The magic hour
Chapter 5 The magic hour
He took me back to his place in French court, about a two minute drive from the Starbucks. It was a nice little bungalow that looked like it should have a picket fence but it didn’t. It was a small red brick building with white trim and a brick chimney. The small patch of lawn in the front was of course neatly manicured. The bushes I suspected were tested with a spirit level. The house was pristine, it looked brand new, could have single handedly raised the property value of the entire neighbourhood which had seen better days. He lived directly opposite the elementary school he went to as a kid.
The area wasn’t too bad, well-kept palms, and lawns. It was quality middle of the road Mediterranean style housing and home to some of the best seafood in the OC. There was a restaurant called Ambrosia he seemed very proud of. It was a beacon in the least shiny part of Orange County. The birds chirping on resilient in their fortitude for this too to be a slice of paradise. Nonetheless they all had wrought iron fences guarding their lawns, except Paul’s house. Just a small white porch with roman style pillars. There was something about it sitting on the corner like that, looking like a model house. Like a house sitting on a nuclear test site about to be blown up, full of wax fruit bowels and mannequins sitting at dinner tables. It didn’t look lived in, it looked like it was a trap house begging for someone to step on that carefully trimmed lawn. Teeth gnawing and clicking and tensing against each other. Praying the mailman would plant a foot off the path and then something could be unleashed, some dark righteous fury bottled up just for this moment. But it never came. The birds just chirped on incessantly.
It was Sunday so the elementary school was quiet and still, which I’m sure was a welcome change. We got out of the car. Parking it in the lot behind the house and he lead the way into his cool still house. “Come on in” He smiled.
It was a show house alright. I can’t remember the last time I was in here, funny enough. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Paul, despite being my boyfriend he and I didn’t really know what that meant. We appeared places together, we were together at school but when the curtains came down the actors went back to their trailers and rested. Nothing more.
That was really as far as our interactions went. A pantomime for an audience of slack jawed watchers probably begging to be us and having no idea about the truth. I guess, we just liked our own space.
He cleared his throat and threw the keys down on a Formica top kitchen counter and said. “Well?”
I smiled and took in a lungful of the cool musky air in his house. It didn’t smell bad or like dust, just old leather and new plastic and rubber.
“Well what?” I sighed.
“What was that all about?” He asked, almost stuttering.
I sat at a small functional kitchen table and said “Some weirdo just tried to grab me, it’s nothing”.
“Some guy tries to grab you and that’s nothing?” He almost coughed and screeched. His face became a shade redder and his tone was strangled off by some violent shifting of gears in his throat. “How are you- I mean how is-?” A clever aside from ‘What was it like to see severed human heads’.
I looked up at him with a raised eyebrow and massaged my temples. “I’m fine”.
The house was oddly dark and cold. Even though none of the blinds were drawn it seemed shaded somehow. It was pleasantly cool, like the underside of a rock. Probably just the position of the house relevant to the sun.
I took out my phone completely displacing his concerns, they seemed too banal for me to even want to press. Why should he care if Skeletor tried to grab me with a boney claw and what could he have done to prevent it? And he most certainly couldn’t make me un-see the heads with a back rub or a sonnet and moreover- I wouldn’t want him to.
Did the posturing and planning make him feel better, should I embellish him just for his own ease of mind? Wasn’t I the one who had been through two supposedly traumatic events? Why should I be responsible for setting things right in his world? Humans, why do I bother?
Who was that strange metal pincher man, my mind instantly drawing back to one of those toy grabbers you get at the beach arcades. I guess that made me a hapless stuffed animal. Deer in headlights Diana. Did he really know about me? What was there to know? A naughty search history, a little amateur hack magic, hardly seemed enough to raise the dead. And hardly the most alarming thing to happen to me all week.
I swiped on my phone back to twitter and I pointed the screen at him.
“Do you know this guy?”
He took the phone off of me with a curt urgency, what did my phone do to him?
He turned the screen back to me and pointed at it and said “Is this the guy who grabbed you?”
“He lives around here?” I asked.
“Yeah I know this scumbag, deals dope out of a house in Central City, has these wild parties” He trailed off.
“How do you know him?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
“We went to the same elementary school, he dropped out”
“He dropped out of elementary school, see a future in orange sherbert or something?”
“Or something” He sighed. “He’s a pretty bad dude, heard a lot of – rumours about him, I guess.” He shook his head and scrunched up his eyes as he said it, like he really wasn’t sure.
Central city for the uniformed was the unofficial gang hub of Orange County. A veritable hive of scum and villainy. Surely every nice little berg has one. You could get almost anything down there, drugs, unlicensed guns, prostitutes maybe even human lives and knock-off levis. The kind of place someone goes when they haven’t discovered you can get all that stuff on the internet without having to leave your mom’s basement.
“So?” I asked in my best pixie dream girl voice.
He held up the phone and then caught himself “You wanna go there?” He asked agasp, ruffling that long handsome brow of his.
I nodded and started to kick my feet like a kid on a swing set. Trying to hide a rising tide of dark angel trumpets calling me. A shrill laughter in the dark depths, a shock doing a Mexican wave across the invisible microscopic fine hairs I failed to pluck. I wax too, I said feminism didn’t interest me. Hairy pits in California heat? No thanks.
“Tonight?” He said, his voice almost shaking, with something I couldn’t quite fathom. Was he afraid, or was it something else? The way he said it, it was almost like a challenge.
“Is he having one of the parties tonight, it’s a Sunday” As soon as I said it, I felt decidedly dumb once again. Getting to be a bad habit today.
He made a hissing sound in his mouth. “Every night, these people don’t have jobs to go to, or school.” It was a school night.
Of course I knew that. I just felt awash with some new profound feeling of the unknown and the fact we had school in the morning made it seem twice as delicious to try tonight. But why would I go there? Just to see him for myself, and then what? ‘Hey Antoine, have you been leaving a trail of body parts for me to follow?’ Did I even think it was him, no, well I didn’t want it to be him, the twitter activity alone shattered a lot of the mystique around him. If he was the one I’d feel decidedly deflated. And what would he do when he saw me? Would it be ‘off with her head’ or ‘Hi friend, you got the message, let’s play’?
Either way if I could get Paul to go along it would be to my advantage, if only to be a distraction in case I needed to run far and fast away. Was I really that callous? Maybe, maybe not.
“Ok?” I said, rising to this illusory challenge.
He shook his head and let out a breathy laugh. “Sure”
I’d cloistered myself up in his mother’s bedroom to get ready. Her room was perfectly preserved from the time she left, or did she die? I forget.
All her makeup was neatly arranged, her clothes unfortunately a few sizes too big. The whole room was a mute seventies baby sick brown colour that was actually quite charming with the blinds drawn. A few slivers of dying light poking through the cracks.
I was getting undressed standing in a black bra and panties I had. It wasn’t particularly glamourous but hey I wasn’t expecting to go to a potential serial killer’s house on a school night. I looked at myself in her long hanging mirror. Pulling my hair back and making a puffy duck face at myself. I was pretty good looking, genetically speaking. I was long and lean in the right places and round in some other places, those places being my boobs and my butt, skipping euphemisms. I wasn’t especially endowed but I had a desirable shape. I kept fit, green smoothies and all that but mostly it was just luck and genes.
I turned to my side continuing to inspect myself. A stern knock at the door and I jumped away from the mirror.
A knock I imagined was one imitated from his father doing some kind of room inspection. I felt like standing to attention in my underwear.
I opened the door a crack and Paul’s dull soft face was waiting with a sad lilting smile. He shied away bashfully and I said “Come on Paul, you’ve seen me naked”.
“Not, recently” He said with a sigh.
I shrugged it off as I put my hands on the stack of clothes he had in his hand prepared for me. “Well it’s just been so hectic with finals and all, you know- soon.” I said not knowing where soon fell on a calendar.
He lifted his head and looked at the clothes I was trying to take from him. “Err, these are from, you left them the last time you were here.”
Was it really that long ago? Poor guy.
He released the perfect square block of pressed clothes. He’d clearly taken a lot of time and effort to clean them and iron them or maybe it was just a routine he couldn’t shake. I took them and layed them on the bed leaving the door open a crack so he could see.
It was nothing too flashy, or too slutty. That’s never really been my style, more of a boutique chic kinda gal. A little like my aunt but without the mumbo jumbo, none of that native American head dress feather crap.
It was just a low cut flowing top with some lame skull pattern in black and gold. It was kind of corny, maybe I was going through an emo phase I forgot about. Paired with it were a pair of regular tight jeans with rhinestones along the sides and a pair of strappy shoes I didn’t recognise but fit all the same.
I dolled my hair up the best I could, somewhere between hooker and transvestite hooker. Basically trying to get it as high off my head as possible which was easy with the pixie cut. Just a little gel and a little elbow grease and my hair could cut glass. A black choker with a little gem charm completed the look I was going for; bad ass without a clue. I looked in the mirror and sighed. My makeup was ok but I still looked like I was doing a cameo on Miami vice. Too much eye shadow, was I planning to kill this guy or join his hareem? That was a good question.
So much of this seemed to be the stumbling’s of a homicidal Nancy Drew, just falling over myself to dissect or be dissected. I pretended I had a plan, I told myself what I was going to do but I really had no idea, and that was half the fun of it. Not knowing, feeling my pulse rise, thinking about the variables I couldn’t control for. All the use careful planning could do dashed on the rocks of pure impetuous rash action.
A few hours passed of awkwardly sitting on the couch watching fishing shows waiting for the sun to go down. For some reason the only channels he had were fishing channels but I didn’t notice a single trophy or pole through the whole house. Nevertheless I wasn’t thinking about the TV. It was oddly calming watching them drag the thing onto the boat and whack it with the oar. Accompanied by the easy sound of the waves. It was almost hypnotic. Anything to take my mind off the fact I was about to walk into the lion’s den dressed as jailbait. My head and chest were buzzing with a nameless anticipation.
I checked my phone a couple of times, a text from my Aunt asking where I was, how I was, the usual. I didn’t really know how to feel about it. I was sure she’d sprung that intervention from Darth Vader on me. I wanted to punish her. I felt betrayed, an odd sensation.
I trusted her and she’d fed me to this strange outside factor with its cold metal claws. Something like anger, I felt petty but it was a cool mirthless rage I wanted to inflict on someone else. But who? I ignored it and closed my phone with the message unread. She can spend a night thinking I was raped and murdered or vice versa for all I care. Seemed almost fitting as that was a distinct possibility where we were heading. Anything was possible. But did I really think that? Of course not. I like any other dumb living creature always hoped for the best.
I looked at Paul silently bathed in the light the TV, presentable as always, athletic, clean shaven, hair on point. Taking sips from a bottle of beer to calm his nerves, which was understandable. He was wearing a pair of tight dark jeans with a plain blue shirt underneath a dark leather jacket. I guess this was his ‘bad ass without a clue’ get up too. Jesus, what we were doing? I’m sure we’d look back on this and laugh, something to tell our kids about. Kids? Where did that come from?
“You want one?” He said holding out the beer absentmindedly, almost forgetting I was in the room for a second. Married life must be bliss.
“Sure” I said as I took the one out of his hand and took a sip.
He smiled and reached down to a cooler and uncapped another.
“How many is that now?” I henpecked. Just practicing.
“What are you my mom?” He laughed as he pressed the beer to his lips. “Don’t worry, I won’t touch a drop after this, I promise.” He put his arm around me and pulled me close and I believed him.
“You’re my knight in shining armour Paul.” I smiled showing some teeth. “I wouldn’t want you to fall off your horse.”
“M’lady, I wouldn’t dream of it” He said doffing his imaginary fedora.
Some time passed in the warm crook of his arm but before I knew it we were driving with the windows down. The cool night air wafting intoxicating sweet and sour scents of cheap perfume and seafood. Dogs barking incessantly, seemingly building to some sort of crescendo. He didn’t put the radio on, he just let he night music roll on. Which was fine by me, all I could hear was the sound of my heartbeat and my teeth chattering. The moon was high in the sky like my dream, beaming down on me, following the car like a UFO full of all too probe happy little green men.
I started to feel it building, it was the air and the music and the light of the moon, I felt like I might grow claws and fur any minute. It came in waves, strange euphoric feelings of control and release over and over. I couldn’t even begin to fathom where this feeling came from but holding onto the arm rests of the hummer were all I could do to keep from howling at the moon.
I watched the night roll by, the low income houses with their cracking stucco, the bars on the windows, the garbage and the unkempt lawns. We were really entering suburban hell. We passed Santa Ana high, a dark and desolate building, it looked almost like an abandoned prison.
The people of the night out in force, my people. The crazies and junkies and ne’erdowells, predators of all shapes and sizes and tastes stalking the open market place of the night time streets of Central city.
The place was only ten minutes away and there wasn’t much traffic being a Sunday night and all. All the normies tucked safely away in their beds eagerly awaiting another day of inane drudgery. And where was I? On the cusp of a great dark wave looking down at them.
We turned a corner onto Western Street, seemed fitting enough maybe there’d be a shootout an explosion or two. Don’t let your imagination run wild Di.
The house looked normal enough and in the night it looked exactly like it’s picture. This was the house, no mistaking it. The one from the emails sent by my dark watcher.
The lawn with the desert plants, the big white garage. It was brick along one side and the house almost hid behind the large white garage like a cloak. Bars on the only front window and a big white pickup out front. There were two more cars in front of the garage. One looked like a big Lincoln and the other was some kind of sedan. There was a trail of cars a mile long leading away from the house parked on the street.
The house was dark with little flashes of ambient light poking through the blinds. Booming jungle music playing indistinctly through the walls.
Paul parked across the street pulling up onto a grassy embankment on the other side under a big spruce tree. For all the good it did to hide the giant car. We just sat for a minute in silence watching as a couple of party goers already three sheets to wind stumbled up the drive. They were greeted by a barrel chested Hispanic man with a ponytail who opened the door for them throwing up a heavy smile. She looked a little like a hooker, a tight snakeskin dress and heels, long dark hair. The guy she was with was wearing a morning suit that looked a size too big with white sneakers, his hair gelled flat to his head.
The bouncer let them in and closed the door behind them wafting away a thick cloud of smoke then dropping his smile like it was a sack of flour.
I heard a dull popping sound behind me and my mind was someplace else goggling fish eyed at the front of the house as it seemed to gently pulse with activity. I turned my head back to see the glove box light and I saw Paul shoving something small and black down the back of his pants. Rearranging them in the driver’s seat and closing the glove box again.
“What was that?” I asked.
“It’s just for protection” He said, his voice sounding woolly and I knew exactly what that meant.
“A gun?” I said a little too loud then hushing myself “You’re gonna bring a gun in there are you crazy?”
A disconcerting smile crossed his face and he said “Are you kidding me, I’d be crazy not to have it.”
“What if you get wasted in there and start flashing it around like John Wick, you’ll get us both killed”.
“I won’t touch a drop, I swear, I just had a few beers to calm my nerves but I’m straight now.” He smiled again trying to be more reassuring, moving some brittle hair from my forehead and cupping my chin “I’m the designated driver”.
He leapt out of the car before I could offer a better retort, come up with more reasons why we shouldn’t go in there like John Wayne on crystal meth. But I found myself alone in the car in the dark with my mouth hanging open as he strode around the other side to open the door for me.
What a gentleman.
I stepped out onto the concrete feeling decidedly naked and out of place. I don’t know how to describe it but the night sky seemed larger and toothier than I remembered. The moon had dipped behind some clouds and I felt powerless. Toothless, clawless, furless. At least I was wearing underwear.
He held the door open for me and I gave him a searching look which he weathered, putting his arm out for me to take. Was it prom already?
There was something strange about him, some coiled energy, some rattle of activity behind his cool dull exterior, a snake in the grass with some furious handwringing behind his eyes.
It was dark but warm, tropical as usual but with a cutting breeze.
We strolled up the little concrete path passed the line of tropical plants blocking view from the road. The man on the door clocked us but there was no smile. He was out of smiles for tonight, his face was heavy and wet looking like greasy pizza dough and didn’t look like it knew how to smile now. Just rolls of skin making some vague impression of a face.
We got to the door and breathed expectantly waiting for him to say something or move or open the door or ask for a password but he did none of those things.
I could almost feel the irritated leg bobbing from Paul. I could feel his energy, taste it, like an icicle falling from a plane.
“Are you gonna let us in or not?” He said.
“She can go in but you have to wait outside.” The man said raising one hairy gnarled hand.
“Oh come on man, you know I can’t do that, if I don’t go in she doesn’t go in.” He smiled and cocked his head like we were all friends.
I said nothing, just watched them staring at each other. A flare of some challenge shot up into the sky, testosterone seeping out of the woodwork.
“Then fuck off to TGI Fridays gring-go” The man said deadpan.
Paul reached around his back and I froze “Ok, this what you want? Money, is that it?” I sighed as he pulled out his wallet and started to count twenties into his hand.
The fat doorman put his lips up to his nose as he watched the money pile up.
“Here take it” Paul said as he pushed the wad of cash in his face.
The fat bouncer found his smile again as he put his hands up to retrieve his money. But before he could reach up and grab it Paul was on him shoving the wad of money into the fat man’s unshaven mouth.
The bouncer was in a state of complete shock as was I.
The display seemed completely out of nowhere and out of character. The man reeled back against the door fighting for air as Pauls muscular harm forced the wads of cash into his mouth.
“Paul” I shouted “What are you doing?”
He jumped like a kid caught playing with an upturned beetle and let go of the man and the wad of now wet cash. There was something dark and dead behind his eyes like he had no idea what he was doing. Like he stepped out for a minute.
The man crumpled forward with his hands on his knees, his back against the door.
“You’re fucking dead puto” The man said.
Paul didn’t say anything. He looked at me and then back at the man and delivered a swift and devastating knee to his lower gut. The man fell over himself onto the floor and flattened out and became still and contemplative of the cracked concrete stoop.
“Paul, what the hell was that?”
“It’s ok, let’s just go inside.” He said taking my hand.
“No I mean what the hell-?” Before I could finish he was moving the doorman out of the way and into the shadows. He was limp, out cold. He opened the door for me and I felt a rush of something completely alien, unlike anything the moon and that dark whisperer had conjured up in me. It was fear, I wasn’t afraid of Paul as much as I was of my judgement of him. I was so sure he was a blank slate and maybe he was before I met him. Did I make him like this? Did I set him off down this path? I let him think this guy had been the one to grab me, not this guy in particular, but maybe now it was every guy within a twelve block radius. Maybe I should have been more specific. I didn’t lie but I didn’t tell him the truth. I didn’t correct him because I wanted to use him. And now here he was, being ‘of use’. The gun too was a surprise, today was full of surprises.
I could have sworn I saw something in him, some flash of something. The viciousness of the attack, how quick it was, just came out of nowhere. No, that would be just too perfect.
No moon in the sky, no beating of black wings but still my heart was pounding, I was short of breath. I looked at him as he stood at the door and he seemed taller and leaner and unpredictable and something fluttered inside me. It was exciting. Was he better at pretending to be normal than even I was? Was he my mask or was I his? Or maybe this was normal and I was just completely oblivious to it. Maybe everyone secretly wanted to kill or maim everyone else and I was just a slow learner.