I forget what the cause was, exactly, but this chapter wound up taking me something like four days to write. I think I came down with a cold or something. It reads like a discordant mess as a result, and you don’t really get the feel that the child is influencing things. Instead, it just kind of comes across as Garrett and Brianna being randomly violent.
It wasn’t all pleasant in Edmonton.
After a day at the West Edmonton Mall spent shopping, traversing a maze, blacklight miniature golfing, and a long early dinner spent at a Vietnamese restaurant feeding each other bites of egg rolls and slurping down hot pots of pork and chicken, Brianna dragged Garrett somewhat reluctantly to see a comedy show at the Varscona Theatre. What had once been an old firehall had been converted and now regularly held plays and various performances for audiences. The show that night was written by a troupe regular, and despite his trepidation and usual disdain for live theater, Garrett found himself enjoying the evening.
Helping buoy his mood were his hallucinations – or lack of them. Neither Vernon Toth or Ransom Galbraith had tainted his mind in days, though he occasionally caught flitters of the tween girl his mind had conjured up. There was no reason to her appearances that he could work out – for hours at a stretch, she’d disappear, then pop in randomly, her gaze unfocused and bereft of any particular emotion.
That entire day, Garrett hadn’t seen her, but when they came out of the theater, she was there, seated on the edge of a garbage can, staring at him blankly. His mood dampened a little, but Brianna, arm looped through his, tugged him towards the SUV, still giggling a bit about one of her favorite scenes. When asked what she’d like to do to cap the evening, Brianna thought for a while and settled on dancing. After such a long day of start-and-stop walking, dancing sounded as appealing to Garrett as a root canal. But he agreed anyways, trying to mask his annoyance for her sake.
And after all, he thought as he tried to wave away the mental fog, hadn’t he asked her what she wanted to do? Asserting his own will after throwing that out there seemed like the sort of dick move his dad Landry used to pull on his own mom. Where would you like to eat, hon? I want a chicken salad! Well, you know, we could get a big pizza and…
Lost to the memories, Garrett barely noticed as Brianna said something. When she spoke his name again, louder, he glanced over, frowning. “Yeah? What?”
“You look like someone just punched you in the stomach. We don’t have to go dancing if you don’t want to.”
The irritation was still there, but it was fading into background noise. “Dancing sounds good. So long as there’s lots and lots of cold beer too.”
That got a little laugh out of her, maybe more than the joke deserved, but the way Brianna was looking at him, he thought she must be wondering if he was seeing hallucinations again. Given the impossible dead child in the back seat, she wasn’t wrong.
The dance bar they settled on was deep downtown. Even at night, Edmonton seemed so damned clean and cheery. Softly lit bulbs hung from trees lining the avenues, a pleasant accompaniment to the glints from office and condo windows. Traffic had eased up, only mildly congesting the closer they reached the club. People milled here and there, largely younger folks out for a drink or a late dinner, spilling out of bars and gathering on street corners.
The bar – the Tap Shelf – took up the first floor of a three-story brick building. Only a dimly lit sign gave any indication it was there, and they had to circle the block twice to find it. Parking spaces were at a premium, but a car park two blocks away seemed amply lit and secure, judging from the number of people streaming back and forth from it. When they pulled in, Brianna caught Garrett’s hand. “Really, we don’t have to.”
Exasperated and trying not to show it, he said, “It’s great. Really. Great.” To prove his point, he leaned over and kissed her cheek before unbuckling and hopping out. After he tossed his suit jacket into the back of the SUV and Brianna changed her dress shoes into a new pair of flats she’d bought that afternoon off a clearance rack, she took his hand and swung it like they were children. He glanced at her questioningly.
“Reminds me of that night we found out Rose was prego,” she said cheerily. Garrett tried to smile, but the child-ghost strolled alongside Brianna, staring at him with sharply focused eyes, her small fingers working like claws digging at the earth.
A thumping soulful beat greeted them half a block from the bar, and Garrett thought for a teeth-grinding moment the music would make it too loud to think inside, let alone have a conversation. He wasn’t wrong. The minute the door opened and a pair of twenty-somethings jostled out, holding onto each other and laughing as they both bounced off the frame, the music gave him an instant headache, and for a moment, he thought about stopping Brianna and asking her if they couldn’t go the next night instead.
Marriage meant sacrifice, whispered an ugly little part of his mind.
The siren call of alcohol won out over his inexplicable irritation, and he followed Brianna dutifully through a throng of people just inside. Given the brick exterior, he’d expected some kind of swanky “dive bar” like he’d find in a hundred similar places in the Flats – full of mothballed stuffed animals, kitschy neon lights, an old-timey jukebox full of Dave Matthews Band and Johnny Horton, and beer priced like it was made of liquid gold.
But even through Garrett’s saltiness, he could see this was no such place. Plush, brass-buttoned armchairs and cozy couches were occupied not by hipsters, but by a wide swath of people ranging from their smooth-faced twenties to those with more snow in their hair than him. More faux brass made an appearance in the wall sconces giving the seating areas a bright, cheery glow that might’ve come straight from a library in the early 1900’s. And that was just the first third of the bar.
Another third was occupied by a long, onyx-topped bar. Underlighting beneath the bar swirled to the beat of the music, as did the lighting behind the liquor bottles. It was a sharp contrast to the old-fashioned feel of the more communal area, but it actually sort of worked, despite the visual clutter. Off to the side was the dance floor, where two dozen or so couples and singles gyrated to the beat, hands all over each other. It wasn’t swimming with people, so that was where Brianna tugged him to first, taking his hands in hers and walking backwards as she grinned at him, supremely satisfied in her choice for the evening’s activities.
The child walked with her, glancing around coldly, taking everything in without a change in her expression. Garrett tried to reflect Brianna’s cheer, but when she stumbled over someone when she hadn’t glanced over her shoulder often enough, he nearly snapped at his wife. Easy, he told himself. She’s just having a good time. No need to spoil it for her.
The DJ, a chubby man in a tracksuit with neon stripes and a pair of glittery sunglasses, slowly shifted the beat into something more up-tempo, and Garrett instinctually joined with Brianna on the floor. There really wasn’t enough room to do more than a two-step, but on the club floor like that, it was all he really needed anyways. His hands found Brianna’s waist as she draped her arms on his shoulders, darting in for a quick kiss before they lost themselves to the rhythm.
For a while, Garrett thought of nothing but the primal beat, the way his wife moved in his arms, lithe and lively. His anger slid away from him, and at the corner of his perception, so did the phantasmal child. During one of the harder beats, Brianna twirled so her deliciously tight bottom pressed against his groin, and a feral lust rose in his soul as she grinded on him, glancing over her shoulder with a smirk when she felt his response. Together, they moved and flowed. Sweeping the hair away from her neck, he leaned in and nipped her exposed flesh, loving the taste of her sweat as she shivered deliciously. Whispers into her ear were lost on the floor, but she felt the need in those words, the desire. She responded in kind, twisting back towards him, bringing her arms trailing his chest, dipping low, spreading her knees, and he groaned as she came back up and twisted again. His fingers did a little dance of their own around her stomach, finally entwining as he rested his chin on her shoulder and rocked with her. When the song crashed over the zenith, she reached up behind her to cradle the side of his head, pulling him in again to her neck, which he kissed, sucked, and loved while she moaned out his name. Her nails clawed at his cheek, drawing the faintest line of blood, but neither of them noticed. Neither of them cared.
And then the beat was changing again, something more mellow, as though the DJ sensed that in another minute, they’d just tear each other’s’ clothes off right there and fuck, the world be damned. Brianna spun, a devilish smile lighting up the whole of her face, scars and all. “I need a drink,” she panted.
“Yeah,” he croaked. “I’ll get ‘em. Just, ah, dance with me a little longer. Until, uh…” He glanced down, red-faced, as she giggled.
“Oh, but baby, what’s the matter?” Brianna asked, hand trailing down his arm.
“God, maybe not the best time to be touching me.”
“Really?” She stepped in closer, glancing around. No one was paying attention, so she gave him a little squeeze, her grin widening to Cheshire Cat proportions. “Did someone enjoy themselves?”
“Fuck, Bri, if you knew what I wanted to do to you right now…”
Someone jostled her, and the moment was over. She glanced around, suddenly a little embarrassed, and wrapped her arms around Garrett’s waist again. “Sorry,” she said, just loud enough to be heard. “Tell me when you’re good.”
He’d be good when he could drag her into the bathroom, plant her ass on the edge of the sink, and just plough into her, but instead, in another minute, he nodded. While he slipped through the crowd between the dance floor and the bar, she spotted a threesome easing out of their chairs, looking as though they were going to head for the doors. She darted for the open seats, plopping down just before a thin man in thick glasses and a suit could steal it.
The guy gave her a once-over, his gaze lingering on her scars. “You know, usually I’d be pissed about someone nicking my spot, but you? I’ll make an exception if you dance with me like you did that guy.”
Flushed, Brianna held up her left hand, making sure the guy got an eyeful of her wedding ring. Smiling apologetically, she said, “Sorry. One guy only kinda woman.”
The guy pushed his glasses further up his nose. With his just-so-slightly tousled hair, stylish five o’clock shadow, and his strong facial features, she guessed he wasn’t used to hearing the word “no.” “Can’t steal you for just a quick few minutes? No hands, I promise.” He gave her a flash of glinting white teeth that couldn’t have come cheaply. “Unless you decide otherwise.”
Now she was getting pissed, and the creeper was inching closer. “Listen,” she said, leaning forward. “I run a gym-”
“-and my favorite class to teach is self-defense.” Brianna’s hands folded into fists. She almost wanted this dumb son of a bitch to start something. Could practically taste it, the same way she had when she’d been on the dance floor. Something in her was wild tonight, and she wanted to let it loose. “Now I can tell you three or four different ways I could crush your balls into a nasty little jelly or I can show you. Your call.”
The man’s cheeks went red, and he glared at her. “I was just asking you for a dance. You don’t have to be such a fucking bitch about it.”
Brianna practically purred as she rose to her feet. “Oh, you have no idea what kind of a bitch I can be, dickhead. Back. The fuck. Off.”
The guy gave her one last look before running his tongue over his lips. “All right. Fine.” He turned away, right into the path of Garrett. He glanced over the asshole’s shoulder at Brianna. “Problem?”
“Nothing I didn’t just handle,” she said, settling into the chair behind her again.
Despite the near irresistible urge to punch the guy in the head, Garrett let him pass. Turning his attention to Brianna, he said, “Looked like you were about to tear him a new asshole. Thought you might want help.”
“I can take care of myself, Garrett,” she snapped.
“All right, all right, back with the drinks in a minute,” he grumbled.
It was more like ten, but she used the time to calm herself, letting the beat flow back through her, bobbing her feet in time with it. The DJ was good, whoever he was. His songs never quite ended – they just sort of gently slipped in and out of one another. Another couple of guys tried to get her attention, and she found herself wishing she’d brought her cell phone so she could pretend she was busy having a conversation.
At the bar, Garrett finally caught the attention of a slender young bartender, who batted her eyelashes at him prettily. She gave him a cute little sashay of her ass as she strolled away to bring him back his bottle of the Terrible (a beer he’d thought was ominously named until he actually tried it and proclaimed it his mistress) and a glass of red wine for Brianna. No doubt she was flirting for a tip. His headache was really turning into a full-blown migraine, and why was he so damn hot all of a sudden? When the bartender came back and plunked the drinks on the counter, he slid a bill over, thought about it, and asked for two more bottles. As thirsty and heated as he was feeling, he had no doubt he’d burn through them in no time. The bartender raised an eyebrow, but fetched the beer and started to count out his change before he mumbled for her to keep it and made his way back to Brianna. The ghostly child sat right next to her on her knees, glancing all around and sniffing the air as her hands flexed and unflexed.
Wordlessly, Garrett handed over the glass of wine. Brianna stared at him expectantly and he realized she thought one of the bottles of beer was for her. That was… selfish of him? If it was hot for him in there, it had to be for her, too. He rubbed his forehead with one of the cool glass bottles, and Brianna had to ask him twice if he was okay before he heard her.
“Yeah, no, good. Just hot,” he said, handing over one of the bottles of the Terrible. She offered him her chair, but he declined, forcing a tight smile on his lips. What was the matter with him? His headache wasn’t Brianna’s fault, or his sour mood. She just wanted to have a fun evening and he was ruining that for her. That logic might have worked in his head, but it dampened his spirits even more. He downed a bottle in record time and didn’t so much twist the cap off the second bottle and yank it off.
By that point, Brianna had enough. She stood up, settling her untouched glass of wine on the little table beside her, and jerked her head towards the door. “Let’s go,” she shouted over the beat.
Was this how it was going to be between them? He’d managed to stave off his general anger at the world in the year and a few months they’d been dating, but was he finally getting over the honeymoon phase of their relationship? That was a dumb question. Hadn’t he been happy just a few hours before? What had changed?
In response, he knelt, picked up Brianna’s glass of wine, and handed it back to her gently. In her ear, he said, “Just a little bit of a headache. Dehydrated, maybe. After this next beer, I’ll grab a bottle of water and then I’m taking my sexy wife for another go on the dance floor.” His grin felt more natural. The ghost-child glanced up at the two of them and stood to wander the room, stopping to seemingly listen to conversations between small clumps of happy-go-lucky drinkers and dancers.
His headache did lessen somewhat with a cold drink in him, and Brianna settled back in, eventually relaxing enough that her foot bobbed to the beat again. Garrett’s smile stayed on as he caught a picture of her like that, glass and bottle in hand. It was a good picture, catching her halfway between mockingly high society and more their own speed of goofiness. A nearby couple caught the picture and offered to take one of the two of them together, so Brianna got up so Garrett could settle onto the chair with her on his lap, legs out, laughing with an arm draped around his neck.
With the next change of the beat, Brianna chugged the last half of her bottle of beer, tried to hide a loud belch, and cocked her head questioningly at the slowly emptying dance floor. It was Garrett’s turn to lead her now. The child was on the dance floor too, twirling slowly to a beat of her own, her life ribbons fluttering listlessly at her feet. Garrett forced her out of his mind and concentrated on his wife.
This time, they kept the heat down, but with the lighter dancing crowd came more of an opportunity to throw in more than a few bobs and dips. It wasn’t exactly ballroom dancing, but they let their arms swing to the rhythm and took longer steps side to side, her rhythm following his. He’d studied dancing as part of his combat training to help him gain balance and coordination, and he’d enjoyed it so much he’d stuck with it long past the point when he could have quit. That had been a decade prior, but the feel of the beat brought it back like it had been just yesterday.
Brianna faded into the music, her arms rising in the air, eyes closed and smiling, her own temper forgotten about. Garrett watched her move, throwing a bit more of his body into his own side-to-side sway. His hands sought out her waist, but he kept the contact to that, the anger in him uncoiling. For a while, it was all okay.
After three or four songs, Brianna wanted to learn some silly dance moves, so he tried to show her some perennial favorites. She took to the Dougie, her upturned arms finding the rhythm as easily as the undulation of her hips and taut stomach. A bouncing cross-step of his own design had her flummoxed, though he couldn’t shout loud enough for her to really hear the instructions.
During a funk-infused beat, he tried to show her a Kid N Play, their feet kicking together as they bounced in place – or rather Garrett bounced in place while Brianna sort of hopped, her balance unsteady and her timing off. He tried to transition to a different move, but she kept calling for one more try, even if she was laughing too hard to really focus. But in the swing of one kick, her new shoes, just a touch too large, came loose, and on the upswing of her leg, one went flying off and whacked a guy in the back.
“Hey assholes-” the guy said, snarling as he turned. He caught sight of Brianna and she straightened immediately, the hackles going up on her neck. It was the same creeper as before, now dancing with a hugely-proportioned redhead. The guy grimaced. “Oh, it’s this bitch again.”
Garrett stopped in mid-swoop to pick up her shoe and stood up carefully and calmly. “What’d you say?” he asked as he handed Brianna’s shoe off to her without looking.
“I said I’m sorry,” the guy yelled.
Garrett folded his arms across his chest. They were drawing some looks now, and the child ghost was there, watching them both, her eyes flicking from one man to the other. “Yeah, you are.”
“You didn’t let me finish. I’m sorry for the cocksucker who has to live with this frigid bitch the rest of-”
It wasn’t Garrett’s fist that connected with his jaw, but Brianna’s. The man took the punch, not reacting for a full second before staggering back and crashing to the floor. Shouts and protests rose up as Brianna shook her fist. The guy tried to stand up. Garrett, a mad grin spreading across his face, didn’t let him. His foot found the guy’s chest, and he shoved down, hard. The DJ cut the music and somewhere in the crowd of onlookers, a bouncer was pushing his way through.
“The hell did you say to her?” the redhead squealed. Then she joined in with a kick of her own, looking mighty pleased with herself when her pointed toe made the guy howl.
Brianna grabbed Garrett’s arm. “Baby, we gotta go, now.”
But Garrett didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to let this fucker live. His anger crashed over the dam, and that heat was there again, nearly scorching him. He ground his foot down, snarling words he didn’t understand, rage-fueled gibberish and the child was reaching out to him, her small hands stained with blood. Welcome to the club, kid, he thought to himself.
But Brianna was yanking Garrett, hard, and he stumbled away, casting one last fiery look back at the man as he struggled to his feet. The crowd parted for them, uneasy and murmuring, and the bouncer shouted something to them. Garrett shoved him aside. They slipped outside and ran.
* * *
Brianna couldn’t wait for the hotel. When she saw a parking lot for a large auto parts store, she told Garrett – no, ordered was more like it – to pull in. They slammed the doors and she was across the car, their hands working furiously on each other. Garrett hoisted her up like they’d screwed the very first time, her back against the SUV, legs crossed around him, and when she came, she screamed and buried her head in his shoulder, biting him hard enough to draw blood.
After, when he pulled away from her, he gasped, “I would’ve killed him. Would’ve killed him, would’ve killed him, would’ve killed him.”
Her kisses were frantic, her need still powerful even after the last few minutes. “Baby,” she said in between flutters of her lips against his skin, “baby, holy crap, I just punched him, I can’t believe I did that.”
“Are you okay? Your hand, lemme look.”
“It’s fine.” But he grabbed her hand anyways, kissing it, licking the sweat off it. She palmed his cheeks. Burning up. He was burning up. So was she, for that matter. Someone was turning into the parking lot, and she grabbed his hands. “Get me back to the hotel. Oh my God, I’ve never wanted you more than right now.”
“Same,” he growled.
And miracle of miracles, the childly ghost had disappeared.