Several shoulders expel me from the mosh on the dance floor. I try a few more times to work my way in, but there is no use; the wall of dancing bodies is impenetrable. The flashing neon-colors blasting from the club’s light system make it hard to find my way to a slightly less ear-pounding corner, but nonetheless, I find an empty seat at the end of the small bar along the far end of the room. It’s as far away from the dance floor as someone can get while still making themselves believe that they’re still in fact in a night club and not home alone, again, with a nice book and a large bottle of Chardonnay that always seems to run out ten chapters too soon.
“Whatcha havin,” the bartender barks while simultaneously tossing a half empty bottle of Captain in one hand and slamming down a shot glass with the other.
“What?” I shout, but the noise of the raving music drowns me out. I hold my ear out and the bartender points to me and then to an empty glass. “Oh, I don’t know. Just water for now.”
“Water?” He shoots a glance. “Sure.” A woman, a very attractive woman, dawning the standard stunning dress and playful makeup squeezes into a spot that didn’t really exist beside me and signals the bartender for a Bloody Mary. She turns around and leans against the bar while I stare her down, practically committing her to memory. I can’t quite place what it is about her exactly, perhaps her small frame, the chaotic pattern of freckles on her shoulder, or the faint scent of lilacs, lilies, or some other earthly delight dancing around her, but there is something about this girl that reminds me of her, of Grace. Probably sensing that she’s being watched, she leans her head in my direction and meets my eyes. Anxiety swells inside of me and begins to slowly drip from my pores. Stampeding thoughts wreck my mind. Feelings of whether or not I’m ready to finally try and move on from Grace pummel me more than the music.
Before I finish panicking, the woman’s drink is brought to her and she slips away. I’m not sure if I’m ready to claim a spot in New York’s night scene, but my roommate, Abe, made it persistently clear that no male under thirty should spend his Fridays with his eyes glued to black ink on some page instead of on some ‘sexy chick’ (his words, not mine). So, thanks to the power of peer pressure, here I am at the closest nightclub to my apartment, still pretty much alone. The bartender slams a drink down behind me. I grab the sweating glass, throw the drink back, and choke as my throat stings from a sudden burn.
“What is this?” I tip the glass and stare at the clear drink.
“I call it unholy water,” the bartender answers and then walks away. I bring the glass up to my nose and try to place the smell before taking another, much smaller swallow. A cold, rough shoulder grinds against mine and causes me to spill some of my special water.
“Hey, someone is kinda existing right here so-“ I turn to face the prick and find a small round face that’s more grey than pale, with large buggy eyes, and a blank expression mere inches away from mine. I try pulling away, but she pushes forward and maintains the same awkward distance.
“Hi,” speaks the girl. Her voice is light and breathy.
“Are you here alone?” she mumbles. She is speaking softly so I expect the club music to drown her out, but her low voice clearly slips into my ear.
“Isn’t everyone pretty much alone who comes here,” I joke. I follow with a horribly fake laugh, but there is no response from her. I snatch my drink and take a swallow to fill the awkward silence. The girl presses her hand’s against my chest and slides them out to my shoulders. “Whoa now,” I laugh while trying to pull away, but she pays me no attention. Her thick, painted nails slightly pick at the fabric of my buttoned shirt before she slides her hands onto my arms. Her fingertips are so freezing that it feels like I just rubbed a handful of January snow against my skin. I grab her wrists and push her arms away.
“Have you been drinking a little too much or some-“
“You’re warm,” she calmly interrupts.
“No, I think you’re just really cold. Are you feeling ok? Do you need to find a seat?” The girl takes a step closer to me so that her nose is almost touching my face.
“Can I play with you?” she asks. Her cool breath brushes my check and the hair on the back of my neck stands erect.
“Play?” I glance down at her body and follow the cold, dark colors of her dress back up to her shinning black hair. “I’m not really one for games.” The girl caresses my chest again.
“Why don’t you want to play with me? Do you not like me?” My heart starts beating excessively and I find it hard to swallow, hard to talk. I came out tonight just to get my roommate off my back for a few more weeks. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was even ready to be with someone again. Not someone this aggressive anyways.
The woman’s icy touch and piercing glare steals me from my thoughts. Without thinking, I pick up my drink and clench my eyes as I gulp it down.
“Listen,” I start, “you’re very gorgeous, but I’m not really feeling all that-” The girl pulls her hands away and steps back. Her large eyes widen and her seductive lips flatten.
“No, no, no, you’re very beautiful. Practically perfect,” I add, “but-” The girl’s face cringes after the last few words slipped from my mouth.
“I’m not perfect?” she asks in the same slow voice. I take in a deep breath and try to pin the right words to my tongue.
“Listen, I think I made a mistake coming out tonight. It has nothing to do with you; I’m just not as ready as I thought.” I break away from her stare and toss a few bills from my wallet onto the bar. I feel her eyes following my every move. A cold sweat runs down my back and I find my hand is trembling as I tuck my wallet back into my pocket. Time to go home.
I turn away from the bar and look for the exit. Suddenly, I spot the woman who ordered the Bloody Mary. She is dancing; drink in hand, her golden locks bouncing around her face. She has the same playful smile that Grace always wore when she knew she was acting goofy, but didn’t care how she looked. I never thought I’d see that kind of look again. My heart swells and loving memories dance inside me.
“Do you like her more than me?” The grey woman’s voice pushes past the roaring music and drills deep into the center of my head. She steps in front of me, severing my view of the dance floor. Her presence infects my body with chilling goose bumps.
“Do I what? Who?” I answer as I try leaning from side to side to find a clear path through the crowded club around her.
“Is she better? Is she perfect?” She reaches her arm out towards my chest, but I knock it away and push past the bodies around me to dart for the exit.
I climb the narrow stairs and stumble onto the grey New York sidewalk. Every time I blink, I see that girl’s emotionless stare engraved into my mind. My head is pounding and my skin is coated with a layer of icy sweat that pricks my skin like needles when the late night wind blows down the street.
“Too cold to walk,” I think and hail a taxi. One of the passing yellow cars with scratches all along the backside pulls up to the curb and I scoot into the cramped back seat.
“Just a few blocks down the road, please. Where 110th intersects Thuway.” I reach to close the door but someone slides in and drops down beside me. I turn towards the guest and find a face leaning towards mine. I jump back, thinking it is the same peculiar girl from inside the club, but it isn't; it’s Ms. Bloody Mary.
“Sorry to barge in,” she laughs. She tucks her bangs behind her ear and closes the taxi door. “It’s just too cold to wait for another taxi. Do you mind?” Her goofy smile from before is replaced by a broad grin that stretches from rosy cheek to rosy cheek.
“Not at all,” I answer. “I’m just heading up a few blocks and then she’s all yours.” The cabby pulls away from the curb and heads down the street. The girl holds her eyes on me.
“Heading home alone? So early?” she asks. I force a smile.
“Yeah, it wasn’t really my kind of place. I guess I could ask you the same question though,” I tease.
“I’m just really cold,” she says. Her eyes are still fixed on me. The cabby curses the car in front of us for stopping at a yellow light and then the girl slides towards the middle of the seat, right next to me. “I’m just ready to get warm,” she whispers. Without really thinking I close my eyes and with my nose search for the sweet smell of lilacs or lilies that was dancing around her back at the club, but it was nowhere to be found. Only the cold damp smell of old metal and worn leather lingers in the backseat of the cab. I open my eyes and find the girl is still holding the same broad smile and staring directly at me.
The taxi speeds around a car and brakes abruptly alongside my apartment building. The sudden stop sends the girl into my side.
"Wow, you're pretty warm," she lightly breathes as she readjusts her fixed stare on me. Her words echo inside my head. I turn my eyes towards her and see that her smile is now larger than before. "Hey, I have an idea," she starts, "how about one lonely person offers another lonely person something hot to drink?” Her words from before are still echoing in my head. I hold my eyes on her face and realize that it isn't just the smell that's gone; all of her resemblances to Grace are gone too. She looks the same, but the feeling is off.
"Umm, I don't know-" I pull out my wallet and fumble past a few bills.
"You don't know," she chuckles. "I saw how you were looking at me in the club." She strokes her hand down my chest. "You think I’m pretty perfect." I rip out the cab fair and hand it to the driver.
"Who's this?" she asks as her smile drops. I turn towards her while my hand fumbles for the door handle. She is looking at a folded picture of Grace that has fallen out of my wallet. It's my favorite picture of her, the one where we were making silly faces as the photo booth was ending. "Is this your girlfriend? You look happy with her. You look perfect together."
"I'm sorry, but you can't come up," I say then open the door and slam it shut. She presses her face closely against the window and watches me as I turn away and run into my apartment building.
I dash up my apartment stairs two at a time until I reach the third floor and then walk down to the end of the hallway to my door. The room is dark, quiet, and cold. I call for my roommate while I close the door, but there is no answer.
“Probably still out drinking,” I think and toss my keys onto the nearby kitchen counter, which knocks over a few empty red solo cups. I fish out my phone from my jean pocket and use its weak glow to find my way through the cramped living room with mismatching furniture into my room. I close the door behind me and after only kicking off one shoe I collapse onto the bed. I need to escape into sleep.
I flip my pillow over and roll my head around on the pillow’s cool underside, trying to find the sweet spot, when I feel something jabbing my lower back. I reach back I notice that it’s my wallet, so I pull it out and toss it onto my nightstand. The old picture of Grace is hanging out, resting on my nightstand. I remember the countless times I either tried to foolishly throw it away or pack it up, but I never did find the strength to move on. I don’t want to say good-bye for good yet. I always want to keep her close. My heavy eyelids slide shut and I focus on the warming silence to help lull me off.
Scratching on the apartment door coming from the hallway invades the silence.
Only my ears wake up as I hold my eyes shut.
“What time is it?” I wonder. “How long have I been sleeping?” The scratching is much louder now. “Is this just Abe struggling to find the keyhole again?” I hear the door open, but I don’t hear anyone walk inside. I strain my ears to try and listen for Abe to crash into something as he usually does, but I don’t hear a sound.
“Are you here?” crawls into my ears. My eyes shoot open. I know that voice. I knew Grace had a key to the place, but it can’t be her. I glance over to the picture and pray for silence. “Where are you?” the voice continues. I try to slide up from bed, but my body doesn’t feel awake yet. Cold air slips into the room and I suddenly feel the weight of someone’s eyes watching me.
“Is it you?” I whisper and fight to lift my body up. A dark outline is standing against my closed door.
“Is this okay?” the soft voice responds.
“But how? Am I dreaming?” my voice is shaky and my body is shivering uncontrollably. My mind is stalled, now nothing more than an organic paperweight in my head. “You can’t really be here…you’re supposed to be-“
“I just couldn’t let you slip away from me,” she interrupts. I blink and find the girl suddenly at the edge of my bed. More surprisingly is that it is her; it is Grace. Sudden tears build under my eyes, tears of an unknown emotion. I never thought I’d be this close to her again.
Simultaneously, I wish this is indeed Grace and this isn’t. Am I blessed, am I cursed, am I crazy? All I do is think of questions and stare while she does nothing. The more I stare the more I feel like I’m looking at a picture. Suddenly, a cold chill pricks its way down my spine and I turn to look at the picture on my nightstand. Grace is wearing the exact same clothes now that she is in the picture. I turn back and find her kneeling right next to me. Her nose is practically pressing against mine. She doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t move anything, and she isn’t even breathing. She is just staring at me with her wide eyes and pupils that I always thought were shaped like tiny hearts. I try to move my arms, but I can’t. I try to move my legs, but I can’t. I can’t move anything except for my tired eyes and heavy eyelids and I dare not move them, I dare not let her out of my sight.
“Why are you acting so weird?” she lightly breathes. “Just close your eyes, then we’ll play.” My stare slips away from her wide eyes and rests on her neck, searching for the cross pendant that always rested loosely on her chest, the cross pendant that I buried along with her body several months ago, the cross pendant that isn’t there now.
Her cold, stiff fingers brush against my chest. “Mmm, so warm,” she whispers, her tongue holding onto the s. I raise my eyes up to meet hers. Her statuesque face is still pressing against mine and the picture of Grace is slightly in view in the corner of my vision. Viewing both, I see the uncanny resemblance, the unnatural similarities, but something is off.
“Almost perfect,” I cry. Her face drops and her posture weakens as if defeated. I turn to my picture, to my Grace, and rest on her smiling warm lips. Tears flood my vision. Not because of sadness, or fear, but because I can’t hold my eyes open any longer. My eyelids drop. Everything goes dark. Everything goes cold. Then, as if it was never there, everything is gone.