I’ve got a new story to share, although the circumstances behind this one are a little different. Since finishing the rewrite of my third novel Gaslight I’ve not done anything in the way of new writing at all. Which was fine to start with, as I needed a break, but the desire to write is always there and sooner or later it becomes a necessity.
But I couldn’t get the spark, so fell back on an exercise of sorts. A lot of my writing ideas have been inspired by music, so I turned to a few old favourites on Spotify and came across an old romantic ballad from the early 90s which I’ve always kind of liked and a friend of mine is mad about. So I thought I’d basically write the story of that song. It didn’t take too much – a few listens and then I wrote it across two or three evenings. The story fulfilled its main purpose, which was to get the creative blood pumping again, and I thought I’d offer it here. It’s very short, not even 2000 words, and I’ve done next to no editing. I want the story to seem fresh, to come off the page as quickly as it went down.
For that reason it’s a little more rough around the edges and as such I won’t be publicising it too much. One for the diehards, as it were. It’s called ‘Painting Pictures’.
For once, I was out like a light. The beer and marijuana had done their job. There were no dreams, just an inviting emptiness to wade into. Then a buzzing sound starting way back in the subconscious, growing louder with every heartbeat…
I snapped an eye open. A phone was ringing. I raised onto an elbow, the taste of weed on my tongue. Coming up for 6am. I could make out Elmore sitting on my computer chair, surveying the vast expanse of desert that lay beyond the window. The first flickers of sunlight threw pink tendrils across the horizon. Elmore was stock still, the only movement a faint flicker of his tail against the leather of the seat. Well, it was a great view.
It wasn’t my cell. Either of them. Coverage was spotty out here, and it was too early for work calls. Hardly anyone had my personal number. Those that did would be asleep. Now I was fully awake, I knew it was the phone in the kitchen. I ssat up and swung my legs out of bed. Looked down at my feet. Felt the mild stirrings of an alcohol-induced headache. The phone continued to ring. It wasn’t an emergency. I knew who was calling. The time of night, trying to make a statement, that it was really important. Unlikely. We’d been down this path before. I thought about letting it ring out, get back into bed and doze until the alarm went off. It was tempting, but there was no point. The ploy had worked. I pulled on a T- shirt and headed for the kitchen.
The phone was across from the breakfast nook, next to the fridge. I pulled the phone from its cradle and slid down into the vacant space beside the fridge, facing the screen door. One of its hinges was loose, and it rattled when there was a gust of wind. I stared out at the scrub, the barren patches of dirt beginning to lighten. The whiteness of Clyde’s fence starting to penetrate the darkness. Elmore leapt up onto the counter, narrowly missing the empty beer cans littering its surface. He miaowed softly, then fell silent. As if anticipating something. I knew how he felt. I placed the phone to my ear and waited, twisting the coils of the line around a finger. I could hear traffic. Then a slamming sound. The traffic quitened. Probably in a pay phone. I continued to wait. I could hear her breathing, but remained mute. It had to come from her. If we were going to start this again, it had to come from her.
‘Scottie,’ she said, and a tremor ran up my spine. Took me straight back to the first time she called me that, with my arm across her shoulder, parked up in a secluded spot under a sky full of stars. I closed my eyes and got lost in the memory. She giggled and said my name again. It was a high-pitched giggle, and right away I knew she was in one of her manic periods, riding the wave before the inevitable crash and burn.
‘Ali,’ I said. ‘It’s 6 in the morning.’
‘Well, duh. You know me, Scottie. Early to bed, early to rise.’ That screeching laugh once more. She sounded burnt out, or close to being so. There was another bang at her end. ‘Just a sec,’ she shouted, and her voice went away. The traffic sounds swarmed in, there was some more raised voices, then she came back on the line. ‘Won’t take no for an answer,’ she said. ‘Had to give the guy two bucks. Can find another payphone, am I right?’
I rested my head against the cool fridge. ‘Ali, where are you?’
I heard the striking of a match, then a sharp inhale. Smoking again. That was never a good sign. ‘Where do you think? Sin City, of course. The perfect place for a girl like me, wouldn’t you say?’
‘Vegas? You’re in Las Vegas?’
‘Err, yeah. This place is CRAZY, I’ll tell you that. Yesterday, I saw a man in a cowboy hat ride a horse down the Strip. He was drinking a beer, too. The man that is, not the horse. Haha. That was a good one. I’ll have to remember that. Yow!’
Las Vegas. I thought back to when she left, a scrawled note saying she needed some space, she was letting me down and had to get her head straight. Her closet empty, the vague trace of her perfume lingering. All her meds gone from the bathroom cabinet. No idea where she had gone, not knowing if it was for real this time, or just another stunt to leave me frantic with worry and sick with love, until she came down and came home, and I would always take her back. Knowing I was the only one who could keep her safe and happy. Until it all got too much again.
But I would never have expected her to turn up in Vegas. Can make a mess of the most sensible individual, and Ali was not one of those. The temptations, the drinking, the drugs, the gambling. Add a girl in the throes of an episode and it was a potent brew.
‘You never called,’ I said.
‘I’ve been busy,’ she insisted. ‘You know this city never sleeps.’
‘I was worried. I spoke to your Mom, she said…’
‘Don’t tell me. “’That’s Alison for ya! Always with her head in the clouds, that girl. If her father was here, he’d give her a good clip round the ear!”’
That was actually pretty accurate. Ali can be sharp as glass. ‘She wouldn’t tell me where you’d gone.’
‘Probably cos she doesn’t know. When I disappear, I do it properly.’
She wasn’t thinking how much her words hurt, the lack of empathy for anyone, including herself. This was worn ground, but I knew one thing. She needed to come home.
‘You know better than anyone,’ she was saying. ‘How I get. The damage I cause. I can’t be around you when I get like that. It’s not fair.’ Her voice lowered to a whisper. ‘I’m tired, Scottie. I’m coming to the end of the road. You understand that, don’t you?’
I swallowed hard. ‘You know I do, Ali. But I can’t keep chasing after you, baby. I love you so much, but I – ‘ Fuck. The tears were pricking my eyelids, as predictable as night following day. ‘Please. Get on a plane and come home.’
She laughed. The quiet moment had passed. ‘You know, I’ve got a better idea. I’ve been thinking about Mexico.’
‘What about it?’
‘Silly. About a trailer right by the sea. Crystal blue waters to wake up to every morning. Doesn’t that sound swell?’
My bottom lip was trembling. ‘Ali, not this again.’
‘You always say that! What’s the point in having dreams if we’re not gonna fulfil them? I’d be happier there. More secure. We can drink tequila and look for seashells on the beach.’
‘But it’s impossible – ‘
‘They have gardens in Mexico, don’t they? Plenty of rich gangsters needin’ some landscaping. And I’ve been waitressing, getting loaded up with tips. Some of the old fuckers here think a few dollars and I’ll be dropping my drawers for them. Haha, bunch of fools. We’d have the money. Come on, Scottie. Get in the truck and come save me.’
‘You make it sound so simple.’
‘Cos it is, you numbskull. How’s Elmore?’
He must have heard his name. His ears pricked up and he jumped off the counter, had a big stretch, and shambled to the screen door. Once set, he miaowed loudly and proceeded to wash his front paws.
‘I can hear him,’ Ali said, and her voice cracked. ‘My baby.’
‘Thought I was your baby?’ I replied, and she laughed. I was falling under her spell. This Mexico thing was a silly pipe dream we used to talk about when stoned. Walking away from society and setting up on our own. I imagined laying beside her in the warm white sand, Elmore chasing back the waves and running for cover when the water got too close. I looked around at this place, her pictures off the wall and in the drawer, physical traces gone but her spirit and soul everywhere. Maybe it would be something. A fresh start and all that. That was her power. She could sell me any dream.
I looked over at Elmore. He had finished grooming himself and was staring intently out into the yard. Every night he would sit there at dusk, waiting for her car to pull up in the driveway. That squeal of excitement when she realised he was on guard duty. Opening the screen door and standing with arms open wide as Elmore jumped into them. Smiling at me over the top of his head.
Until she left. And he wouldn’t abandon his post. Sitting there every night until I had to pick him up and carry him away. I had the scratches to prove it. And just like me, as soon as he begun to realise that she wasn’t coming back, the car would backfire coming down the street and his ears would prick up and he knew she was going to weave her spell over him once more. She was good at that. Just as we were starting to get back on our feet.
‘So he’s doin’ good?’ she whispered.
I swallowed. I needed an aspirin. ‘Doing fine. He misses you.’
‘Bring him with you,’ she said breathlessly. ‘Use that mangy old cage in the garage. Fill up the car. Get some gas and get on your way. Drive like you’ve never driven before. Come on, Scottie. Please. I’m begging you.’
‘Hey sister!’ someone shouted in the background. ‘You gonna be in there all mornin’, or what? I got errands to run!’
‘The natives are getting restless,’ she said. ‘You have to come. You must. Think of Mexico, Scottie. Of Mexico, and me. I have to go.’
‘But I don’t even know how to get in touch with you,’ I shouted.
‘I’ll be here. Waiting. It’s now or never, Scottie.’
‘Ali, wait – ‘ But there was a click and she was gone. I slammed the phone back into the cradle. She always did this. That fucking trailer by the sea. I’d heard it countless times before, but yet. Something in her voice. Something with more longing. Knowing that it was her only hope, that if I didn’t go it would be the end. One way or another.
Elmore turned his head and looked at me. I knew it was stupid. But I couldn’t help but see it, the three of us together, as it should be. That beautiful water. I leaned back against the fridge and closed my eyes, thinking that maybe this time it could work, maybe this time it would turn out just the way she planned.