff. When the beastly creature growled again, the young man leaned away in nervous expectation, stumbling, his feet tangled, but he remained upright, never taking his eyes off the beast, but rather, he collected his calm, like a runner on the eve of mark, preparing all of his muscles to go. However, when the monster spoke words to him, he recoiled backwards, straight-legged, his body jerked off the ground, and his color blanched, draining him until only the hue of terror remained. Unconscious survival turned him around, while pure adrenaline propelled a burst of speed toward the club. The boisterous music continued to play loudly. He could still see people in the windows, sweeping, stacking chairs, and playing music, and most of all, he could see his girlfriend asleep, her head turned away from him on the table.
For a moment, all he could hear was that of his own heartbeat and the sound of his fearful, labored breaths. Then a menacing voice from behind called out, yet he resisted the urge to look back. He kept his eyes fixed on the club where his girlfriend slept. He had to make it back to her. He had no choice, nor doubts he could and would make the short distance from the alley to the club, because only a few strides and a street separated them.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The creature soared like a puma with speed and power well beyond that of any human, but spoke like a man.
The young man ran from the alley. His heart thumped rapidly as if it were about to explode. He felt the beast’s snout huffing warm, foul breath down the back of his neck. Still, a fleeting smile crossed the young man’s face, for he had made it out of the alley and onto the street, but the creature pinged from one building wall to another and bounded down on top of the young man’s back with relative ease.
“Ah!” the young man screamed out in agony, while the band played a long note of the last song much louder, in order to wake a few remaining patrons, as the club prepared to close. “Help me!” he said, face down on his stomach. He reached toward the club where his girlfriend roused from her sleep. She stretched and yawned, pulling her head from off the table. She looked from side to side and around the club for her boyfriend, but she did not see him, so she sat there and waited.
The creature stood on top of his back with heaviness, and with four feet on top of him, it constricted his breaths, and made simple movements feel impossible. Nevertheless, the young man slowly propped one elbow up and then awkwardly he braced the other. He struggled, crawling toward the club on his belly. Yet the beast simply hoped off and dragged him by the ankle back into the dark alley. Screaming and flailing his legs, the young man frantically clawed at the cold street, grinding his fingernails on the ground. A disgruntled growl and then icy hooks sank into the young man’s soft flesh, taming him by penetrating deeply into the muscle fibers around his spine. The young man rang out a shrill cry, a chilling shriek, and then a gush of red fluid oozed from his back. With the last of his strength, he ripped his leg from the beast’s hand and freed himself. He shouted toward the club, his voice hoarse, strained from yelling, his vocal cords filled with his own blood, he hoped someone would look up and see him, he waited for help, and crawled on his belly, already broken in body, he now had lost his spirit.
The creature ground its jaw full of sharp fangs back and forth. It seethed at the young man’s resilience. The beast aggressively thrust a hand of razor-tipped, black talons again into the young man’s back, and with one more violent and cruel push, it twisted, causing the young man to spasm uncontrollably, until finally he was subdued. The young man’s head and limbs flopped down from loss of muscle tone, and his skin took on a blanched paleness, but his eyes remained open, blankly staring not at, but through the club. The beast pulled him by the leg back into the alley, leaving a wide trail of bright, freshly smeared blood, looking more like spilt paint, but both disappeared into the night, as the trumpeter’s cheeks eased, and the last song tempered into sweet silence.
Later the next day, and just blocks away from the attack in the alley near the club, Emma Rose clamped her teeth, grinding them, and glared at her mother as they shopped some of the finest boutiques Paris, France had to offer. A few months prior, Emma adored every thought about her first trip to Paris, telling all of her envious friends in Viola, Kansas, all of the wonderful things she was going to do. But now, here she was. This was the vacation city of her dreams, yet the same could not be said about her unwanted company, as every second of the trip had been spent by her mother’s side. This, after all, was the city of lights, where love abounded and beautiful couples made romantic gestures to each other on almost every street corner, or so she had seen on television. However, she…she felt like her mother’s handbag from last season, clutched too tightly, worn out, and filled to the brim with needless things. This was supposed to be her trip of a lifetime, not her mother’s. Instead, she felt like her mother’s clone. This was supposed to be her coming of age experience, but it had turned into her mother’s second go around as a teen. Emma was tired of her mother dragging her around the city and she felt smothered, never free, it seemed, to do what she wanted to do. And after two weeks of doing nothing, on what was supposed to be her vacation, it was time to return home in the morning. So, with every look, she glared, with every word, she groaned, and with each thought, Emma dreaded with complete preoccupation the embellishment of the terrible lies she’d have to tell her friends about her awesome Paris vacation when she got back to Kansas.
Emma’s mother hooked her arm inside of her own, attempting to lock them like chains as she sipped her latte and walked down past the boutiques. “Oh, here, I want to take a picture.” Her mother pulled out her phone, leaned up against Emma, and snapped a picture of them. “Oh, will you look at that.”
“What?” Emma asked. “I’m sure it’s like a postcard or something,” she said, glancing up and down the old Parisian street, as it was filled with quaint park benches, manicured trees, and classic, seventeenth-century merchant shops.
“Huh?” Her mother’s attention was diverted. “Oh, no, would you look at that!”
Emma pawed at the camera to see. “It looks great.” She raised one eyebrow over the other.
“No, it doesn’t. My chin looks terrible.” She felt all around her face. “And my nose looks fat. And my cheeks…I had all of this work done and…uh, these cameras take the worst pictures. It’s like going to the DMV.” Her mother tossed her camera phone back into her purse.
With a squint of disgust, Emma reclaimed her arm, pouting and mumbling under her breath, while the two looked at all the latest trends of the season. This made Emma feel terrible about her own looks, since she used to look exactly like her mother when she was her age. Her mother smiled again, acting oblivious, so Emma sighed, shaking her head, staring, but not into the tiny boutique window on the bustling, overcrowded side street.
Emma pulled a piece of gum from her pocket, and methodically unwrapped the folded squares of paper. She then popped the gum in her mouth and watched all the beautiful people zip past them. She chewed the gum loudly, blowing bubbles, while wishing she could just stay there in that city forever, except with mother not included.
Emma popped the gum repeatedly, chewing and chomping, at first slowly, but then faster as her mother prattled on about the dismal details of her own disappointed life. She only stopped talking to occasionally glance at Emma for approval about the dress that she herself admired in the window. Her mother frowned, quickly whipping her phone out every few seconds, while scanning the street from side to side, as Emma lazily blew large, pink bubblegum bubbles.
“Spit it out now!”
“Spit what out?”
“The gum, Missy,” her mother quickly searched for a white napkin from her overcrowded purse. “It’s unlady like.”
Emma rolled her eyes—she hated hypocrisy. She knew all about the first unspoken rule between mothers and daughters—mothers resent their daughters belonging to a certain age, and daughters hate their mothers for trying to live their teens all over again. Nevertheless, this was unspoken, so she reached into her mouth and smeared the gum on the white napkin her mother held in front of her. “Happy now?” She crinkled her nose, protruded her lower lip, and tapered her eyes until they were resentful slits.
“Honey, you don’t want these fine people thinking that you’re uncouth?”
“Why? It’s not like I’m ever going to see them again anyway.” Emma waited a moment. “Who are you trying to impress? I’ve seen you do lots worse stuff…”
Her mother cut into Emma’s sentence, diverting the conversation to more pleasant things. “I refuse to argue with you,” she said, then abruptly changing tones, her mother tapped her raised chin with her index finger, before eagerly continuing, “Now what about that dress? Isn’t it so rad? I think it would look cool on you. I’m getting you that dress.” She pulled Emma by the hand and dragged her into the boutique. “You’re going to try on that dress. I want to see how it fits.”
After an eternity in the dressing room, Emma stomped out, wearing the dress, along with a grimace and furrowed brows.
“Okay, twirl around. I love it!” Her mother gave a short clap. “I bet all of your friends back home will be jealous when they see,” her mother said, smiling enviously, that is, until she noticed Emma had not attempted to put on the matching high heels, but rather was still in her plaid socks and brightly colored, permanent marker patched sneakers.
Emma halfheartedly twirled, boldly riling her mother at every chance. “There, I’m done.” She tossed her hands in the air. “This is totally stupid.”
Emma’s mother drew her legs together and placed her purse on her lap, with a tense smile, she uneasily caught eyes with the shopkeeper. Her smile froze and faded. She gently raised her finger in protest, as if she was at a PTA meeting, but Emma kept loudly ranting about all things she currently hated.
“I don’t want this dress!” Emma stomped. “Besides, my friends don’t care about the junk you care about. They don’t!” She pointed straight at her mother. “I’m in Paris and they’re not.” Emma told anyone listening before she trudged toward the dressing room, wishing to change back into her comfortable jeans and shirt, while her rant continued from behind the curtain. “My friends don’t care about some crappy dress that you happen to like, please!” She slid the fine dress to the floor, not even hanging it, but carelessly emerged, forcefully pushing back the curtain, its metal rings scratching against the steel rod at the changing booth.
Emma walked past her mother and out of the store. Her mother remained rigid, her thighs together in her seat, white knuckling her purse. On her mother’s way out of the store, she gave a fake smile, while the owner picked the dress from off the floor, hanging it back in the window, and shooting back a vertical frown.
Unlike Emma, her mother pretended to care. She crossed her arms and the two remained uncomfortably silent, as they stood outside the store. Emma stood in the street and stared at the dress for another moment. It was a nice dress, but it looked like something her mother wanted her to wear. She readied to move on, yet in that moment, she looked upon her own drab, shapeless reflection in the paned glass. She hated her own appearance. Her lackluster brown hair plainly tied back in a straight, drab ponytail. Her face, though not ugly, was lacking any type of distinguishing attractive features. She straightened the wrinkles in her shirt, and lamented as she watched, through the reflection of the shop window, many curvy, voluptuous women elegantly walk up and down the street behind her. Even her mother had cosmetically enhanced her appearance, and with it, her own self-worth for a time.
With her hands pressed tightly on her hips, her mother replied, “Well, what’s gotten into you?”
“Chillax, will ya.” Emma sighed, avoiding a gaze. “I wanted to come to Paris more than anything, but I didn’t want to hang with you the entire time.”
Her mother batted her eyes, with plowed brows of furrowed ire, but then she upturned a single eyebrow. “Oh, I know what this is all about.”
“Yeah right.” Emma’s indignant tone hinted of surprise. “Wait, you do?”
“Of course.” Her mother dug through her oversized suitcase disguised as a purse. “Here,” she handed her a granola bar. “You’re just cranky because you’ve got low blood sugar again.”
“I do not!” She faced her mother and threw the granola bar to the ground. “Ugh, you just don’t get it, do you?” She yelled, dramatically flinging her arms up and around. “No, you, you’re my problem. I want personal space!” She overlapped her arms, turning her back completely on her mother. “You’re always the problem,” she mumbled.
Her mother, now feeling publicly shamed, had finally ceased speaking, and Emma, she enjoyed a brief moment of silence, turning slowly back toward the shop window just to smirk at her mother through her own reflection. Yet her enjoyment wore thin, for she thought about tomorrow, about leaving, and that’s when she noticed a gorgeous boy in the window. Yet he wasn’t in the store, rather, he was across the street behind her. Emma, having just turned fourteen, believed that he looked to be around her age, if not a few years older. He brazenly eyed her up and down as he leaned against a small tree across the street, flirting brashly with her through the window’s reflection.
He was tall, and slender, with short, foppish jet-black hair and trim, long sideburns. He was a neat, purposely slopped jumble to most adults, yet many of his age found him eye catching. His clothing flashed style, appearing new, yet purposely faded, but vintage, with a revolutionary theme. He casually ignored the random stares by the crowd of finely dressed, older observers. They gawked at his fresh from bed look, but with a couldn’t care less expression, he defiantly stared back, making them uncomfortable as they passed by. He carried himself with posh, rubbing his foppish hair quickly up and down. He teemed with confidence, indignantly dismissing all who walked by him with a charming candor. He took a last puff of his self-rolled cigarette, passionately blowing rings of leisurely expanding smoke into the air, and then he boldly dropped the cigarette’s remaining end, crushing it under his foot, littering the clean ground, while a trashcan sat wanting just in front of him.
Their eyes met and locked through the reflection in the glass. Each read the other’s glance. He lacked emotion, but Emma found that alluring. She looked around for another girl, but it was just her he was admiring, so she smiled. For most of the day, a thick overcast clouded the skyline, cutting off the top of the Eiffel Tower with a pocket of hazy, chilled air. And though there had been many sunny days since she had arrived in Paris, this was the first time Emma’s cheeks flamed a tint of red.
“Are you even listening to me?” annoyed and oblivious, her mother scolded.
“I knew it. This whole time I was talking, you’ve been ignoring me.”
“Um.” Emma abandoned her sentence. She lent her full attention to the hot boy with the piercing look. “Nah…no,” she briefly stuttered. “I wasn’t ignoring you. Go on, the granola bar...right?” She trailed off near the end.
“Oh forget it!” Her mother shook her head, clamped her jaw, and began texting on her phone. “You think that I’m such a terrible mother, don’t you?” Her fingers typed fast. Her attention equally diverted. “Tell me. What other fourteen-year-old girl from Viola, Kansas gets to go to Paris on a whim?”
“Whatever, Mom.” Emma darted her eyes at her mother and let loose her tongue. “You wanted this trip more than I did. Just because this is what you wanted when you were fourteen, doesn’t mean it’s what I want now.” Then she smirked, pressing a detailed nerve ending. “But your poor little mommy couldn’t afford to ever take you to Paris.” She scrunched her nose with a self-satisfied expression, enjoying her pithy remark.
Flustered by angry shame, her mother stuck her nose high and away, taking only her phone with her, texting as she went. “Yeah, well, I could have brought Jody instead of you. She REALLY wanted to come you know.”
“Jody, your four- hundred-pound bff from your old high school?” Emma covered her mouth and chuckled, glancing up at her mother, hoping to elicit a response. “Ya right.” No reply immediately came, as her mother continued texting, so Emma kept talking. “You would’ve had to book half the plane to accommodate her fat ass, and you didn’t get enough money from Dad in the divorce to pay for that.” She stopped laughing. Agitated, she glared directly at her mother. “Though I’m sure you’ll try to get more out of Dad once we get home. Hey! Listen to me!” Her arms straightened with elbows locked by her side with utmost speed. Her fists half balled. Her wrists bent outward. Her whole body seized with rage. “Who are you talking to?” she demanded. “I know it isn’t me, ‘cause I’m right here, you witch.”
“Stop it!” Her mother’s face turned several hues of pinkish-red. “And you watch your mouth!” Then she calmed. Putting her phone away, she noticed people both inside the shop and on the street, glancing, and some staring, but all with eyes of judgmental displeasure. “Listen, you’re right. Why don’t we spend some time apart on our last day here?” Easing her tense shoulders down and relaxing her back, she held her rebuke, feigning a sweet smile instead, partly for her daughter, but mostly for the couple sitting at a street-side table nearby. “You’re stressing me out.” She continued, “You can only go up and down this street where the shops are.” She moved her index fingers back and forth from the top of the street to the end far past them. “And be back at the hotel before dark,” she tapped the clock on her phone, “so that leaves you about… three hours to do whatever you want.” She smiled faintly, stroking Emma’s hair as she did.
“Whatever.” Emma yanked her head from her mother’s reach. “The real reason you didn’t bring Jody is because she can’t afford all of your plastic upgrades.” With falling eyes, and folded arms, she refocused her restless gaze on the fascinating boy in the reflection behind her across the street. His face deadpan, and with a wary glance, he seemed to pose simply for effect, leaning against the public tree, appearing to claim it as his own.
Her mother snapped her fingers, turned her head opposite her daughter, held her arm straight, and raised her palm up to Emma’s face. “Oh no you didn’t. Talk to the hand.”
Emma unfolded her arms and twiddled her thumbs. She looked away, arousing intense dislike with a set of rolling eyes up and away. “Yeah, okay, Mom.”
Her mother lowered her arm on a whim, and pulled out a mirror from her purse instead. She affixed her eyes with a favoring glance of herself. Applying lipstick, she angled her cheeks from side to side for a better view. She centered on, touching features on her face that she enjoyed, almost overlooking everything else for a brief moment. “Why can’t you just grow up?” she said, approving her own image.
Emma drew a long breath. “I was just about to say the same thing to you.”
Her mother, now conscious of her surroundings again, stiff-necked, straight-backed, her feet regimented side-by-side on the ground, darted a quick look toward the table where the people were sitting, but had since left. Her eyes narrowed. She clicked shut the mirror, slipping it away. “You think I’m a terrible mother or something, don’t you?” Her glazing eyes shunned Emma’s gaze.
Emma, her chin touching her chest, gave a wary glance up at her mother, and begrudgingly said, “No, I just think…”
Her mother rapidly interrupted, hearing only the part she wished.
“Good, then it’s settled. We both agree. I’m not a terrible mother.” She had a self-pleasing smile.
Emma mumbled lowly. “I was going to say, I just think you’re selfish.”
If her mother had heard the last mumble, she did not show. “I’m going out to a club with some friends tonight, and you,” she pointed her long fingernail, “had better be in before I leave to go out.”
“What? You’re letting me actually do my own thing for once?”
“Don’t be smart.” Her mother said in a commanding tone. “But yes. And remember, I know how you think, so you can’t get one over on me.” Yet the entire time, she failed to notice Emma’s budding, captured attention between mutual gazes with an older boy just feet behind them.
Impulsive, piercing looks were exchanged at high rates between Emma and the older boy in the window’s reflection. The fact that they shared this in front of her mother, made it harder to look away. After a while, he became a mysterious thing. Even when he hunched forward to stretch, it was beautifully significant. They seemed to have an spoken language of their own. Everything he did appeared to designate and signify a meaning for Emma. Each met the other with wondering eyes, more powerful than forces of reason and logic. He appeared bold, striding, and confident, yet Emma bowed her head and folded her hands, but by degrees, the stress lines on her forehead relaxed with each of his scanty gestures of interest.
“Now here’s some extra money.” She unknowingly interrupted the moment, shelling a loud remark, as well as several crinkly dollar bills, plopping them in Emma’s half-open hands. “Are we friends again?” She opened her arms for a hug, but Emma drew back while counting the money.
“Oh yeah,” she facetiously said, scrambling to grab fists full of cash, looking only at the green paper in her hands. “Best friends forever, Mom.” Emma quickly counted the money. “You’re so stinking cheap. Dad would have given me more yah know.” She scowled with a devious grin.
“I’m not cheap!” She rubbed the top of Emma’s head. “I’ve always tried to be your best friend,” she then rummaged through her purse, “but this isn’t little ol’ Viola, Kanas, it’s a very big, foreign city, and a young girl can get in lots of trouble before she knows it, especially if people know she has money.” Her mother attempted a frown, looking from side to side, and then she reached deeper into her purse, before handing Emma some more crinkled dollar bills.
Emma waved more money toward her. “Yeah, yeah, Mom…whatever, just keep it coming.”
“No, I’m being serious.” Her mother’s voice deepened. “There was this thing on the local news last night. A couple of city workers found the body of this twenty-year-old girl, dead in the sewers under Paris.” Her mother kept fishing through her purse.
“So, that stuff happens everywhere these days,” Emma casually replied. “That’s just how the world is. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to me.”
“Yeah, but the weird thing was, the city workers said they’d just been down there the day before.”
“Again, so, what’s your point?”
“Well…here’s the creepy part. Everything she was wearing looked fresh and new, but her face and body was all like shriveled up as if she had been rotting there for months.” She pushed lipsticks, foundations, and eyeliners to the side of her purse, finally reaching its bottom. “Great, I’m out of money!” her mother exclaimed, with a showy irritation. “Now I have to go back to the room for more money.” Frustrated by distraction, she began mumbling to herself, still digging, fishing, and moving things about in her purse. She then turned and walked toward the end of the small street and back up to the larger main road. She glanced briefly over her shoulder at Emma, attempting a smile through her Botox-tightened skin. Her lips held straight, making an uncomfortable and odd frightening smile. “Remember, be back at the hotel by six o’clock, okay, honey?”
“Um,” Emma lowly muttered and groaned.
“I said, okay!”
“Sure, I guess, whatever, as long as you don’t tell me that stupid, creepy story about the girl in the sewer ever again.” She frowned, closing her eyes, and shaking her head while peering down at the street. “Thank god that’s over,” she whispered under her breath.