Ashes to Ashes
Court drives to the bar in his rented silver sedan. Sunrise arrives on her homemade cruiser. He wanted to ride on the back of her bike, but she smiled and said, “Not today.” Sunrise chuckles when she sees the detective through the window. The Hawaiian shirt and mustache are a bit on the nose. She looks at the bar sill to see if the carving she saw last night is still there. When she sees it, she hears “Clair de lune” in her head and stops Court before he goes inside.
“If I tell this guy my story and he doesn’t even squint with concern, you have to let me see my mentor alone.”
Court shakes hands on the deal because he can’t find an argument against it fast enough.
Sunrise takes her strawberry blonde waves out of a bun and covers her left eye with her hair. Her broken socket scar looks like three centipedes crawling out of her eye. It is her favorite boxing scar, outside of her removable incisors, but it’s not the best way to get a private detective to pay attention. She pulls her tank top down and ties it at her lower back as she heads inside.
Court rubs his chestnut bald head, adjusts his glasses, and notices the immaculate golden spiral in the window sill. It is the size of a sandwich cookie and floats in a sea of etched expletives. He sits at a table with his back facing Sunrise and the detective. Court pulls at his earlobe to activate his mechanized eardrums. He is able to isolate the voices of the detective, Sunrise, and his waitress. He sets everyone else to a low dinner din. Court may be reading a book, drinking a beer, and facing a TV, but he has no intention of missing a swallow, lip lick, or heart flutter from the detective. Court picks at the Kapton tape cuticles on his mechanical right hand.
Sunrise pulls out her cashier’s check, but the detective keeps the Manila file under his elbow.
“Do we have a problem?” she asks.
“Look,” he says, “people name-drop this case all the time, looking for attention. The kind I don’t need. So what I’m gonna be is thorough.”
“Fine,” Sunrise says. “I’ll buy you a drink? Tell you the story behind all this?”
The detective looks at his watch, sucks his teeth, and says he has a few minutes. She smiles at her good fortune, and imagines burning the nose off his face.
Sunrise stumbles through being a pageant girl traveling throughout central Florida until 6th grade, when her preference for fights could no longer be contained. She broke a girl’s nose while play fighting, so her mom kicked her out, and Sunrise wound up at a group home in Tampa. The local boys in the neighborhood ordered her to date them. She told them to fuck off. Rumor had it, CPS gave kids with powers to the government so she ran instead of setting them ablaze.
The head of the group home had a friend who did all the house repairs. When Sunrise heard he was a boxer, she was perpetually underfoot. She barraged him with questions. He answered a quarter of them. He hit her on the head with his screwdriver handle if she asked something inappropriate like what was the black man’s magic stick or if he ran on CPT. He taught her how to plant her feet when she punched. He also gave her tips on dodging and using the opponent’s momentum. When she won her first fight against the neighborhood boys, she ran to tell him about it. It was the first time he smiled at her. Sunrise’s eye was swollen, her lip busted, her arms bruised, but she couldn’t be happier. A few weeks later, he had to leave town. Sunrise asked to go with him. She was thirteen.
Sunrise chugs some water to have a break from talking. Her pits would be soaked if she bothered shaving them. Back then, they never stayed in places longer than a month, and they slept in his 1970 GTO. He never told her what he was running from and only took jobs that paid cash. One day, a guy promised to pay him a hundred bucks to lug some amplifiers from the music store. As her mentor finished up, Sunrise played “Clair de lune” haltingly, but in key, on a piano. She remembered it from the pageant days. In the car, he asked her to sing a song she heard on the radio. When she did, he knew what they were doing for money instead.
Sunrise looked more like a woman than a kid. He got her some dresses that plunged, threw some lipstick on her, and she looked sixteenish. Her mentor gave her a whiskey shot before each performance for nerves and one after as a reward. She asked him why she couldn’t be an unlicensed boxer like him. He explained that people would always pay her more to sing than fight. Her face dropped. Her mentor comforted her by agreeing to teach her everything he knew about fighting. That was enough. She sang at every suspect dive across Houston, Phoenix, and Albuquerque.
Court strangles his Russian novel as he hears Sunrise report abuses as casually as someone reads a grocery list. There is no evident change in the detective other than heavy breathing at the idea of a young, revealingly dressed Sunrise. Court wants to fill the man’s lungs with beer.
Sunrise and her mentor started having sex during this time. They exclusively slept in roach coach motels. When men inquired how much Sunrise cost, her mentor would glare at them, but no one would call the police. She grew to love singing and especially playing piano, even though most dives didn’t have one. Her voice was very bluesy and her hair would glow when she got into a song. Her years in pageants came in handy. It made stage presence come easy. The drinking was just a post-work treat that doubled as sex preparation. She doesn’t tell the detective or Court that part. She swallows.
She knew he wasn’t coming back when her bags were there, but his bags weren’t. She tries not to remember how soft layers of ash feel under bare feet. She tells the detective that she didn’t take her mentor leaving well. She doesn’t mention that he took all of her singing money too. It seems like an unnecessary detail. She had the means to keep working. Court notes the omission, but he isn’t going to use this editing to void the deal.
Sunrise ends with, “Since I can look after myself, we can finally catch up.”
The detective pats her on the back. “I get why you’re so pressed to see this guy.”
Sunrise buys the detective another round.
Court’s mechanical hand tears through his Russian novel, and he bemoans the sports game’s conclusion.
Sunrise listens to a few stories from the detective and gets him properly drunk. She leaves the bar, straddles her motorcycle, and waits for Court to come out. Thirteen minutes later, Court strolls out of the bar with his hands in his pockets. No one notices the bifurcated novel in the trash.
She gives Court a peck on the lips and drives away.
He cleans his glasses and remembers a newspaper article she showed him. The fold creases were so deep you couldn’t read the words in the valleys. Not even a wire hanger remained of the motel, according to the article. The whole area looked like it suffered a sudden soiled snow. The motel owner told the newspapers of a creature that seemed more like a star. He said everything that wasn’t nailed down floated into its orbit. He ran as fast as he could with the guests. Sunrise wiped tears as he read it. The article was under her pillow. She never left home without it.
Sunrise parks a few blocks away from the address she was given. It is a neighborhood with old trees and ranch-style homes. She checks the detective’s messy handwriting to make sure the address is right. She sees a large car under a taupe tarp sitting in the driveway of a navy blue house. After ensuring no one is around, Sunrise trots to the car. She lifts the tarp like the hem of a skirt. Its chrome grille smiles at her like nothing has changed. She checks around the bottom edge of the tarp and sees the weld marks she made, even her wonky golden spiral on the bottom of the passenger door. She feels it. Her throat constricts. She tugs the tarp down and smooths it out like a fresh sheet.
When Sunrise checks the backyard to see if it is as starkly orderly as the front, she spots a six-year-old girl. This girl wears a stern face that’s not just hers and catches fireflies in a jar. Sunrise makes her hair glow in time with the fireflies. The little girl runs to the chain link fence and smiles with her missing incisors and mocha cheeks.
It takes a moment for Sunrise to answer while seeing such a small version of that face. She kneels down. “Hello there, I’m the firefly princess and I just wanted to thank you for looking out for my tiny brethren.”
The girl speaks with a lisp. “You can understand them?”
“They are very happy to be in your care. Otherwise, some spider might get them.”
The girl starts to say something else but covers her mouth after hearing herself.
Sunrise takes out her fake incisors. “We match,” she says.
The girl laughs.
Sunrise feels his voice more than hears it. She stands up slowly as the girl skips over to her father and holds his hand. Sunrise puts her teeth back in and holds the top of the fence to steady herself.
Time didn’t touch him. She figured it wouldn’t. She needs to tell him she isn’t angry, she isn’t here about the money, how she missed him, how glad she is he is alive, how happy she is that he has a family, and how his daughter is going to be a stunning woman. None of that comes out.
Her mentor looks at his daughter. “Tell the blonde lady goodbye.”
The girl waves enthusiastically.
Sunrise waves back.
They go inside the house.
He doesn’t come out.
The chain link fence gives under her grasp like taffy. Sunrise pulls her hands back and sees two grab prints melted into the metal. She tries to mold it back into shape, but it just looks like chewed bubblegum. As she frantically pinches at the malleable metal, she hears sizzling and looks down. Her tears are singeing his lawn. She backs off the grass and walks to her cruiser. Her tears sizzle on the sidewalk.
Sunrise notices the glow emanating from her. When she gets to her bike, she finds Court leaning against it. He pulls a tranquilizer pistol out of its holster and points it at her in one fluid motion. She likes his form. He is braced for the recoil. He looks like an action hero with her light reflecting on his glasses.
“Do I look that bad?”
“You look like a fire nymph.”
Her soft freckles are lit like candles, her face is illuminated like her brain is a lightbulb, the ends of her hair are red, her irises are rings of fire, and her pupils are the vacuum of space. It’s only her head that has transformed. “I’m not going to…” Sunrise scratches her head. Her hair is the consistency of water but is painfully dry. “She wears his face so well. I would never do anything to her.”
Court points the gun at the ground. “You didn’t think this outcome was a possibility?”
Sunrise doesn’t respond.
“I’m not sixteen anymore.”
“You’re never too old to have an emotional breakdown.”
Sunrise’s hair rises.
Court takes steady steps toward her. “An emotional breakdown would be understandable,” he says. “You love him.”
Sunrise’s voice has a mechanical echo to it: “Shoot me.”
Court tilts his head.
“You went through the trouble of getting an X-2 Pneu-Dart pistol. It would be a shame not to use it.”
“I could use a good night’s sleep. Please.”
He shoots her in the shoulder.
The impact of the dart makes her spin and fall on her side.
Court kneels down next to her and holds her hand.
Sunrise breathes deeply. “If you damaged a nerve in my shoulder, I will beat the shit out of you with my good arm.”
Court smiles. “Duly noted.” Her hand sizzles the sweat off of his, but he wants her to feel his touch before falling asleep. His hand begins to cool, though the heat she produced is still making his eyes water. “Now hurry up and sleep,” he says, “before the Invisible Empire comes for me.”
Sunrise closes her eyes. She doesn’t know how to tell him how good it feels to hold his hand, so she hums “Clair de lune” and hopes he gets it.