“Ballroom Blitz” by Veronica Schanoes is a contemporary fairy tale about a young man, who with his eleven brothers, have been cursed to remain in a rock club for their bad behavior. Their only shot at freedom might be the twelve sisters who one day enter the club.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
Well I’ve seen so many
And I’ve known so many
Ashtray sunshines, make you swallow up your mind . . .
I got the days, you got the nights
We could turn the tide, it’s gonna be alright
And I was spinning, dancing around with women,
Talking loud into the crowd,
I can’t remember what happened next then . . .
I got the days, you got the days, we got the days,
It’s gonna be alright.
—“We Got the Days,” The So So Glos
I remember when the very air pulsed with music, raucous shouts and double-time beats mixing with the eerie wailing of tortured guitars. We were all of us young and wild; my brothers and I wore tight black jeans and ripped T-shirts and stood around looking tough and combing our hair till it was slicked back just right to show off our sideburns. The girls wore short skirts and strong boots, ripped fishnet stockings ending inches below their hemlines. We all wore boots, come to that, engineering boots or motorcycle boots or combat boots or Doc Martens, as though we had to be ready for a forced march. And we may have been under a curse, but I remember us always laughing. The air was gray with smoke and our heads spun—not a full glass but we emptied it, not a pill but we popped it, not a leaf but we smoked it, and we laughed even when we were on our knees. The air was drenched with beer and whiskey, and we danced those boots so thin we could feel the floor through our socks.
We were young, I said, but of course my brothers and I couldn’t age, could we? We were bound, and that kept the twelve of us from growing any older no matter how much time passed. We couldn’t set foot outside the club, but inside we couldn’t grow old, couldn’t die. Bands appeared and disappeared, DJs spun in and out, and we were always there, game for anything, hopped up on speed and lack of sleep, dancing our boots thin and shouting our voices hoarse. We’d been there for years before we found the girls, or before the girls found us.
I remember the rest of it, too, waking up wanting to die, the hacking coughs, the bleak despair driving me—driving us—to drown ourselves in the neon darkness, the impossible wish to see sunshine just once more, the imprisonment. But when I look back, everything glows with false freedom, and I remember us always laughing.
The music never stopped, even when your head was screaming, when the beats that had blasted you off your feet drilled behind your eyes, and it felt like your head would break open from the pain. The air never cleared, and the smoke that had sustained us and cushioned us like amniotic fluid turned harsh—bitter and sticky like tar with sharp teeth, extending tendrils to wrap around our limbs and keep us moving but stop us escaping. And the dancing which had transported us became a cage of knives, spitting electrodes forcing us to move, even when our very bones were splintering in agony.
Each morning I woke up shaking, my vision blurred and doubled. I was begging Cynthia for a drink before my eyes were even fully open, but she just stood behind the bar with her arms folded, black hair tightly braided back, and shook her head.
Even picking my head up off the bar made my guts flip over. I’d forgotten what it felt like to sleep in a bed, to wake up without pain and nausea. Staggering a little, I would wake up my brothers.
We all woke up like that: black eyes, broken jaws, teeth missing, sick, spitting blood. I woke up shattered and begging like the rest, but I was oldest, the one in charge, the one who looks after his brothers, cleans them up, gets them out of trouble, gets them in trouble. And it was my fault. My hands shook, my whole body trembled, and I could feel blood trickling out my ears, my ribs cracking and shattering every time I tried to draw a breath.
We felt like that every morning, and we’d heal by nightfall.
So I’d go to wake up my brothers, and for me that was the worst of it. My second brother, who’s always been an asshole, woke up spitting with rage, calling me names and blaming me for our troubles, which was fair enough, I suppose, and my eleventh brother, my youngest brother, just wept silently at every waking, tears running down his face like rain against a window. At least one of us would wake up choking on vomit. Sometimes it was me.
We had to wash the place down, and the bar was like us; no matter how well we’d scrubbed the toilets, the bar, the floor, the basement, by the next morning they’d be covered in puke and grime and shit again. And with joints cracking, doubled over and hunched up like old men, we had to shine it up again. We had to take care of that hellhole like it was our baby, and afterward, if we’d done it well enough, Cynthia would order us some food from the diner down the street. Never enough, though. I remember always being hungry. Also dirty. There was a small sink in the men’s room where I rinsed out my shirt every so often and tried to splash myself clean, but there wasn’t much in the way of soap, and I lived in a cocoon of sweat and bile and dried blood.
I had to make sure my youngest brother didn’t get ahold of my pocketknife. He’d cut himself if he did—maybe he still does, I don’t know anymore—and the cuts wouldn’t heal by evening. He’s got scars up and down his arms and legs. One of the cuts got infected once and he ran a fever like I’d never seen before. I pleaded with Cynthia to bring in a doctor, promised her I’d do anything, but as she pointed out, I had nothing to bargain with. Eventually she tossed me some antibiotics, but the fever singed his brain. He hasn’t been the same since, and none of this is his fault. He just fell in with the wrong crowd. Me.
Even when he didn’t have my knife, I had to keep an eye on him. Sometimes he swiped the knife Cynthia used to cut up lemons and limes.
My sixth brother killed himself once.
I found him hanging from the light fixture in the men’s room by his belt, and he was stone dead. I remember how heavy his body was when I brought it down, how mottled his face was, his tongue lolling obscenely out of his mouth. And I remember him waking up the next morning, whimpering like a puppy, with purple bruises around his throat. He’s held his neck funny ever since.
My second brother, that asshole, he just pummels the wall when it gets to be too much for him. It fucks up his knuckles, leaves blood smears on the walls that we have to scrub off again, but I doubt he’s thinking about that when he does it. I think he likes the pain it brings.
And me? I drink. We had plenty of money when we first got here, and I drank it away. Not by myself, of course. We ran out a long time ago, so I do my drinking at night. At night we don’t pay, I don’t know why, except I think Cynthia’s giving us the chance to do the night over, to do something right. I see myself in the mirror and I can tell the alcohol is wrecking me, but that’s better than the alternative. I feel the liquor corroding my body from the inside out, breaking me down into dust and poison. Or maybe just releasing the poison that had been there all along.
My hands still shake, if I don’t concentrate on keeping them still.
Those were the days of living death. But the nights were something else entirely. In the years before the girls showed up, at night we felt okay again and okay was so much better than we’d felt during the day that we went wild. But by the time the girls got there, there was damn little of that left. By the time the girls got there, we were spending the nights slumped at the bar, bleak hopelessness etched into our faces.
The girls were obviously slumming, but then, so were we, or we had been at first, pretty boys down from the big house to mix it up with the squatters. Now we have the broken noses and rotten teeth of real diehards, but we hadn’t started out like that. I carried a switchblade, but I never pulled it. Anyway, the girls were clearly coming from Daddy’s mansion to rock out with the real punks. Twelve of them with ratted hair and liquid black eyeliner making cat eyes an inch long, black leather bustiers and Doc Martens. They might have been meant for us, and I swear, I could see our salvation in their eyes. We all could, I think.
But we played it cool, leaning up against the bar and downing beer and eyeing the girls when they weren’t looking, while they were still blinking in the dark, trying to get their bearings among the pounding beats and flaring matches.
The oldest made her way to the bar, right where I was waiting for her. Maybe she’d seen me eying her after all. I sauntered over a few steps
“Buy you a drink?” I asked.
No, that’s not right. The music was shaking the floor, glasses were rattling behind the bar, and I leaned over to her and half-shouted, half-mouthed, “Buy you a drink?” close enough to her ear that she could feel my breath on her face—my breath, which smelled of smoke and beer and late nights and rotten hope and self-destruction.
She cut her eyes at me, and her eyelids glittered with caked-on silver eyeshadow. I wanted to bend her over backward in a movie kiss right then and there, but I kept my hands to myself, took a drag off my cigarette instead while sonic fireworks exploded around us. I could see my brothers gravitating toward the other girls.
Then she smiled, shouted, “Why not?” and mouthed, “cider.”
I put my arm around her waist and she let me. I got her a cider and gave her a cigarette, and lit it for her. She coughed and pretended it wasn’t her first. I remembered my first, how I hadn’t coughed at all, but had sucked the coarse, harsh smoke straight down into my heart, where it wrapped around that beating machine like a protective cocoon. The smoke’s still there, but it’s been getting thinner, no matter how much I force down my throat.
She stood with her hip pressed up against my leg. “What do you want?” she shouted in my ear.
“I want to dance with you,” I shouted back. “Because . . .” I didn’t know how to finish that sentence, so I just let it hang in the air like an afterimage.
She drained her glass and slammed it down on the bar, but the music was so loud that I couldn’t hear it hit. Her face lit up, flushed with drink and heat. “Let’s go, then!” She grabbed my hand and together we pushed and shoved our way to the middle of the seething mass of people—my brothers, her sisters—and we became the center of the storm and the lightning struck and we danced. We danced the band dry and the DJ sore, and still we moved like machine-gun fire, like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and I knew that this was it, that she and her sisters were the ones.
We danced the sun up, not that we could see the sun through the tattered walls. No, we were lit by neon and dim incandescence and the flares of cardboard matches, but the space emptied out and the music faded until finally we could hear each other speak, and there were holes worn through the soles of our boots.
“Where d’you live?” she asked me, as we leaned against the bar sharing a bottle of whiskey.
I gestured around the room a little unsteadily. My socks were damp with sweat and with something nasty on the floor that had seeped in through the holes in the soles of my boots. “Here,” I said. “We live here.”
“You got nowhere you could take me?”
“Honey,” I said, “I can’t leave.”
She took a pull off the bottle. “Why not?”
I ground out my cigarette and told her.
My brothers and me, back when we were really young, not trapped in youth, but genuinely new, we heard the beats from our black disks and they pulled each of us by the balls. We knew we had to come here, that here was where our life should be, in the dark and in the noise. So we got the gear first—went down to Trash and Vaudeville with ready cash and remade ourselves.
We swaggered in here like young Turks, chains clinking against our legs, our hair combed just right, and we tore up the dance floor, and we knocked back shots of tequila, and we hassled the girls. We were real assholes, spoiling for a fight.
It was me who got one.
Not even a fight. You couldn’t call it a fight. He was just a kid, barely older than my tenth brother, barely shaving. He was just a fucked-up kid. But I was always angry, and when this junkie barreled into me on his way to the men’s room and puked on my boots . . . part of it was wanting to impress Cynthia with how hardcore I was. I didn’t know about her then, didn’t know what kind of power she had, just that she was the bartender, and she was cute—long black hair pulled back in a French braid and bright red lipstick. Knotwork tattoos. But then a lot of it was pure rage. I was always seething, always about to boil over. I don’t know why. Testosterone, maybe. Or maybe just being cramped inside my skin, needing to get out, needing release.
It doesn’t matter why, I guess, but I beat the shit out of that kid. He didn’t . . . look okay afterward.
Cynthia came out from behind the bar with the Louisville Slugger she keeps back there, but I didn’t even feel it hit me, I was so hopped up on adrenaline. It wasn’t until my brothers pulled me off the kid that I stopped and saw what I had done to him. Sometimes I wonder if he survived the night.
Sometimes I wonder if I did.
Cynthia gave twenty bucks to the kid’s friends and told them to get him to the nearest hospital—NYU, I guess. Then she turned and looked at me.
“You,” she said. “Out. Don’t come back.”
But the fire was still burning through my blood and the shame was starting to seep in through the cracks in my rage, so I stonewalled. “Fuck, no,” I said. “That kid owes me new boots.”
“That kid,” she said, “owes you nothing. Get out. You’re eighty-sixed.”
I sized her up. Cynthia’s not a tall woman. I looked around and didn’t see a bouncer. “No. I’m not done drinking.”
“This is my bar,” she said, “and you’re done.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“No,” I spat. “And neither are my brothers. We’ll fucking sit and drink and dance until we’re ready to go home. If you don’t like it, call the fucking cops.”
“No cops in my bar, boys,” Cynthia said, kind of husky, and back then I thought it was capitulation, but now I think it was a warning. She looked around at my brothers. “He speak for all of you? Any of you leaving?”
My brothers stood tight next to me. I . . . I’m still a little proud of that, still a little grateful. They must’ve heard the menace in her voice, but not one of them budged. Not even my second brother.
Cynthia’s gaze lingered on my youngest brother. He’s only fourteen, and he looks it. “You sure?” she said, and she spoke kindly, for her. “You sure you want to stay with him?”
My youngest brother looked at the door, looked at me, and didn’t say anything—but he didn’t move, either.
Cynthia nodded. She went back behind the bar and turned the music back on and I thought I’d won. And she acted like nothing was wrong, like I hadn’t beat a kid maybe to death in front of her, like I hadn’t flung her authority back in her face. She set out rounds for us and even smiled so sweetly at me that I thought I had a shot with her.
When I woke up that first morning and saw her behind the bar setting up for the night, I just thought I’d passed out and she’d left me there. I felt beat to shit, but I’d woken up feeling that way before, and not remembering why. Then I tried to leave.
As soon as I tried to set foot outside the door I curled up in agony. The air felt like knife blades skinning me alive, the rising sun seemed to pour molten metal down on my skin, and the ground, ah, the ground seemed to swarm up around me like a mountain of stinging beetles. Every inch of my body blistered and burned.
I crawled back into the bar on my hands and knees, gulping the stinking air. I couldn’t feel anything but pain and rage.
I woke up my brothers, and when my second brother realized what had happened to us, he actually went for Cynthia and she broke his collarbone with the Louisville Slugger. He fell down and she stood over him—she seemed to tower over all of us.
“What did you do to us? What are you?” I asked her hoarsely.
“I’m the bartender,” she said. “And don’t you ever fuck with me. Not in my bar.”
Cynthia’s always here, and I don’t think she sleeps.
So every morning, I told this girl, we wake up in the same beaten shape I put that kid in, and every day we do everything Cynthia tells us and we can’t set foot outside the bar. But it could end, I told her, Cynthia promised, if there are girls, if there’s dancing, 101 nights straight, we could leave. Maybe even go home again. If we still have a home. Maybe we could find a home.
All the time I told her our story, she drank whiskey and nodded in the right places.
“Home’s overrated,” she said.
I thought about asking why, but didn’t. “Look,” I said. “I’m not like that anymore. I don’t do that. I just . . . I don’t. I mean, if somebody gives you trouble, I’ll lay him out. But I don’t . . . I don’t let the rage take over anymore.”
She nodded. “How long has it been?”
I shrugged. “Dunno. Years. Things don’t change here. People come and go. We don’t age, but the circles under my eyes get darker.”
“Yeah,” she said. “First thing I noticed about you. Under your eyes, the skin looks like charcoal.”
She put her hand on my thigh, leaned over, and kissed me. I put my arms around her, and she broke it off and pulled away. While I caught my breath, she put the whiskey bottle in my hand and slid off the barstool, her purple miniskirt riding up to the very bottom of her ass. She tugged it back into place.
“I’ll see you,” she said.
“You coming back tomorrow night?” I asked, as her sisters began filing out. I tried to keep the desperation from my voice.
She grinned. Her dark lipstick was smeared from our kiss and her black eyeliner cat eyes were long gone, sweated off while we danced. The rips in her stockings had gotten bigger. “Yeah. We’ll be back.”
“And the night after that?”
“Could be,” she said. “You never know.”
“Wait,” I said. “You know about me now. I’m Jake. What’s your name?”
“Isabel,” she said.
“What’s your story?”
“I don’t have one yet,” she said.
“Come on,” I persisted. “What brings you here?”
She grinned again, but this time it looked a lot more brittle. “Nothing.” She shrugged. “Hey—anything you want? From outside?”
I thought about pushing her harder for a minute, about trying to find out what it was she wanted to get away from, and decided against it. I couldn’t risk pissing her off, not when I still barely knew her.
“A clean T-shirt,” I said. “Maybe a peach? I kind of miss peaches. They used to be my favorite.”
“Wrong season,” she said. “Peaches won’t be any good for months.”
“An apple, then?”
“Okay.” She smiled at me, and then she walked out. The door slammed and bolted, locking my brothers and me in for the day.
Our first few weeks in there, we’d torn the place apart every night, wrenched the stools up and used them to smash up the bottles and the mirror behind the bar. But the club just rebuilt itself around us. It didn’t heal completely—the mirror was still shattered like a mosaic and walls were charred in places. But the place didn’t look much different from the run-down punk dive it was when we’d first walked in. The cuts on our fists took a lot longer to heal.
After the girls and the other patrons—the ones who came and went as they pleased—had left, my brothers and I settled in for the day, contorting ourselves on benches and against walls.
“It’s gonna happen,” I said.
“I don’t like them,” my youngest brother said.
“What do you mean, you don’t like them?” I asked. “They’re our girls, the ones who are going to set us free. You can’t not like them.”
“The one I was dancing with was boring,” he said.
“And mine didn’t like it here, I could tell,” said my fifth brother.
“We want to get out of here, don’t we?” I said reasonably.
“You’re just cheery because you and your girl were making out on the dance floor,” snarled my second brother. He’s always been the worst of us.
“Look, guys,” I said. “There’re twelve of them. Twelve of us. They’re the ones. Just go to sleep.”
My second brother was right about one thing. I was deliriously happy. I haven’t felt that way since.
They came back the next night and the night after that, and I danced with her all night, till our boots were worn through and our heads were caved in with the beats. And we drank so much that when we fell down we bounced, and when we got hurt we roared with laughter instead of pain. We were wrecks, me trying to shuck what was left of the bullying asshole I had been, and her running from . . . whatever she was running from. Two drunken, dancing banshees. Twenty-four, really.
She told me about the weather, which I liked. The bar was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, but I’d almost forgotten about the beating sun and gray pinpricks of rain. She told me about her calculus class, which made me feel stupid, but I didn’t really care. She smelled like parks and asphalt and street fairs and the outside that I missed. Every few nights she’d come in morose and rageful. She wouldn’t talk and wouldn’t smile. All she would do was knock back shots of bourbon and dance. By the end of the night I was holding her hair out of her face while she vomited into the toilet. I didn’t mind. I guess I was falling in love. I think she was just falling. She’d do that for a night or two, and then come in back to normal, chirping about her cousin’s new baby and showing me pictures. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a baby.
We both had our hands full taking care of the others. I’d laid down the law to my brothers: no bitching about the girls to me. I didn’t want to hear it. But they didn’t get along with them any better, and it was just as clear that the girls didn’t like my brothers. The oldest was the only one who bothered to dress up; the others slouched around in jeans and T-shirts, which was fair enough, because that’s what we were wearing. My second brother pissed off one sister so much that she threw her drink at him. I shoved him up against the cracked wall of the bar.
“What the fuck did you do?” I shouted at him.
“Go fuck yourself,” he spat at me.
I banged his head against the wall. “I swear to God, Max, if you screw this up for us—”
“Then what?” he shouted. “I’ll get the shit kicked out of me? That’s how I wake up every goddamn morning, thanks to you!”
We stared at each other for a couple minutes. Finally I turned away. “Just don’t, Max,” I said.
Isabel had been talking her sister down. “Please don’t go,” I heard her saying. “C’mon, don’t go. Tomorrow’ll be better. I promise. I promise.”
The next night Isabel brought in a bag of weed and some rolling papers. “I think this might help,” she told me, and it did. It helped Max, anyway, who stopped pummeling the walls if we saved enough for him to smoke up during the days. Every night after that she brought something in. I didn’t know where she got the drugs or the money for them, but she was able to hold them over us and enforce good behavior.
Sometimes I think the only things that united her sisters and my brothers were the desire for the drugs and their resentment of the two of us. But we took care of them, and we kept them in line.
There was nobody to keep us in line.
A couple weeks after I first met her, she pulled me into the bar’s back room, pressed me into one of the darker corners, and kissed me. My arms went around her and I found the gap between her T-shirt and her purple skirt.
“Better not stop dancing,” I whispered to her, and she nodded. But she tasted like cider and cigarettes and sweat, so I kissed her again and ran my hand down the side of her breast.
“I know another dance,” she whispered back, and slid her hands into the back pockets of my jeans.
We had ended up in a heap at the foot of the wall, and I held her half-on, half-off my lap. I didn’t care if we had to start the 101 nights over, honestly, it had been that good, and I leaned over and kissed her hair.
“I love you,” I told her.
“You need me,” she corrected me, pretty bleakly.
“No,” I said. “I love you.”
“You barely know me,” she replied.
So we danced and screwed our way through one hundred nights. My brothers and I never knew where the girls went during the days; we never found out where they lived. At night they lived with us, amid the smoky, alcoholic squalor of the bar. My T-shirt and her fishnets were in shreds and tatters but my boots and my brothers’ boots miraculously healed each day while we slept, curled up in the dark corners. Sometimes I would have sworn that I could still smell her hair in my sleep.
The hundredth night, Isabel came in one of her poison moods. She wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t talk to me no matter what I did or said. By the end of the night my nerves were spitting wires. I never knew what to do with her when she was like this. Nothing worked, nothing felt right, and I was tense, straining for that 101st night like a dog at the end of a leash. It was all I could see. I tried to talk to her, but her averted eyes and monosyllabic answers reduced me to silence as well. At the end of the night I stared moodily into space while she knocked back shots of Irish whiskey. My tension and mounting excitement curdled into frustration and I began to seethe. Why was she being like this when we were so close? When she paid for her fifth shot, I finally spoke.
“You can’t handle that much whiskey and you know it,” I said.
She shrugged halfheartedly. “Fuck you, Jake,” she said, but without any real malice behind it. No feeling at all, really, not love or anger.
“Seriously, Isabel. Stop drinking. You’ll just puke it back up.”
“So? Who are you, my mother?”
“Not your mother,” I said. “I’m the person who cleans you up afterwards, remember?” My voice had turned ugly and I knew it would be a mistake to keep talking. But I was aching with tension for the next night and her mood had turned that tension sour. I guess I thought a fight might be the next best thing to fucking, which she certainly wasn’t in the mood for. “Me, not your sisters.” I kept going, trying to goad her into paying attention to me. “Your sisters, they don’t give a shit. They leave you here as soon as the dancing’s done.”
It worked. Her head snapped around. “Don’t you say one word about my sisters. You’re sick of cleaning me up? What have I been doing since I got here but cleaning up after your mess? You think it’s easy getting my sisters here every night? They practically hate your brothers. You think I want to be here when I feel like this?”
I’d actually . . . never thought about what Isabel’s black moods would be like from the inside. I guess I’d just thought about them as part of her mystique. Where did she come from? How did she feel? She was here for me, and that had been enough. For me, anyway.
“Then why do you bother to come?” I snarled at her, to cover up the shame beginning to slink through my guts.
She stared at me for a minute and turned back to her drink. “You’re an asshole.” She drank down the fifth shot of whiskey and blinked a little in the low light. For the first time I noticed the dark circles under her eyes. “I come here,” she began, and then stopped. “I come here,” she said again, with some difficulty, “because it’s the only time I really feel alive. It’s the only time I feel like I want to be alive. I can’t stop sleeping, Jake. I sleep twelve or fifteen hours a day. Most days showering is too hard and my arms and legs feel like they’re filled with lead. I—I feel like I’m not really there most of the time, just looking through the cut-out eyes of a portrait, like in a bad movie. Everything hurts, all the time, even when there’s nothing wrong with me. I cry every day. I can’t keep my mind together; my thoughts bounce and clatter like a bag of marbles emptied out onto the floor. And everything looks gray to me, like there’s a screen of smoke in front of my eyes. And I hate myself for being like this, so weak. Weak and useless.
“And when I come here, Jake, I’m not useless. I come here because sometimes when I’m here, the music and the smoke and the drink drives that away, and I feel okay. Just okay, and that’s a fucking miracle. And sometimes I feel better than that. Sometimes I feel bubbles like champagne in my blood and I can see neon light trails in the air and everything just—just sparks, like burning metal and fireworks. But most of the time, most of the time, Jake, I feel like crap.”
I didn’t know what to say to her. I drank her fifth shot of whiskey. “I didn’t know,” I said. “I never knew. You always seem so . . . alive.”
She looked at me bitterly until I heard exactly how stupid I sounded. “Yeah. I’m good at that. And I’m good at calculus, so nothing really bad could be happening, could it? You never noticed, you never took it seriously because you needed me to be the girl who would save you. You don’t love me and you don’t know me. You need me. And you never once thought about what I needed, or even noticed me counting ceiling tiles while you were fucking me.”
“That’s mean,” I breathed. “That’s mean, and it’s not true. I did think about what you needed, why you were here, I asked—”
“Oh, shut up, Jake,” she said, and slid off the barstool. “I’m going to go throw up, and I’ll hold my own fucking hair back, and then I am leaving.”
After she left, I put my head down on the bar. It was aching already. I could tell Cynthia was standing over me, tapping her foot. After a long silence, I heard her say “You get one chance, Jake. You know that, right? Just one.”
“I figured,” I said, pressing my fingers against my eyelids.
“You haven’t learned anything, have you?” she said. “You’re an idiot.”
“I know,” I said. I sat there and waited to fall asleep, waited to wake up in misery.
The next night, the 101st night, we were waiting from the moment the sun went down, but the girls didn’t come. And the time ticked by.
“Where are they?” asked my youngest brother.
“They’re not coming, are they?” he whimpered.
“They’re coming,” I said.
And we waited, not even tapping our feet to the music. I could hear the sound of each second falling to the floor.
“They’re not coming,” said my youngest brother again a few minutes before midnight.
“And it’s your fault,” snarled my second brother. “All your bullshit threats to me, and you go and fuck everything up at the end. What’s wrong with you, anyway? Too many fucking blow jobs scrambleyour brains?”
“Shut up, Max,” I said quietly. “I swear to God if you don’t shut up, I’ll break your fucking jaw.”
My other brothers slowly cleared away while Max stepped up close. I could hear him breathing. “You couldn’t take me when were kids, Jake, and you can’t take me now.”
“Not in my bar, boys.” Cynthia’s warning voice seemed to come from miles away.
The door slammed open and the girls staggered in. Isabel wasn’t wearing much makeup and she wasn’t dressed up. She was wearing a pair of hot pink jeans and a black cotton tank top.
Her eyes were swollen, like she’d been crying.
She grabbed my hand.
That night my feet felt like lead and the music sounded like so much static. Each beat felt like a hammer blow to the head and every step was like pulling teeth. But we ground it out, nothing if not determined, and by the end of the night there were holes in the soles of my boots as big as nickels.
There was a silent pause for a minute while my brothers and I stared at each other. Then my youngest brother walked tentatively toward the door, licked his lips, and stepped outside. More silence, and then we could hear his scream of joy, sharp as an arrow in my heart. Nine of my other brothers stampeded for the door.
Max waited uncertainly and then came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Jake.” His voice sounded almost affectionate.
I shook him off me and he shrugged, cast one last look at me, and left. He closed the door gently behind him.
“You’re free,” she said.
I didn’t feel it.
“So go on,” she said. “Get out of here.”
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” I said.
She shrugged. “We were so close.” Her voice sounded dull, and I didn’t know if she meant that she and I were close or that we had been so close to the end of the 101 nights when we fought.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said that, about your sisters. And you know I don’t care how much you drink, not really.”
“I know,” she said. “But it’s not about that, is it? All this time, and you never really noticed anything wrong with me, did you?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” I said.
“I can’t feel anything when we have sex,” she said. “I don’t feel anything but bad anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“I used to feel things, here, with you. I used to feel good. And then . . . it kind of fell away, and I was just coming to help you. Maybe I used myself up.”
“I’ll help you,” I said. “I can do that for you. Like you’ve done for me.”
“I don’t think you can. You only ever thought about yourself and your brothers, really, like you’re the only ones under a curse. You only ever thought about what I could do for you—bring you cigarettes, get you off, set you free. Even tonight—you just worried about yourself, didn’t you? Did it ever cross your mind that I wasn’t here because . . . I had . . . because something had happened to me? You wouldn’t know how to help me.”
I tasted salt and realized that tears were running down my face. “Don’t leave me. I’ll learn.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think I get to have that.” She was crying, too. “I’ve got to go.”
“Give me your phone number,” I said.
She shook her head. “It’s better, because you won’t get bored trying to help me when you can’t.”
“Did you get bored trying to help me?”
“You aren’t like me,” she said impatiently. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re kind of a jerk sometimes, but so’s everybody. I’m broken.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said.
But she left anyway.
I stared out into space for a few minutes after she left. There didn’t seem to be anywhere worth going.
After a little while Cynthia came over and stood in front of me with her arms folded. “Time to go, Jake,” she said quietly.
“You can’t stay here any longer,” she told me. Then she poured me a glass of brandy. “On the house,” she told me. “To celebrate. Drink it and get out of here.”
I sipped the brandy. “Can I come back, some evenings?”
“Sure,” she said. “Any time, if you’ve got the money. And if you behave yourself.”
My brothers made good. They have good jobs, nice places to live. I stayed with them sometimes, one after another. I made myself enough money to drink.
“Plenty more pussy out there,” my second brother said to me, right before I decked him.
It wasn’t true anyway, not for me. It was like when she went away, something broke inside me. I saw other girls, girls who weren’t her, walking by, and I felt nothing. I only got hard if I was remembering her, and I felt that slipping away as well.
My fourth brother got me a job at his wife’s father’s office. The soles of my Docs had never healed after that last night, so I bought new shoes and threw the boots into the back of my closet. I cleaned myself up and, damn, if I didn’t look respectable. And older. I looked older.
My hands still shook, so I bought an electric razor.
My youngest brother approved. “Put it behind you,” he said. “Start over.”
But I remembered. I remembered nights when we danced on tongues of flame and angels, when the world opened up and was ours for the taking, when sparks shot through the air, when drumbeats were gasoline and I had a book of matches.
One night, Max was waiting for me at my sixth brother’s apartment when I came home from work, and the two of them were glowering at each other.
“Zach doesn’t think I should tell you,” said Max. “But fuck him. I found your girl.”
I went into the kitchen, took a beer out of the fridge, came back, and sat down between my brothers. “I don’t believe you, Max.”
He looked vaguely hurt. “It’s true.”
“How could you find her when I couldn’t?”
“Because you looked like a fucking nightmare when you were searching for her, pal. Seriously. Unshaven, you reeked of alcohol—you think any girl would tell you where her friend was? Now, me?” He gestured to himself. “I wear a suit. I’m well-spoken. Who wouldn’t talk to me?”
I glared at him.
“My girlfriend’s a senior at Barnard,” he said. “Her younger sister was at school with an Isabel, Isabel Goldman. Oldest of twelve, counting stepsisters and half-sisters. The rumor around school was that she tried to kill herself and her parents sent her to a mental hospital in Connecticut to get her away from her friends here—to get her away from you, I bet, even if they didn’t know who you were. They have a country house up there. So I looked into it for you. ‘Cause I’m a stand-up guy, no matter what you think of me. And it’s true. She’s there, no visitors, no correspondence except her parents. Pills and electroshock therapy.”
I didn’t feel anything I had expected to feel. I didn’t feel anything at all. “Tried to kill herself?” I repeated mechanically.
“Tried,” said Max, drinking my beer. I guessed Zach hadn’t offered him one. “One of her sisters called an ambulance; they pumped her stomach.”
“Look,” he continued. “You ask me, I think you should stay away from her and vice versa. I don’t think you’re good for each other. But do what you want. One piece of advice—if you go for her, get yourself together. Clean yourself the fuck up. Get your own place. Be a goddamn man already. She didn’t get you out so you could spend the rest of your life crashing on somebody’s couch.”
He tossed me a brochure, the kind of thing aimed at parents of troubled teens, soft focus and fake understanding, no edge to it. Not what someone like Isabel needed. Not what someone like me needed.
He finished my beer. “So don’t say I never did anything for you, Jake.” And then he left.
I thought about what someone like Isabel needed, what someone like me needed, and then I quit my job. I’d never liked it and I didn’t think I was any good at it; I was never entirely sure what it was. Max had said to get my own place. There was only one place I thought of as my own.
Cynthia didn’t look very surprised to see me. “What took you so long?” she asked.
I sat down and asked her for a shot of bourbon. When she brought it to me I sipped it. “I’m going to find her,” I said.
“She’s not here,” said Cynthia. “So you’re not off to a good start.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not good at starts.”
“This is not my problem,” she said.
“Come on,” I coaxed her. “Don’t you ever want to get out of here? Look at the sunlight? Go to the beach?”
“Are you asking me out?” she said. “Long walks on the beach?”
“I’m asking you for a job.”
She was silent for a full minute, and then she went down the bar to take care of other customers. When she came back, she drummed her fingers on the bar. “I miss going to the ballet.”
“Are you serious?”
She glared at me. She drummed her fingers on the bar again and then went away to wash some glasses. She came back and poured two more shots of bourbon. “You’ve got a decent ear. You can book the bands and take over a few nights.”
I gaped at her.
“What you want to say, Jake, is ‘thank you.’”
She rummaged behind the bar for a few minutes and came up with a set of keys. “You can start tomorrow night. I don’t need to train you, do I?”
“I think you’ve already done that.”
“Yes.” She slid the keys across the bar to me. “There’s an apartment above the bar. I don’t live there.”
For a minute I wondered where she lived—what that even meant to someone like her. Then I said “thank you” again, just to make sure.
She nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I got up to go. “Oh,” she said. “Jake? Don’t drink all my fucking profits.”
I took Max’s car to Connecticut.
“Don’t blow out my speakers. And don’t stain my seats when you fuck your girlfriend,” he said, before he tossed me the keys.
“She probably won’t want to come back with me anyway,” I said.
He grinned at me. “What’re you talking about? She’s never been able to keep her hands off you, man.”
I saw Isabel in the center’s common room, and realized it was the first time I’d seen her without any trace of makeup. She didn’t look older or younger, just different. Maybe more tired than before.
When I took her hand it felt like the future had finally started, like everything in my life had been stalled, just waiting for her.
“They’ve fucked up my memory,” she said, and laughed a little, but not in a good way.
“Memory’s overrated,” I told her. “I’ve come to get you out.”
She looked at me like I was an idiot. “I can get myself out. I’m over eighteen now. I can sign myself out any time I want.”
“Then why haven’t you?”
“Nowhere for me to go, really. Nowhere I want to go,” she said, and then paused. “Until now?”
I nodded. “I have a job,” I said. “I have a place. The apartment above the club.”
“That fucking club.” She laughed a little giddily, like she might cry. “You never really left, did you?”
I shook my head.
“I’ve got Max’s car parked outside,” I told her. “We could drive back to my place. We can stop partway and mess up Max’s seat cushions. If you want to, I mean.”
She grinned at me. “Then we should go, while I still remember who you are.”
“Who am I?” I asked her. I tried not to hold my breath waiting for her to tell me who I was, what I was to her.
“You’re an asshole, Jake,” she said, and stroked my face. “But I’ve missed you anyway.”
“I’m an asshole,” I agreed. “But I’m yours if you want me.”
“I want you,” she said. “I want you, but it’ll come back—you know that, right? You’ve got to understand that. It’ll take me again. I’ll never be cured. It’ll never be over. I’m not like you. You can go anywhere now. But it will always take me again.”
I wrapped my arms around her. “I’ll keep you safe.”
“You can’t,” she said. “Aren’t you listening? You can’t keep me safe.”
“Then let it take you,” I said. “And I’ll bring you back. As many times as you need, I’ll come and bring you back. I won’t let it keep you.”
“You won’t get bored?” she asked anxiously.
I shrugged. “Maybe I’ll get bored. Maybe I’ll get bored and cranky and obnoxious and drink too much and throw up in the bathroom. But I’ll still come for you. As many times as you need.”
She took my hand and interlaced our fingers.
I could see the afternoon sun through the glass door, and I still wasn’t used to being out in daylight, even to seeing daylight. I still tensed up every time I walked out a front door, hunching over in anticipation of unbearable pain. But I looked over at Isabel, and saw that the hand I wasn’t holding was clenched in a fist, that she was flinching away from the sunlight and her face was twisted in something like fear. So I loosened my shoulders and put my arm around her waist.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “We’re going home. I’ve got the Glos’ ‘Blowout’ in the car and you can turn the volume up as loud as you want.”
“Thank God.” She smiled up at me. “The music in this place is shit.”
And together we walked right the fuck out that door.
The author would like to thank The So So Glos for being a generally awesome band, but in particular for the use of the lyrics to “We Got the Days.” She swears she wrote the first draft of this story before she ever saw them play.
“Ballroom Blitz” copyright © 2015 by Veronica Schanoes
Art copyright © 2015 by Anna and Elena Balbusso