I ripped off my headphones and threw them down beside my computer. The terrible words from the medical thesis that I had just started to edit for a grad student made me want to run screaming into the streets.
Calm down. Breathe.
The name of the disease that had taken my mother too early mocked me. I too carried the RPS25 gene, the hallmark of ALS—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and I didn’t need reminding of the inevitable while I worked, though I did require the steady money from the various departments at the university that sent an ongoing stream of journal articles, papers and dissertations my way.
I had acquired the contacts during my time working in the administration department and I was grateful for them, needing to be self-employed at home to help my mom during those final months.
Crap. This moment had to happen sooner or later. I lived with the lurking symptoms every day of my uncharmed life. I thought I’d be better prepared for the inevitable. Apparently not.
“And I need a break from this,” I said, jumping up from my office chair.
“I love you, Amara!” My parrot Rainbow began to prance back and forth on his perch, his dance moves timed in perfect sync with his words. Talented guy.
His colorful plumage of a deep blue head, orange-yellow chest and green cape, a hallmark of the little Lorikeet, gave my sweet baby a surreal appearance against the dying of the sunlight behind him.
Of course, I’d taught him to say, I love you, Amara since in my lonely existence, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic raging outside, I probably would never hear the words said by an actual human being. For me, this was as good as it got. But at least the restrictions had been easing of late, meaning I could join my fellow humans once more if enticed.
My cell phone rang and I checked the number. Aw, Shay, the best person in the world to take a person’s mind off their troubles…mostly because she had so much stuff going on in her own insanely busy life.
“Hey, girlfriend, what say we get all gussied up and hit the town running? I got the entire weekend free to be me! My sister’s arrived this time as locally advertised. She’s promising to look after Dad until the sun rises over Vegas Monday morning.”
I hesitated, though I longed for some forget-the-crappy-world time. How did a person who just turned twenty-five in August manage to find her way to such a boring existence? If it wasn’t for Rainbow, I’d go mad locked in my small apartment with just my computer for company.
That, and the endless line of work that needed editing with the ever-diminishing hope I might actually get to write my own stories one day. A minor in literature looked to go to waste at this juncture. “I don’t know… I got this thesis due next week. I promised the guy and I can’t afford a penalty for being late.”
“You always finish on time, Amara. One night off isn’t going to hurt. Please, I need this like the earth needs the rain, like the sun needs the stars, like the—”
“Okay, if you lay off the literary devices, I’ll bite. Where do you want to meet?” I handfed Rainbow pieces of cut-up apple while we talked, enjoying the bright alertness of his rich blue-and-red-rimmed eyes. We shared the same eye color, though mine were not normally red-tinged, unless I’d indulged in too many apple martinis.
“I’ve been dying to try out the Glitter Palace casino. I’m hearing their karaoke bar is insane. And free drinks for the ladies,” Shay said, her voice lilting with her trademark enthusiasm. “Of course, I can’t guarantee I’ll be acting like a lady after a few drinks, if you get my drift.”
I got her drift. Shay might not be going home alone like yours truly after a plethora of Singapore Slings, her drink of choice. “If you promise me I just get to listen and not sing.”
“No! Just one duet, please!” You can’t deny your best friend one measly song. Please, please with candy cane elves sprinkled on top.”
I laughed. Shay knew how to work me—hand-feed me a new image to fire my imagination. Candy cane elves indeed. Last time it was miniature chocolate marshmallow bears. “Fine. But only one. Now I gotta go if I’m going to have time for a shower and a bit of primping.”
“Sure. Meet me at the entrance at nine. I’ll be the one grinning ear-to-ear and doing a highland fling with an entire weekend off.”
“That would be fun to see.” I imagined my tall, thin friend high-stepping over crossed swords, her curly fair hair, the polar opposite of my extra-long ebony-blue locks, flying in the wind.
“And wear something red and showstopping.”
“Maybe, if I can be bothered to shave my legs. Later.”
I hit End on my iPhone and turned to Rainbow. “Can you do a night alone or should I call a babysitter?”
“Yes, I love you, Amara!”
“Your wish is my command. How about we see if Jeannie from upstairs is available on short notice?”
I glanced back at my computer and sighed. I loved novels that feature supernatural creatures that didn’t exist…my decadent escape from my boring existence. I’d pay that debt forward one day, if I could find the time—writing a slew of genre romances featuring über-bad boys tamed by the heroines.
“Too bad vampires aren’t a real thing. Not having to worry about getting sick would be sweet. Can you say fangbanger, Rainbow?”
“Can you say fangbanger, Rainbow?”
His words lifted my spirits. “Guess you can, sweetie.” Maybe I should be more careful of what I said around my exuberant tweetie friend. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time might end up biting me in the ass. Well, not like anyone ever visited me other than takeout service. I had them on speed dial. And the local liquor store.
“Time to call Jeannie.” I scrolled down to her cell number and clicked on it.
“Hmm, no answer.” Now what? I hated to leave Rainbow alone, thought in reality it was a common practice and it would only be for a few hours. Maybe I should cancel? But Shay seldom got a night off from looking after her dad. She deserved one. I couldn’t let her down after getting her hopes up. She wasn’t the type to head out on her own, no matter the brave front she always plastered on.
“How about I leave some music on? Do you want light jazz, showtunes, Christmas songs or classic rock?”
“Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.” Rainbow bopped up and down, seed flying everywhere. That was one thing about birds—they were messy little creatures. Endearing, but messy.
“Perfect. We have exactly the same taste, kiddo.” I was a big fan of Christmas movies all year long. I quickly turned my iPod on and found the perfect albums, setting them to play in a loop. Okay, time to get a move on.
I ended up taking the time to shave my legs, wash and condition my hair and put on makeup. Drying my long hair, I debated on curling it or not, deciding in the end smooth and sleek was easier, before pulling the red number Shay had requested from my closet. Did I dare? It was over-the-top for me. Cut low and short, riding my thighs.
If not now, when. I’m only going to be young once, right?
“Okay.” I approached the cage, my wrap and purse in hand, ready to head for the elevator that would take me downstairs. I’d already called for an Uber to the casino. “You be a good boy and I’ll give you some peaches tomorrow.”
“Peaches now. Peaches now.”
“No way, bud, I don’t want my dress covered in fruit. Not a good look.”
Rainbow was a notoriously messy eater, spilling and spitting food all over the place. But then what did I have to do other than look after him? A good friend is hard to find. And what was the other part? Oh yes, a hard friend is good to find too. I sighed again. I couldn’t remember the last time I got laid.
In the lobby, I enjoyed the moment of looking good when Gary, our doorman, gave a low whistle. Everyone liked the guy. He always had a kind word to say and was full of cheer.
“Special night, Amara?” he asked, coming out from behind his desk.
“Meeting a friend at the casino.”
“You be careful. Full moon’s rising. Means trouble’s on the way.”
I shivered. It wasn’t like our amiable doorman to be so maudlin. “You okay, Gary?” I glanced at him. His round face with the enviable dimples looked a bit paler than usual.
“Yeah. Not sure why I said that. Must be that song I was listening to earlier. I forget what it’s called.” He scratched the back of his neck. “You have a good time tonight, you hear. You meeting up with Shay, by any chance?”
“Good guess. Oh, there’s my Uber now.”
Gary opened the door for me, adding a small bow. “Say hello to Shay for me.”
“Will do.” I hurried toward the compact car, praying I wouldn’t twist an ankle in my unaccustomed high heels. But sometimes a gal has to look good and flats don’t do my petite frame much justice.
“Where to?” the driver asked, twisting around in his seat to give me a look.
“Glitter Palace, please.”
It was a short ride and I was soon standing on the street, waiting for my best friend to put in an appearance. Shay was notorious for running late. But I totally understood. Her dad always managed to need one last thing from her, even if her sister was there to help. I glanced around. Other people were meeting up and joining with friends before heading in. It warmed my heart. Social isolation sucked even worse than being height-challenged.
I pulled a mask from my purse in preparation for going inside. I was about to slip it on when a man sidled up, his eyes glittering strangely in the light from the marquee. His glance locked with mine with the kind of supreme overconfidence I could only dream of. But something about him sent my hackles into overdrive. Every instinct said he was the kind of creature I would move heaven and earth to stay right the hell away from. A whiff of something ancient and rotten confirmed it as he passed by.
My heart slamming, I worked to ignore the off-putting effect he had on me, but I took it seriously. Always pay attention to your gut instinct. It can save your life. Gary’s warning in the lobby came back to me in that instant. I busied myself with putting on my mask, not wanting to give the stranger any encouragement. Go away.
He leaned his head toward me just as he passed by, whispering in my ear. “I’ll be keeping an eye out for you, inside, sweetheart. You’re just my type.”
I reacted like he’d spilled fire down my dress. “Get lost. You’re definitely not my type.” I held the ground, staring him down. He seemed confused by my reaction. Good. I hated being singled out by a man I instinctively didn’t trust. Women. We get to choose who we go with. It’s not up to the male of the species.
My missile worked. The guy walked off, not bothering to respond.
I took a few deep breaths to calm myself, feeling satisfied I had handled myself well.
“Hey, Amara, you’re looking good, girl!” Shay said with a beaming smile as she came striding up.
“So are you,” I complimented her right back. And she did look great, her curls a cascade of loveliness down her back, her midnight-blue lace dress a marvel of creation the way it hugged every curve.
“Sorry I’m late. Dad wasn’t too happy tonight with me leaving.” She pulled a mask out of her purse and put it on.
We took our time going inside, trying to catch up before we hit the casino. But we never would. That was the best part of being with Shay. Our depth of understanding of each other meant there was never an end to the conversation.
We found a choice table in the karaoke room, ordered our drinks from the friendly waitress then sat back to check out the scene. Singing was one of the few pleasures we both shared. Shay was much better than I was, but I could harmonize and keep us from looking too shabby.
“You guys here for the karaoke?” the waitress asked in a cheery tone as she placed our drinks in front of us.
“Yup. What’s the money tonight?”
“A thousand dollars for first place.”
“Wow, what’s the occasion?” I asked. That was a lot of money for singing a song, if a person wasn’t a professional. Of course, that meant the competition would be stiff tonight. We’d never win. But the entertainment value just went through the roof.
“Semi-finals and the owners wanting to get more people in here, you know, since COVID reared its ugly head.”
“Yeah, I hear you.”
“You don’t have to wear the mask when you sing, if you have proof of vaccination on you?”
I nodded and pulled out my phone. “Here you go.”
Shay did likewise and we were all set.
An icicle of dread silvered down my spine. There was that creepy guy from outside again, staring at me from an alcove nearby. The look in his eyes made me pause. It was so ancient and cruel. If I didn’t know vampires weren’t real, I would think this guy could be one.
I had instantly disliked him outside and the feeling was growing stronger by the second. Stay the fuck away from me.
I shot the idea as best I could across the room at him, narrowing my eyes with dislike. He raised his drink at me as if offering a toast. Or asking if I wanted a drink? I shook my head—a firm no—and turned away. The sense of dread that seeing him again had brought on annoyed me. I worked to keep all my focus on my friend. I was safe here, right, surrounded by a growing crowd of people?
Full moon be damned. I wasn’t letting that asshole ruin my evening. An image seared my brain at that second. One of hellfire, of pain and ruin beyond belief. Then it was gone, leaving a trail of discomfort in its wake.
What the hell is up with the universe tonight?