Alice in Neonland
There was little way to tell whether the young woman was actually listening to the customer, or simply placating her with smiles and nods. The retail shop was full of gaudy neon trinkets, picture frames, junk jewelry, oversized T’s with vaguely sexual innuendos, cheap plastic sunglasses. It was an aggressive explosion of color; an assault on good taste. The young woman pointed the customer to the back of the store with a frustratingly vague gesture and resumed staring vacantly at her phone. She stood in stark contrast to her surroundings, clad in dark, muted tones. She didn’t look like the type of person who’d set foot into a shop like this willingly.
Tracy bounced in, full of energy and charisma, looking to buy erotic straws for her bestie’s bachelorette party. They were going to Get. So. Wasted. Going to a drag show was such a clever idea, Tracy congratulated herself. So edgy, so risqué! She took a lap around the shop, but didn’t see what she was looking for immediately, so approached the shop girl.
“Hiii, there!” Tracy began, pushing her neon pink sunglasses on top of her head. She flashed her award winning smile and tucked an errant highlighted blonde lock behind her ear. The shop girl nodded her head almost imperceptibly without raising her eyes from her phone.
Tracy was annoyed, but she wasn’t going to allow this gloomy shop girl to dampen her spirits. She had a bachelorette party to plan. “Um, yeah. Hiii! I was looking for some…novelty straws…?”
The shop girl finally looked up from her phone. She had a strong jawline and an angular nose. Her hair was brown, but Tracy could tell that it was thick and wavy. If she let it down and blew it out, she could rock a super cute beachy moment, Tracy thought. Her eyes were small, but a splash of color on her lids could really make them pop. A little gloss on her lips, maybe a stronger brow to counterbalance the jawline, a little contouring on the nose - ”
“Lemme guess. Bachelorette party?” She asked, shocking Tracy out of her makeover reverie.
“Yeah! OMG how did you know?
“Wild guess,” She rolled her eyes.
The shop girl met her gaze so unironically and without malice that Tracy concluded she must be joking. Deciding she wanted to be in on the joke rather than the brunt of it, Tracy started laughing robustly, slapping the shop girl on the shoulder while quipping, “Oh aren’t you funny! I love the cynical, droll vibe you’ve got going on.”
The shop girl looked at her arm where she’d been slapped, then up at Tracy. For a split second, Tracy was sure the girl was going to end her. Unexpectedly, she put down her phone, stood from her stool, and walked from behind the counter.
“Go on,” She put a hand on the small of Tracy’s back, pushing her forward, “The crap you’re looking for is back there,” she finished, pointing to the back corner of the shop.
She proceeded to walk behind Tracy, touching the small of her back occasionally. The act struck Tracy as familiar, intimate; like they’d been girlfriends for years. Or maybe she was going to end her after all. Tracy nervously stopped mid-gait and turned, causing the shop girl to bump into her. Instead of taking a step back, she merely stood there, looking down at Tracy. Tracy noticed then how tall and svelte she was. Honestly, she had great bones. With some fashion and makeup help, she could be a real knockout.
“Back there,” the shop girl pointed, “In the corner. Behind that red curtain.”
“You’re uh, not going to murder me and harvest my organs, are you?” Tracy ventured, not entirely sure if she was joking.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, putting her hands on Tracy’s waist and spinning her toward the curtain. She gave her another little push, “I need to know your blood type first,” she couldn’t help smiling as she replied.
Tracy stepped through the red curtain and held it for the girl, who followed her in, pulling the curtain shut behind them. “Ha.Ha. You’re a laugh riot. You know - ” Tracy stopped short as she looked around. She was surrounded by a sundry of items: lingerie, erotic movies, blow up dolls, fur lined handcuffs, plastic toys, vibrating toys. Against the back wall there was a row of leather straps and devices, the purposes of which she couldn’t engender in her wildest fantasies. Her gaze inadvertently lingered there as the shop girl moved in closely behind her. She was so close that Tracy could feel her breath, warm on the back of her neck.
“Ah, so you’re interested in the bondage gear. Innnnteresting, indeed.”
Tracy spun around, “What? No! I don’t even know what that stuff is!”
The girl smiled blithely, “Anyway, If you have questions, feel free to ask.”
With that, she turned and left Tracy alone in the sex room behind the curtain. Tracy grabbed a handful of novelty straws and exited quickly. She made her way back to the counter, but the girl was with another customer. Tracy waited at a respectful distance while she rang the woman up. The woman was doing her best to make small talk while the shop girl smiled and nodded in her inoffensively disinterested manner.
Once the woman was gone, Tracy approached the counter and handed her the straws without making eye contact. She could feel her checks growing red, and she wasn’t exactly sure what was causing her to blush.
“So, that gonna do it for ya?”
Tracy nodded, pretending to be interested in the stack of books behind the counter.
The girl pressed her, “You’re sure you don’t have. Any questions? Nothing else I can. Assist you with?”
Tracy’s breath caught in her throat. She wasn’t gay. Sure, she didn’t have a boyfriend. Hadn’t had a boyfriend. In a while. She was busy with grad school and work and. She didn’t have to explain herself to anyone, she asserted. Was the shop girl hitting on her? No. That couldn’t be. She was messing with her. Tracy shook her head and averted her gaze, laughing nervously. Man, was she a dummy! Of course the unassuming shop girl who could secretly be a runway model was fucking with her. Tracy couldn’t make eye contact with her now. She felt hopelessly silly.
She continued to gaze at the pile of books behind the counter while fumbling for her wallet. Unexpectedly, her attention was arrested by what appeared to be a rather rare, hardbound edition of one of her favorite books, “Holly crap! What kind of edition of Alice in Wonderland is that? Is that yours?”
The girl smirked, “Yeah, that’s mine. She reached over and picked it up. I don’t know if it’s worth anything, but it’s the only one like it I've ever seen. Check this out!”
She held it so Tracy could admire the cover, “Alice in Wonderland. Right?” She then thumbed through the pages to about the midway point of the book and opened it to a red velour page. On the middle of the page, "The End " was written calligraphy. Tracy was perplexed. There was still half a book’s worth of pages remaining. On the following page, also red velour, something was written in the same fancy script, but Tracy couldn’t make it out.
“Watch this,” she said as she flipped the book upside down. As she did, Tracy could see that calligraphy on the second page, now right side up, also read, “The End.” Tracy gasped, to which the girl replied, “I know. Right?”
She flipped from the red velour page back to the first, then shut the book so that Tracy could admire the cover, “Through the Looking Glass!” Tracy exclaimed. “Wow. That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! Where did you find it?”
The girl smiled and winked, “If I told ya, I’d have to kill ya.”
“Oh, so that’s how the organ harvesting comes into play!” Tracy quipped, and they both laughed.
“But, seriously, you’re into this kinda thing?” she raised an eyebrow, “I’m legit surprised.”
“Are you kidding me? It’s a literary classic. It’s like. It’s like Dracula.” Tracy ventured.
Intrigued, the girl encouraged, “Is that right? Explain.”
“Well, it’s like a story that has been retold, rewritten, and remade so many times in film and animation that everyone’s familiar with the tropes. So, if you ask someone if they’ve read Alice in Wonderland, they’ll usually say no, but I’ve seen this or that version of it. And then, if you ask them whether they know the story, they’re like, ‘ya, ya, the Caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat’, but that’s all they really know. The literary genius of it is completely lost on them. Same thing, only maybe worse, happens with Dracula. If you ask people if they’ve read it, they'll start rattling off tropes: vampires can’t go outside in daylight, hate garlic, can killed with wooden stakes. They sparkle.” She stopped to punctuate her point with an eye roll before continuing, “Very few people have actually read Dracula though. And, wow. It’s a shame because Bram Stoker was a massively gifted writer. His descriptive passages, the narrative. Just, so genius.”
Tracy stopped talking and realized the girl was gazing at her with an amused smile.
“Well, alright then. I’m impressed. It’s nice to meet you. Marianne,” she said while extending her hand.
Tracy smiled and welcomed the handshake, “It’s nice to meet you too, Marianne. I'm Tracy.”
The two young women stood there awkwardly holding hands, when suddenly the door opened. A tall, athletic woman with a commanding presence entered the room. She was swarthy and had a hip snappy walk. She sauntered over to Marianne and threw her arms around her neck, embracing her warmly before kissing her on the mouth. She glanced over at Tracy. Tracy panicked and started to walk off without the straws.
Much to her surprise, rather than mock or ignore her, Marianne smiled and introduced her, “Katherine, this is my new friend, Tracy. Tracy, Katherine.”
Tracy mumbled the world's most awkward greeting and forced a smile. She was dying of embarrassment and desperate to make her departure. She felt like an idiot. She wasn’t even sure why. She was just so. Uncomfortable.
Marianne nodded and said, “Right, well, like I said, the new shipment arrives later this afternoon. So, you could come back later today. Or tomorrow.”
Tracy felt her cheeks redden as she mumbled something about how that would be fine before turning and all but running from the shop.
Clearly perplexed, Katherine turned to Marianne and asked, “Ok, What. Was. That? Are you into basic blonde neon beaches now?” She poked Marianne in the stomach, causing her to giggle. “Huh? Should I be worried?” To which Marianne laughed and told her she was cray. Katherine persisted, “What did she want anyway? Oh wait - let me guess! She was shopping for a bachelorette party! Did she want straws shaped like male genitalia?” She made a grossed out face.
“Yuck. Right? You know I hate selling those. So dumb!” Marianne laughed.
The door opened and a family with a kid who wanted beach toys entered. Marianne sighed, rolled her eyes, donned her best customer service smile and escorted them to the family section.
Katherine winked and said, “I’ll be in the back. You know, getting inspiration.”
Marianne spent the rest of the day secretly hoping Tracy would return. She’d never met anyone as interested in classic literature as she was. Sure, Tracy was yet another neon wearing bleach blonde, but. Somehow, different. Compelling.
The day dragged on without Tracy’s return. Marianne sighed heavily and began closing up: she hated to admit that she was more than a little disappointed. As she was turning off the lights, she heard a tentative knock at the door.
She peaked through the door blinds and saw Tracy standing there, holding a stack of books. Marianne smiled and opened the door.
Unamerican by Ane R Key
Alex squinted up at the clock in the hallway outside their room. Dinner would arrive in 15 minutes. Alex stood, stretching. They’d slept nearly all day again; it made them nauseous. They didn’t even have much of an appetite, but knew they should force down what they could and save the rest. They’d missed breakfast and knew there might not be one tomorrow. Breakfasts depended on who was working. The workers weren’t obligated to bring anything. Most brought something simple, bread or oatmeal. A few brought nothing and made no apologies. One particularly odious individual never brought food for them, but made a show of eating their lavish meals in the hallway where everyone could see and smell the food. It was a creatively sadistic form of torture.
There was only one person who brought breakfast every time. Real, nourishing meals, with fresh fruits and vegetables. Alex considered they must either pay for such items out of pocket, which would be extraordinarily expensive, or they had connections. A third possibility remained: They had an illegal garden. It was the most plausible explanation, but for some reason, Alex couldn’t imagine Blake gardening. It seemed absolutely incongruous with everything that Alex knew about them, which admittedly wasn’t much. Still, Alex had an impossible time imagining Blake’s 6’5’’, muscular frame knelt over a bed of tomatoes, delicately pruning them.
Whenever Alex thought of Blake, and they did think of Blake more often than was wise to admit, they thought of Blake pumping iron to Metallica, or some relic of a metal band. Maybe drinking scotch, all fancy, in a proper glass while watching westerns and smoking cigars. Or maybe drinking beer while watching wrestling. Definitely something more butch than watering turnips. But Alex supposed one never really knew. Take them, for example.
Alex had long, often complimented hair and was slight of frame with a narrow waist and broad shoulders. Alex had never had much muscle tone. Being naturally thin, they’d never seen the point in working out. Of course, Alex tried working out sometimes now to help pass the indeterminable hours of mind-numbing boredom, but was too calorically challenged to do much. They simply didn’t have enough energy, hence all the sleeping.
At any rate, despite being so slight of frame and possessing what one would consider traditionally feminine features, apart from occasionally wearing black eyeliner, Alex was not the slightest bit interested in appearing feminine. They wondered if Blake was misleading that way too. Maybe their well-muscled physique and surly demeanor were decoys sheltering a sensitive soul. They must be compassionate. Or, at the very least, have compassion for the people that were housed there. Otherwise why bother with the healthy meals?
The only days that Alex looked forward to were the days that Blake worked.
The problem was, if Blake had a fixed schedule, Alex hadn’t been able to decipher it. Due to the lack of calendars, newspapers, or any other such paraphernalia that would indicate the date, it was nearly impossible to mark the passing of time. Alex had done an estimable job for the first few months, but life in near solitary confinement messes with a person’s sense of time. As far as Alex could tell, they’d been there for at least a year. At this point, it was fair to assume that The Divided States of America had lost the war. And no one was coming to save them.
Suddenly, there was someone at their door. Alex looked up, and was rather shocked to see Blake standing there brandishing a veritable bounty.
“What’s up, friend?” Blake asked playfully.
“I don’t understand! It’s not morning yet. Is it?” Alex stammered.
Blake laughed, “No, no, friend. It is evening. See,” pointing to the window across the hall, “it’s already dark out.”
Alex heaved a sigh of relief, “I thought it looked dark out. I just wasn’t sure if -”
Blake cut them off, “If one of those other jerks who works here was playing a trick on you again? Covering the window so that you lose track of time even more? Not me. I told them I think you should have windows in your rooms. I even argued that you should be let into the yard more often to get some fresh air, some vitamin D. Nothing grows big and strong without sunlight.”
Alex was struck by two things: The reference to sunlight and growing seemed to underpin their idea that Blake did in fact have an illegal garden. Alex found that encouraging. That could indicate that Blake didn’t play by the rules. The second thing was disconcerting: Who wanted to keep them in darkness? It was Alex’s impression that they were doing the bare minimum to keep them alive, and they could stop doing so any time they chose. Yet here was Blake, ostensibly one of them, bringing them a feast and pleading their case for more sunlight. Alex wondered what was really happening.
Blake’s manner was unchanged, however. They smiled easily and made small talk eagerly while laying out the food, describing what everything was and how it was prepared.
Alex couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right and asked, “I shouldn’t be concerned or anything, should I? You’re never here at night. I mean, if this were my - my last meal, or something, you’d let me know. Right?”
Blake laughed before realizing that Alex was serious, “Friend, nothing like that is happening,” they raised their hand, “on my honor.”
“But - would you?” Alex ventured, “If something like that were happening, would you tell me?”
“It's nothing like that,” Blake’s expression was gentle, but sobering. Blake then added, “But, yes. If it was your last meal, I would tell you. Ok?”
Alex nodded, and Blake said, “Now, eat and grow strong! I’ll be back in a couple of hours, maybe less. Please, Alex, enjoy your food,” and with that, Blake turned and left.
That was another thing! Alex thought. Blake rarely ever called Alex by name. It was always friend, my friend, or sometimes partner or pal, causing Alex to wonder if Blake had learned most of their English from late night television. Or maybe they did watch westerns. Who said partner in a non-romantic sense?
The food was delicious, and Alex finished eating quickly. They sat in the armchair to read until Blake returned. Sometimes after eating, they’d just go back to bed. When Blake was around, Alex was always hopeful that they’d have a few hours of conversation. Blake was the only one who talked to Alex conversationally. A few of the others were polite, but terse. Others barely managed forced civility. But Blake seemed to genuinely enjoy Alex’s company. Alex wondered if they'd be friends under different circumstances, but decided they likely would not.
It occurred to Alex then that they did consider Blake a friend. They hadn’t at first, but the word was in such heavy rotation in Blake’s vernacular, it eventually began to feel authentic. Odd, really, how using a word empowered it; manifested it.
Alex had stopped wondering about the outside world much, since even Blake wouldn’t - or couldn’t - reveal anything about what was transpiring beyond Alex’s room. Alex could only surmise that the world they'd known had fallen apart, and that if they weren’t released soon, they never would be.
The original story was that Americans from both the Federation and the Republic had been rounded up and put in these safehouses for their own protection. Seemed silly now that they’d believed that. To be fair, much like Alex, most of the Americans rounded up were diplomats, embassy workers, politicians, doctors, and the like. In short, people considered ‘valuable’.
When Alex had moved to Oustlandia five years prior, there had been a peace treaty between Oustlandia and the Republic of America. Moreover, Oustlandia had been fierce allies of the ROA and offered them asylum when the Federation of America had, quite predictably, launched the third civil war.
With time, Alex learned that only a few of the safehouse residents were from the ROA; the majority were from the FOA. This necessarily led Alex to wonder with whom Oustlandia was truly in alliance. While it might have been a ‘gather them all and let the Ambassador sort it out later’ situation, they later discovered that most members of the Federation had been released within the first few months. Alex was forced to contemplate the grim possibility that they were not being protected, but imprisoned.
Alex was fully immersed in one of their all time favorite books, The Dumb House, by John Burnside, when Blake returned.
Rather than entering the room, Blake stood at the doorway and whispered, “Partner, come with me!”
Alex rose, tentatively, “Come with you? What do you mean?”
“What do you think? You wanna go outside or what? I have something for you. But you must come now!”
Alex sprang from the armchair and followed Blake down the hall toward the yard door. As they walked past each room, Alex attempted to look inside, but most of the doors were shut. They were wondering where the other workers and residents were and why everything was so quiet, when Blake turned and whispered that everyone was in the common room for movie night. Alex couldn’t remember the last time they’d been allowed a movie night.
Blake unlocked the yard door, pulled it open, and gave Alex a firm push outside. Alex froze, certain that they were being set up: Blake had tricked them! They were going to flip on the yard lights and Alex would find themself in front of a firing squad.
Instead, Blake stepped out behind Alex and shut the door behind them. They pointed at 2 lawn chairs at the edge of the yard, “There, partner. Take a seat. I have many surprises.”
Alex sat in one of the chairs and Blake plopped into the one next to them, “No, my friend, like this,” Blake said, reclining their chair.
Alex followed suit and immediately understood why Blake had suggested it: The stars were innumerable, the sky yawned on forever, the stars covering nearly every inch of the vast canvas. The sky-canvas was hued in depths of blackness, interspersed with the brilliance of the stars. It was one of the most spectacular things Alex had ever witnessed. Blake pulled a flask from their inside pocket, smiling and nodding, encouraging Alex to take a swig.
“Whiskey, my friend. Drink with me and share this beauty,” Blake said, equally mesmerized by the sky.
As Blake handed the flask to Alex, their fingers touched briefly. They considered how comfortable they were with Blake’s touch. There was nothing withheld; no artifice, no need for it. Alex took a swig from the flask and marveled at the night sky, the grandeur of it bringing a tear to their eye. They looked over and saw Blake staring up at the sky, weeping without shame.
“It all comes to an end tonight, my dear friend,” Blake began. Noticing Alex’s anxious expression, Blake reached over and took their hand, “You leave here. Tonight.”
Alex was dumbfounded, “You mean - I’m going home?” Alex made no effort to remove their hand from Blake’s.
Blake gave a short laugh, “You have no home, partner. The FOA and ROA are both gone. Oustlandia wants to terminate all surviving Americans, from both sides. Never again, they say.” Blake looked squarely at Alex, “Can’t say I blame them.”
Alex wondered, “Where will I go, then?”
Blake shrugged, “Away from here. Doesn’t matter. You will be free.”
They sat together in silence, appreciating the night sky until a truck arrived. The pair stood, still holding hands.
“They will have clothes, a passport, and money for you.”
“You. You planned this? For me? But. Why?”
Blake shook their head before pulling Alex in for a warm embrace, “Because from all of this, some good must come. Grow big and strong in the sun, Alex. Now, you must go! Goodbye, my true friend.” Blake pushed Alex toward the gate. The person with the truck opened the gate from the outside and gestured for Alex to get in the back. Alex turned and looked once more at Blake, heartbroken that they would never again see their friend.
Blake waved and wiped their eyes. Alex held a hand to their heart, then climbed into the bed of the truck. The truck drove away and, as the canopy of stars sped across the endless night sky, ushering freedom for the Last American, Alex wept