The Red Room
The taxi is crowded and sweaty, smelling of Sunlight soap and poverty and I’m crammed right into the back, squashed like an old tissue at the bottom of a handbag. The driver pretends to not hear me when I yell, “Robots!” so the women around me have to repeat what I say until he brakes at the next set of traffic-lights. I squeeze out of the taxi, half clambering over the other passengers.
The refuse in Orange Grove is really piling up and the bags overflow from the plastic trolleys. A miasma of flies and muggies and a stench so powerful it’s probably sentient hangs over the black bags. Some of them are split open—torn by dogs. Or rats, I realize, when I see one scratching through the spilled banana peels and tea bags and god knows what else. The rat is massive and sleekly black and it looks up as I approach. Instead of running, it just watches me with its beady little rodent eyes.
“Scram.” I kick out at it as I pass, and it finally ducks into the litter. They’re getting bold, the little shits. That story about the chewed-up baby doesn’t seem quite so unbelievable right now, when the damn rodents are sitting out bold as brass under the bright sun. I stop in front of the old-fashioned house with its low brick wall, the garden shadowy with overgrown delicious monsters and blackjacks. Light flashes at me from the windows as Lily’s mirrored trinkets revolve in the slight puff of a hot breeze. I will myself to walk up and knock.
Lily isn’t home. Rain opens the door himself, something I don’t expect. He looks okay, a little thin, but that’s not exactly unusual. I glance over him, running through a mental check-list. “Where’s your jersey?”
Rain starts shivering as I ask, and he doesn’t stop. He’s wearing a black zip up tracksuit top to cover his arms and even though it’s the middle of summer his teeth are chattering. “Lily,” he finally says through the brittle click of teeth.
The bitch. “Where is she?” More to the point, what did she do with that damn jersey? Rain is already unravelling.
Of course Lily isn’t the shiniest spoon in the cutlery drawer, so I go straight to the rubbish waiting for pick-up. It’s not in the first bag, and I have to tear through unimaginable wads of filth, discarded hair, rotting banana peels, and wadded tissue paper in order to discover that. I find it in the second bag, covered in ash and fag ends. Some unidentifiable fruit is stuck on the one sleeve. It smells rancid and cidery. Apple, I guess.
I bring it inside, holding it out like it’s the holy grail. Or a dead cat. Rain stills when he sees me.
“I’m going to clean it,” I say.
“That’s what Lily said.”
I want to strangle her. It’s enough to hate her for all the times she dragged Rain off to specialists and doctors for no reason except her own sick needs, but now to try and take away the things he uses to keep himself together. She’s like a crocodile, willing to eat her own spawn when times get lean. “It’s cool. I’m just going to wash it in the basin. You can watch me. I promise that’s all I’m going to do.” God, I’m talking to him like he’s eight, soothing him, crooning.
He follows at my heels, never taking his eyes from the filthy jersey. One day, I swear I’m going to kill Lily.
Rain can’t wait for his jersey to even dry properly, and he puts it on though it’s still damp. As he changes I catch a glimpse of the long scar that run from his wrist to his elbow. A flash of red tissue, like a dirt track. That’s what you do when you really want to die, none of these surface nicks across the wrist.
Luckily he was still in that place when he did it. Someone found him, I guess. It also meant he had to stay even longer. Sometimes I wonder if he shouldn’t still be in there, and then when I see his eyes and remember him from before, I wonder how much more that place messed him up. More than even his mother managed, I’ll bet. If I’m here when Lily gets back… “Come on.” I grab Rain’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”
I’m prepared for an argument, but Rain just nods and follows me. At first I think of going to my place until I remember the picture of Caleb. I don’t want to be around it, near it. Not with Rain, anyway. I think about calling Memory, but he said something about band practice this Saturday, so he’ll be busy.
We end up going to my dad’s house because it’s closest. Fuzigish’s swaggering brand of Joburg ska blares from Dale’s room, and I knock on the one of the tiny window panes in the front door until my brother finally hears me over the noise.
“What?” Dale pops his head around the door. There are voices, other people and the smell of dope and cheap incense.
“You’re smoking in the house?” I raise one eyebrow. “Dad’s not completely stupid you know.”
“Howzit, Rain,” Dale ignores me. He’s sixteen and untouchable.
“Hey.” Rain scuffs his feet along the carpet. Hugs himself.
Dale looks at me with a knowing glint in his eyes. He doesn’t say anything, just doesn’t shut the door in our faces. From Dale, that’s as good as a gilded invitation. “Boxes,” he says.
“I know, I’ll get to them.” And this time I kind-of mean it. Maybe. I’m sure I made a promise with myself that I would face Mom’s stuff someday. “Dad’s out, yeah?” Even though I know he must be. No car in the drive, and Dale smoking? Of course he is.
Dale eyes me balefully, like I’m too stupid to deserve a response. Yay, baby brothers, right?
A couple of his scruffy friends from school are leaving. They’re standing in the front hall, skateboards under their arms as they bounce a skinny joint between them. Dale’s friends are interchangeable—the same dyed black carefully mussed hair, the same baggy pants, boxers showing. They all wear Vans. Rich kids trying to look street. The name brands always give them away. One thing I will say for them though, is they can all skate. They do just about nothing else.
One of the interchangeable skater boys flips me the last of the joint, just as Dale sprays the entrance hall with his deodorant. I cough, my eyes watering—this must be what a cockroach feels like under the Doom onslaught. Death by Ego for Men
When they’re gone and Dale’s retreated back into his ska-tuned hibernation, I get orange juice from the fridge and dig around in my dad’s stuff until I find a half-jack of vodka. He’s more of a whiskey man, which is why this is still unopened. He’ll probably never miss it, so I take it along with some plastic high-ball glasses back to what used to be my room. My dad’s changed it into a neat little study. His mac purrs on one corner table, and the bookshelves are crammed with ancient DTP manuals from back when he was at college a million years ago, and the ubiquitous fat design magazines that were a constant fixture of my childhood. Other people’s parents read You and People and Mad Magazine, my dad read PRINT and Bitterkomix.
A cracked faux-leather couch covered with a cheap throw done in last season’s Moroccan spice line colours stands in one corner. Rain and I both squish onto it and drink the screwdrivers I make. The orange juice is a sharp burn on my chapped lips, like the sting of a throw-away kiss.
Rain curls himself up small and rests his head against my shoulder. His hair is dry and splitting and the ends tickle my cheek.
“Do you want to crash at my place tonight?” I don’t want him alone with Lily, not if she’s in one of her moods, and while he could stay here and my dad wouldn’t mind, it would mean parental questions.
“Maybe,” says Rain. He’s stayed at my place once or twice. I like it when he does, waking up spooned together under the Indian cotton, so I’m hoping the maybe translates to a yes.
“So did he call you?” I guess this is me trying to make normal conversation, trying to pretend that we are friends, that this is what friends say to each other.
“Who?” Rain lifts his head, bleary puzzlement in his frown.
“Uh, the guy from Zeplins.”
“Oh.” He drops his head back down. “It wasn’t anything like that.”
“Like anything. You know.”
And suddenly I’m happy, the world is good and wonderful, even if actually it’s shit and sucky. For a moment, I can pretend. I curl one arm around Rain’s shoulder and rest my cheek against his hair. I touch the tip of my tongue to his ear lobe. He squirms and laughs, making me spill orange juice and vodka down my front.
“Crazy wench.” His term of affection. He sits up and kisses me.
Vodka, acid orange, the faint lingering under-taste of toothpaste. Even though I know that this is just Rain’s way of passing time, of thanking people, I close my eyes and kiss back. He slides his fingers through my shorn hair and I have to remind myself that it didn’t change anything, that I’m still not real to him.
The desk fan whirs, outside I can hear the rattle of skateboard wheels on loose tar, the whit whit whoo of the laughing doves. I catch the moment, press it down. I’ll add it to my collage: moments with Rain. I have enough of them, jumbled and patched, the diluted fragments of past summers. I’ve never told Rain that he’s the only person I’ve ever kissed, and if he does know he’s never mentioned it. I’m such a loser sometimes. Rain’s fucked more people than I can count—one night stands and casual hook-ups—but he always runs away from them in the morning. I like to flatter myself that he runs back to me.
He drops his hand, and slip his fingers under my tee shirt, just stroking the jut of my hipbone, and before I have to push his hand to less gross areas of skin, he pulls back. His eyes are clear and grey. “I love you, Reenie,” he says. “You know that.”
And he does, in his way, I guess. The unspoken part: You’re my best friend. He doesn’t even have to say it because I know what he means. “Yeah,” I say, and hug him tight, like friends do even though my heart is black and empty. “Me too, kid.” Get over it, Reenie.
“I don’t want to go back.” His voice is muffled in the cotton of my shirt, his mouth against my shoulder, moist and hot. He means back home to Lily. It’s not like he has any other family to go to.
“So don’t.” I wish that there was something that I could give him, that I could win the lottery or something, and have the money just to take him away, make him safe.
“Yeah.” He uncurls himself from me and pours us another round, heavy on the vodka.
“You could stay with me,” I say, and I press on faster as he frowns. “Just until you get a job and can afford the deposit on your own place.”
Except he won’t because Rain and his mother are these two awful co-enablers or something, both hating each other, and both terrified the other is going to leave. It’s too close in this room, so I pace over to my dad’s computer and switch on the desk fan and click though his music folders. My dad’s not all hippie like Lily. He does likes his prog rock, and some old school synth-type stuff. He even gave a vinyl copy of Bleach to Rain for his thirteenth birthday—which kinda makes him cool.
I click through the names. Ugh. Pink Floyd. Too melancholy, I don’t want to bring the mood down. I find something bluesy and chilled; Odetta Sings Dylan. ‘Cause sometimes, you’re just in the mood for jangle-twang guitars and mountain vocals and hand claps and shakers.
“So lets go out tonight,” Rain says. I’m usually the one who has to drag him out, kicking and screaming. He’s regained his equilibrium and he’s swinging from the doldrums to a manic high.
“With what? You bankrupted me last weekend.” I look back over my shoulder at him, grin and wink, to let him know I don’t hold it against him. But under my little play I’m suddenly scared. There are things out there, things that are waiting for me.
No. There aren’t.
“With this.” Rain pulls something from his jeans pocket and tosses toward me. A black leather wallet, worn at the edges, soft with time, lands on the desk. “Lily owes me,” he says.
“Fantastic.” And I don’t feel guilty, rifling through Lily’s cash, because Rain’s right—she owes him, she really does. There are a few hundreds, a fifty, couple of twenties and some change. It’ll do.
Rain wants to go to the Red Room, and I’m happy enough with that. It definitely beats going to Zeplins where the nightcrawlers are. Honeydew is closer than Pretoria anyway, even if I’m terrible with directions and get us lost. Every damn time. You’d think I’d have finally reached a point in my life where I can remember a route I’ve driven, like, a hundred times.
The narrow car park is packed by the time we arrive that evening. “Wonderful.” I park the Beetle on the side street near the old Le Club sign, and eye the black road. “If this gets stolen, my dad is going to string me from the ceiling by my thumbs.” Of course, he is already going to do that by the time I get round to returning the car. The silence on the matter has become more than simply ominous and is now downright terrifying.
“No-one’s dumb enough to steal a Beetle.” Rain unclips the seat belt.
“Lies. All lies. People would kill to have this piece of crap in their garage.” I thump the yellow hood. I’ve gorilla-locked the gear lever, not that it’s much of a deterrent—car-jackers spray the locks with liquid nitrogen or something and that’s it. Add to that the fact that I know you can open the driver side door with a screwdriver instead of a key. Let’s just say that security is not exactly a feature of this particular motor vehicle.
I give the road a final scan, then run after Rain to join him as he walks through the parking lot. He’s hunched his shoulders up a little, the way he always does when he’s outside a club. It’s like he only relaxes when there’s music around him.
“Oh, familiar,” says Rain. “Check it out.” He’s pointing at a finned monstrosity of a car with a horned skull wired to the grill. Caleb’s car.
My chest tightens, my breath turning wheezy. My spine is cold and my arms are goose pimpled. “Maybe it’s a sign,” I say. I know it sounds stupid, but this car again now. Just like before, before the winged boy in Zeplins. And not just him but the figure in the rain watching my window. It’s making me nervous even though I have told myself over and over that none of it was real. “Maybe we should go.”
Rain has stopped in the middle of the long lot, just staring at the car and at the horned skull. It’s caught him. “It’s just that guy from the bar. Caleb. It’s Caleb’s car. Maybe he’s cool, you know.” he stops, frowns suddenly and says, “A sign of what?”
“The apocalypse. And maybe he’s the angel of death.” I don’t point out to Rain that I’m pretty sure Caleb is dead. How am I supposed to explain that he’s just one of many weird things I seem to think are happening in my life right now. Like Rain’s going to believe that Caleb was the guy I saw on the pavement that day of the accident, blood all around him. Or that some winged creature followed me through the nightclub, that it’s not the first time things have dogged me wherever I go. That it was only my mother who stood between them and me. Instinctively, I reach up and touch my mother’s amulet through my black tee-shirt. Maybe the evil eye works against the undead and demons, but if it does, it’s not doing a particularly stellar job.
“The apocalypse?” Rain drawls. “Are you on some whack drug you’re not sharing with me? And isn’t death supposed to ride a white horse?” He glances over at Caleb’s car. “Whatever you call it, that’s not a horse.”
“I’m kidding,” I say. God, I’m starting to sound like I really am going crazy. Time to pull myself together and at least pretend to act normal. “C’mon, lets get inside. I need a drink.” Maybe it wasn’t Caleb lying dead in the road. A doppelgänger, or something.
Rain pats his hip pocket. “First round is on Lily.”
“Every round’s on Lily.”
We pay the girl at the door and head straight for the back bar where it’s less crowded and we have a better chance of actually getting a drink. It’s still fairly early for the crowd, and it’s just going to get worse, as more and more of Joburg’s alternatives start crawling out from under their rocks. I grab a seat in the corner. I’ve got one wary eye open, but there’s no sign of Caleb the walking dead man, or any winged monster-boys. The horned car probably belongs to someone else—a Pretoria weirdo. It’s not like there’s a shortage of them.
As my beer empties, I stop staring at people’s faces and I relax my shoulders. It’s just the regular crowd—the usual mix-bag of ageing indie-bunnies and slumming goths in monochrome uniforms. Everything seems to be black and white against the red walls. A study in contrasts. After the first drink, I follow Rain to the other bar, closer to the stage and we wrangle a spot on one of the dodgy benches.
The music changes from indie standards to obscure eighties tracks and a more electro sound. I even consider dancing, though the small stage that serves as a dance floor is packed with sweating people. The air is getting steadily more cloying and the only thing cool is the beer Rain just bought for me. Dimly, a part of me wonders how Lily is going to react when she realizes her money is gone. I push the thought away—dealing with Lily and her probable psychotic reaction can wait for another day. For now, I’ll just enjoy the novelty of having Rain buying me drinks for a change, all the while scanning the club for a man who isn’t there. A shadow in a trench coat and cowboy hat.