Hello, readers mine! I don’t know that this will actually become a regular series. Yes, I know, nothing on this blog is regular these days. Humor me and pretend otherwise. I did want to grind out some art for this, but unfortunately burnout and depression put paid to that idea. Sorry about that.
Edit, 10:01 PM April 2, 2021: Some months ago I actually DID complete art of Black Dress, and I’ve been meaning to add it to this post ever since. The titular black dress in this art isn’t the same one from this post, but as far as the, er… character’s appearance–
SHE’S NOT A SELF-INSERT HAHAHAHA THAT’S ABSURD WHY WOULD YOU EVER SUGGEST
–this is she. I checked the blog just now to see someone had liked this post, which gave me exactly enough energy to throw the art in here. You see, readers? Your engagement DOES matter!
A certain visual gimmick in the art gives away the core conceit of this story, so I slotted it in right at the end. Make sure not to read ahead if you’re bothered by spoilers! Edits end.
Mirror Dances will be a subset of the short stories I sometimes post here. A simple premise: I go back through an existing piece using the PoV of a different character. Obviously this limits us in many ways. Thus, I’ll only write up a mirror dance if I believe there’s much to gain by switching around. For this first entry, we return to the rundown cyberpunk bar of “Sweet Little Lies” via the character whose PoV has the highest chance of ruining its gimmick–
None other than Black Dress herself.
Bear with me on this. I know you’re not going to like it much when you first see it. What comes after… well, maybe it helps. Maybe makes it worse. Either way, I’m sorry. Here goes:
I’m not like other girls.
Now just hold it for two blinks, would you? I know. Toxic words fermented in spite by centuries of spill from self-serving mouths. I probably know it better than you. But if we’re to do this, you and I, make this little dance flow while it lasts, then I need you to hear me out.
Other girls are smarter than I am. Other girls are more patient, more disciplined, less impulsive. They yearn just as strongly, see colors just as bright–well, what’s left of color on this wreck of an Earth–and they can dance without looking two hundred years out of date.
I’m not like other girls. I’m an idiot who finds something inexplicably fulfilling in living out the façade of a bland stereotype. That’s why I drift around and wash up in places like this. That’s why I’m drawn to the souls that abide here. You know the sorts: every one so distinct it looks curated. Call it the Museum of Dead-End Rebels. Unique like the roster of an animated serial drama that got two seasons and was cancelled for being exactly what the creators promised.
So of course, it feels like I’ve met them all a hundred times before.
That tanned thickset woman under the buzzing lamps in the far corner with her square jaw and single-mother eyes. The obvious runner team who treat this place as their stomping grounds: the tech with their punk-rock piercings, the brawler with a broken nose and a ready smile, the person with the cat ears and tail to match, the android with the quizzical look and the bright low-cut dress. The scrawny strung-out trio lounging in the faded armchairs to one side. Is that a non-electric dart board behind them? It is! Cracked, paint just about washed away, half gone to cratering rot over the years, decades, centuries since its making. Still there.
Ha, fuck me if I don’t know how to pick ’em!
They’re all wearing the same question when they see me. Yes, that’s me wafting down the stairs into the runners’ dive. Ridiculous dress, isn’t it? Frills and ruffles on the sleeves and hem, skull and thorn emblems lacing the translucent netting like a second collar around the open u-slit under the jawline-hugging peak of the first. Or, y’know, boob window. It’s a boob window. What can I say? I like to overcomplicate things. Old habits die hard.
This nest of forlorn hope, faded dreams, spilled alcohol. I’ll tell you the funniest part, and the saddest: everyone in here is about to wonder how I can act so young in a place like this. Guess in some ways they’re more innocent than I ever was.
Point made well enough: I’m wearing the most stupid, indulgent gown I own. That’s why I love it. Another girl with the same tastes would save it for a party, maybe the funeral of her mortal enemy. Special occasions.
I might as well just wear it. No special occasions left in my life, hun.
Sorry. Shouldn’t call you that without your consent. Diminutives are a gutless way to cut someone down, y’know? Making you feel small with cutesy smiles and “just playing around”. Tonight, here in the bar, this is supposed to be play too. But there’s that about my idea of play: it always seems to hurt someone. Wasn’t my intention, but… intentions, outcomes? They’re related about the same way as a hammer and a percussion cap. Ha, how’s that for a wonder? The goth girl does noir.
Year’s 2132, if you were wondering. See how bad I am at this? I’m just the right fit for all the wrong centuries.
If it hasn’t clicked by now, I’m not walking into this bar with my twelve-pentagram dress and a thirteenth in silver bouncing on my ample cleavage because my life’s going well. And I’m definitely not here because I’m a creature of whimsy, a star-child with too much shine in her azure eyes to know what danger is.
That’s just the act. God, do I hate how well it works.
If it’d stutter once or twice, or someone would just remember enough of the damn hints I drop every time I play this game, maybe I could bring myself to stop. I even warn them. I tell them there’s more under the surface. Well, they don’t want more under the surface. They want Black Dress with her eyes swelled by the promise of a dream they’ve forgotten how to dream for themselves. The siren song of the past on the black lips of an alabaster banshee.
That’s the catch. Can’t remember something they won’t let themselves know that they know. Dissonance. And they think I’m out of place for bringing Fleetwood Mac with me. It’s always the same song. All the singers are women, for fuck’s sake, I clearly think of it as my song, why do they never take one second to ask themselves, ‘What’s the lie she says I’m telling her, and how do I make it true?’ You’d think rumors would get around, you’d think a few of the heartworn idiots would bump into each other and start noticing some patterns, or maybe–
–sorry. Like I said, I’m bad at this. Bad in general.
I thought the game would keep us all safe. Stupid mistake. As soon as it’s offered, the game is all they want. Even the heartache is part of that. They know the truth deep down. They can’t let themselves wake to it or it’ll spoil the lie they tell us both. So any act that would bring the truth bubbling up dies in the subconscious, long before it causes a stir.
The runners think the glowing eyes are augs. That’s the way of the human species. No matter how poor the fit, any new thing–well, any unfamiliar thing. I’m pretty old news. Anyway, the unfamiliar has to fit into the familiar somehow. Take its place above the labels on the shelves they keep clear at the backs of their heads.
Sometimes I wish the eyes were augs too.
There’s not a soul in this place who’d let me flounce within a hundred yards if they knew where the light comes from, and why. Again, other girls are smarter than I am. It took me a long time to figure out what most of them learn as children. There’s one cardinal sin marked out for every woman that’s ever lived. I dove right into it. Because I was young. Because I was stupid. Because I was too desperate and afraid to let it go.
It’s no coincidence that there’s only one runner at the end of the bar, or that they’re the rough-and-tumble type with the kind eyes that look like they just need the grease of a few pent-up tears to bring back their sheen. No coincidences in my life for the same reason there are no more special occasions.
I know they’re mine the instant they lay eyes on me. They probably think the shift in their expression is subtle. Loners always think they’re more subtle than they really are. Me? I just make it so obvious no one believes it’s there. Real people have to behave within a certain range of subtlety for anyone to believe that the behavior’s genuine. It works for tyrants. Why not a slut?
Sorry. I’m not trying to seem clever. Just had a lot of time to learn these lessons. Hard to forget when lessons are all I ever stand to gain. Again, I’m a very stupid woman. The smart ones get what they want from life without any of the nonsense I’ve tried.
Enough of that for now. I keep eye contact with the lonesome runner and slip in beside them. They’re in flux right now. Trying to reconcile this otherworldly visitor with the deeply, deeply worldly existence they’re trapped in. I do what I know will unseat them the most. I act like someone who knows this world better than they do. Like someone who lurked in its shadows before they were even born, let alone old enough to wish they hadn’t been.
Real people have a certain range of subtlety, right?
“Do you have any Polehammer?” I ask of the bartender.
Of course I know she does, or I wouldn’t be here. But this is a runner den. If I seem too familiar with a place where I’ve never been seen before, everyone will think “corporate”, and that’s our collective night ruined.
As for the woman herself? She’s reedy-faced, in middle age. Hair dyed white. A lot of care-wrinkles in her brown skin. Oh, poor girl, are those Derring-Vilier prosthetic arms? When was that… 2078? I want to say that’s correct. Sorry. Used to have a better memory for history than this. It’s gotten a little burdensome. You might argue the alcohol doesn’t help.
Old Moll looks at me like she’s wondering why I want to die. A certain range, and all. I know that the patrons call her Old Moll for the same reason I know the kind-eyed runner is called Mars. Oh, sweetheart, your parents did you a bad turn to name you that in a world like this.
Old Moll tries to stop me from turning my brains to mush as though that’s her business. “You sure you don’t want something–” she starts to ask.
“Polehammer or I’m out,” I tell her. Bit brusque. I feel bad about it, but I want that damned drink. I can already tell she won’t ask any of the right questions, so I’d rather she not question at all.
“Yeah, I have a little,” Moll answers, looking as queasy as I’d expect. “Hard cred first.”
She means copper chits. Valuable down here in the undercity where it can be used for electronics. The lifeblood of this new Earth. Ha, new! It was all predicted a century and a half ago. But they don’t know that–the runners, the addicts, the lost souls in this abyss bereft of a corporate god’s light. It’s not their fault they wound up living in it. Ancestral sin against the last commandment on Earth: “be valuable enough to pay for.” I’m familiar with it. I’d be just as screwed. Only I don’t take my pay in money.
Anyway, I pass the worthless copper over. Mars and I go through some meaningless banter while I keep knocking back shots that barely tickle on the way down.
It takes a lot for me to get drunk these days. How much is tolerance, how much willpower, how much is stubbornness? I couldn’t tell you. I’m getting worse at telling the difference between the three.
Then Mars throws out a small shocker: the initials for “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. I can tell from the hesitant way they sound out the letters that it’s a vague bit of lore passed on from a friend who had it from a friend in turn.
“One of the words behind those letters is right,” I tell them.
Well, “girl” is debatable on a number of levels. I’m female. I don’t mind telling you that I have a vagina if you’re concerned about specifics. Glad enough to have gotten it. Not telling when or how, if you don’t mind. Anyway, the word we’re looking for is “dream”. But now I need you to drop altitude, little Icarus, for your wax grows runny and your feathers few. Back to the waking world and this fiber-optic Earth veiled by lonely neon nights.
Poor Mars doesn’t know any of that, so the hint’s useless to them. Stupid Mars doesn’t think to just ask. I don’t bother trying to tell them. It’s clear enough they’d rather not know.
We go through all the rest. I do get drunk enough to slip up and have a little rant. I say one very important thing that I can tell straight away they won’t remember.
“Want to know what it was? What I did? Simple.” I knock back the latest shot. Actually burns a little. An ordinary woman would be long since dead from alcohol poisoning, but if you’re still here you must’ve guessed I’m not an ordinary woman. “I desire what I desire for, and of, myself as a woman,” I declare. “That’s the forbidden fruit.”
“That’s it?” Mars asks.
“That’s it,” I agree.
We go through all the usual formalities. “Little Lies” is there right when I want it to be. We dance. It’s easy dragging Mars into it. See, most people already have a black box in a dusty corner of the psyche. It’s full of things they say they’d never do, but it’s still part of them. They don’t like admitting it’s there. Is our whirling frolic on the half-rotten floor something I helped Mars pull from their box, or did I just convince them I did after pulling it from myself? That’s my secret. I’m great at spotting people who’ll never learn the difference.
And here’s Black Dress, pretending she doesn’t know why her days are lonely and her nights… ha… evanescent. Yes, I deserve what I get.
It’s beautiful unless you’re a stickler for aesthetics. I’m as graceful as though I’m not even there. Mars is clumsy but enthusiastic. It’s awkward, off-beat, and–sorry, bit of a tautology here–precious to me.
I ought to be ashamed, I know. Mars is drunk enough not to realize how much feeling they put into this strange, intimate bumbling of ours. And maybe I shouldn’t, but… I do like this lonely, broken-down runner with their battle-scars and the cheap whiskey on their breath. Birds of a feather, no?
It goes where you’d expect. We wind up back at their place on a dingy, soft mattress mingling the scent of sex with the stale air. You probably expect me to say it was disappointing. It’s not. Sure, it’s inelegant and frantic and some would say it goes on way too long. It’s not fair that I reveal what I do as silhouetted curves and dim gleams in the sweaty, panting dimness of that room. But being who I am, and at the risk of sounding full of myself–while it lasts it’s beautiful.
Say whatever else you like about me. I make it amazing. While it lasts, I make it amazing. That’s one truth I won’t have denied. But it can’t last forever. The final crescendo comes. I feel bubbly and molten until I don’t anymore. The lonely runner drifts off underneath me. I join them in sleep and in dreams, for a little while.
Cleanup… ha, if you need to ask about that, you haven’t figured it out yet. I take care of that. I take care of everything. Nothing left in the morning except Mars on that mattress and the last surviving kiss marked in black lipstick on one cheek.
Of course I had doubts when I see smog-tainted dawn through the shades. Of course I wondered what would happen if I stayed.
No point. I’m looking for the one who wants what they saw in that shadow-swathed heat. The one who will call out to it and cling while it’s there. Obviously they don’t exist. It’s a world of cables and synthetic souls. I shouldn’t have a place in it. And I think, deep down, my one-night lovers can all sense that. Sense that I’m something lingering on long after the age that should’ve brought my glory days. It didn’t. Whether I messed up or those days were stolen from me the same they were from Mars, Moll, and billions of others, I never got my time in the sun. I’m here now out of spite. For myself, perhaps. Eternal damnation for having more shots than most, and managing to miss them all anyway.
But not for my lonely ones. Never for them. I can’t live in it forever, but I love them for the lie while it lasts.
Still looking for that one person who’ll read the signs. It’s a big, overpopulated world. I drift out with the dawn. I’m halfway around the rusted globe come the next nightfall. There are always more bars, more unfamiliar faces, more lonely souls looking for a servant of the secret fire. What they get is me. Whether that’s a blessing, a curse, or nothing at all, I’ll let you decide.
Moll and Mars will be long dead by the time I visit that bar again. Assuming it’s still a bar. Probably will be. Change, too, is a thing that starts in dreams.
If any of them found me again, you’re thinking. If they found me, would I let them turn the lie true? Probably. But trust me, they won’t. They don’t want to find me. They want the lover in the liminal space. The one who isn’t quite proof of a world they don’t want to remember. They don’t want me.
They just want Black Dress.