“Tell me your name,” he said.
"There is power in names,” she whispered, creamy skin with an iridescent powder sheen seeming to glow in the dim, red, light. She made a show of stepping one shapely leg over his lap to straddle him where he sat on a sultanesque plush chair that was gummy with the perspiration and god knows what from the dozens of other men who had sat there before him, then twisted and swayed like a cobra preparing to strike. “Some are better left unspoken.”
He backed up in his borrowed throne—he’d been warned already of the consequences of touching her—and after some searching pulled a few singles from the pocket of his sweatpants and held them up to her.
“Hmm … early retirement,” she said, snatching the crumpled bills from his hand and twisting them into the stretchy lace garter at her thigh.
“I can get more!” he assured her. “I just want to know your name. Please?”
“I’m afraid I drank too deep from the river Lethe,” she told him, cupping and squeezing breasts like ripe pomegranates that rose above the tight green satin of her corset, “so alas, I have no memory of my true self.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Oh nothing,” she breathed, leaning in close and putting one manicured fingertip over her plump glossy lips to shush him. “Just relax and enjoy the dance.”
“I can’t relax,” he laughed. “You make me feel electric, like I’m somehow coming back to life. It’s been winter for so long … this is the only place I ever feel warm anymore.” Again he laughed, and it was fringed with sorrow. He took a sip from his bottle of stale beer.
“Expensive feeling. It’s not like I make all that much, you know.”
“Maybe we can talk to the manager, get him to institute a punch card system like they have at sandwich places? Ten holes in the card and your next dance is free.”
“You don’t have to mock me.”
Sliding down between his parted knees she arched her back and twisted her body around to the floor to give him a good view of a heart-shaped ass concealed only by the tiny satin triangle of her thong as she crawled a few feet away from him, languid as a cat.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he marveled.
She rose to her knees and tossed her white gold curls over one shoulder as she looked back at him. They always had to ask her that; the stupid, lost, and lonely Johns who wandered into the club, frostbitten and afraid of the cold, dark, world outside, convincing themselves that they could find salvation in this otherworldly sad-eyed nymph.
“If you came here looking for someone to talk to maybe next time give your money to a therapist instead.”
“Why must you be so cruel?”
“Oh, honey. I’m just a realist.”
“You’re a liar,” he said, draining the last of his beer. “You’re not as jaded as you want me to think. I wish I could save you.”
“Save me?” she scoffed, running her hands from the platform of her shoe all the way up the length of her leg, once more giving him the opportunity to gaze worshipfully at her ass.
“From whatever it is you’re running from.”
“Song’s over” she said, walking off without sparing a backwards glance, “hope you enjoyed.”
Hours later, footsore and exhausted from writhing, grinding, and pretending to feel lust or anything at all, she escaped to get changed in the dressing room. For all the bacchanal hedonism of the main floor, behind the scenes it was strikingly similar to a high school locker room, and she kept her head bowed, eyes cast down as she stepped into a pair of jeans and pulled on a thermal shirt and one of Alex’s big threadbare sweaters.
The other dancers piled on layers upon layers of sweatshirts and parkas, bright scarves, pom-pom hats, and thick fur lined mittens. All the time she’d been there they’d been lamenting the winter; how hard and fast it had set in, and how it just wouldn’t seem to end. They could bemoan the winter all they wanted, but eventually they’d adapt.
When she stepped out into the heavy darkness that would be pre-dawn gray by now if spring ever came, Alex was already there waiting for her.
“Hey gorgeous,” he said as she sank down into the passenger seat of his car and pressed her fingers against the minute trickle of warmth escaping the aged vents. He pushed his fingers through the long, loose waves of her hair and tenderly kissed the side of her face.
“Hi,” she said.
“Check out that Beamer,” he said, pointing to one of the more affluent customer’s cars. “How’d you like it if I picked you up in that?”
“I love your car,” she said, and meant it; the rattling noises it made, the woolly mammoth bumper sticker from the museum of natural history where he worked, the rusty bike rack on the roof. It was a beautiful mess, not unlike Alex himself.
It was against the rules, both her own, and the clubs, but Alex had been a customer once. His saving grace had been that he never asked why such an angelic creature would work in a sleazy strip club, and he never once presumed that he could save her. At first, she’d told herself it was just another thing to adapt to. She didn’t mind being alone, and she didn’t want to depend on anyone ever again. She put her all into resisting admitting anything else but the fact that Alex sure beat the dark place she’d left before him or, even worse, going back to her mother.
But then one morning before leaving for work he’d woken her up to kiss her goodbye as he always did despite her constant reminders that she was a creature of the underworld and got her beauty rest by day. And that one morning after he left, she couldn’t get back to sleep for the trace fragrance of his cologne still lingering on her skin, so she got up early to shower and scrub away the smell of him. And as the scalding water poured over her, she smashed a fist against the tiles and growled, “Fuck, I think I love him.” Of course, she didn’t tell him. That was the promise she had made herself. Love who you see fit, but don't ever get trapped again.
Alex pulled out of the club parking lot and they drove in silence, her eyes fixated on the ten-foot drifts of snow that hugged the streets. Once or twice, she glanced over at him and he noticed it immediately and looked back at her with a warm smile. It was only a few minutes before he was pulling up to the curb outside the old brick building that had been a church before it had become a library before it had become an apartment complex for divorcees, starving artists, and all the other runaways and wanderers. She had told him time and again that it was a short enough distance for her to walk, but despite the small hours and the frigid cold, he still woke up on the witching hour every night and drove down to pick her up.
As she was taking off her seatbelt, he was quick to jump out, jog around, and open the car door for her.
“I told you not to do that,” she chided, stepping out into the muddy snow.
“Why not?” he asked. “Don't you like being treated like a princess?”
“I know how princesses are treated, and your answer is an emphatic no.”
Shaking his head as he did when she said “weird things”, he put an arm around her and they walked up the three flights of stairs to their small slant-walled loft in the eves.
“I’ll make you dinner,” he said as they stripped out of their winter clothing.
“That’s okay. There’s still leftover takeout.”
“I don’t mind.”
“It’s late,” she said. “You’ve got work in the morning.”
“Who hurt you?” he asked, only pseudo-facetious as he wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her close, running his lips over the tender skin of her neck. It was those moments like that made it hard to cuff him to the bedposts and pour hot candle wax on his bare skin when the mood was on him.
“Go to bed. I’m going to take a bath. I’ll be with you soon,” she said, softly kissing his forehead.
“Okay, okay,” he stepped away in mock surrender. As they went towards separate doors, she turned back to him just before slipping through to the green-tiled bathroom.
“Alex?” she said.
“Do you miss the springtime?”
“I hardly even remember it anymore,” he said with a smile.
She closed the door behind her, put the stopper in the tub's drain, and turned on the tap. Hot water quickly filled the chilly tiled room with steam. When the tub was full, she sprinkled a handful of mint from the cluster of potted herbs she grew beside the window, and after peeling off every article of clothing she breathed a soft sigh and slid her naked flesh into the warm fragrant water.
She meant to wash her hair, shave her legs, and message the thick callouses and blisters brought on by countless hours in fetish heels, but she found herself so drained that she just lay there, twirling her fingers through the water and leaves and trying hard not to remember. But as sleep overtook her all attempts at repression faded and dreams blossomed all around her like a trellis of flowering leaves and fruitful vines beneath the warm, vibrant sunlight. She could feel everything; footsteps in the loam, the fleeting agony of flowers being plucked, lovers intertwined within the fragrant bower of ripe barley. She could feel it all but was locked away, isolated, the bulb of some exotic blossom held forever in stasis.
The heat of the water faded as she dreamed. Without waking, she told herself not to let the cloistered images of long forgotten springtime choke her resolve. She sank lower in the tub until only her nose remained above the surface to drink in the stale winter air.
It was only gradually that she became aware she had stopped breathing, having sunk beneath the surface of the tepid water, immobile in the place in between dreams and waking. In a few seconds, she’d breathe water and come up for air. She’d wake up and feel silly, dry off and slip into bed beside Alex. She’d sleep within his warmth for a few blissful hours before he got up for work, parting with a goodbye kiss.
Her body tried to rise, but found only more water, cold and dark and curiously deep for a small bed of porcelain. With morbid serenity she resigned herself to drowning, but just before the water entered her lungs, she felt cold hands, long, boney, and preternaturally strong, closing in around her bare wrists and pulling her up out of the heavy rushing current of the river.
He lay her down upon the soft swollen wood of a large flat raft, and exhaling his sweet and frigid breath on the meat of her breast she felt a thrill of heat rising inside her to counter it. She wrapped her body around him and held frantically, digging her nails into his chill porcelain skin. In the waking world of endless winter, she could push down the memories of the overwhelming passion that he sparked within her, but there in the dark forgetful places of rivers, ghosts, curses and retribution there could be no secrets between them.
“I miss you,” she whispered desperately into his ear. “My god, I miss you so much!” Still, somehow, she found the will not to tell him she loved him. Maybe in dreams he would always find her, but he would not her trap again.
“Give yourself to me,” he implored.
“Yes,” she said, feeling wild and unknowable in his embrace.
His thrusts were powerful, like rapids in the river that divide the worlds, entering her with cold and sinister lust, bringing her back to times long past, times she yearned for as hard as she tried to forget them.
“You know you will always be mine,” when finally spent, he whispered harshly into her ear.
“I am not as one of the dead,” she coldly replied.
“You took the fruits that I offered,” his voice came like the release of sealed air from a long-buried sarcophagus. “You will be return to me. Every journey ends at my door.”
“This isn’t real,” she said. “This is just a nightmare. I’m not the child you stole from her mother’s garden. You will never find me.”
“Suffer through the cold as long as you like. Tell yourself you love some groveling boy. Deep down you know there will forever be a piece of your heart that beats only for me.”
She breathed water. Her body convulsed. Eyes closed tight she sat up in the bathtub. The water had gone cold while she slept, the fragrant sprigs of mint clung to her skin, alive and tingling despite how long ago she had clipped them. Feeling a strange weight against her eyelids, she reached up and pulled two smooth cool disks of metal away; coins too worn and corroded to make out any more definitive features.
She placed them on the rim of the tub as the water swirled down into the drain and held her arms around her knees, rocking herself gently as she pictured the heavy dark currents of an endless river carrying off the memory of the nightmare.
Wrapped in terry cloth, hair still dripping and slightly stiff with the beginnings of frost she crawled into bed beside Alex and finally felt herself relax as he curled his body around hers and let his warmth envelope her. As she drifted off to sleep, her fingers intertwined in his, she thought to herself; I don't miss the springtime either.
Jodie Keenan is a graduate of Maine College of Art who has been a professional photographer for nearly a decade, among other odd jobs she’d rather not talk about here. Her writing has appeared in Hello Horror, Every Day Fiction, and Haunted HTML, and will be featured in an upcoming anthology from Running Wild Press. She has recently completed her first novel.