We're the Archivists
Teenagers are the most terrifying thing that's ever been invented.
Previously: Batya returns to her wretched motel after a long day (literally everything that’s happened in this novel so far) only to find that someone unsettling has been there, looking to collect on the money she owes. Fudge! She skedaddles and proceeds to pass out on a streetcar.
The streetcar conductor shakes Batya awake. Morning sunlight blinds her. Her mouth tastes like the corpse of a burnt raccoon.
“I let you ride the circuit about a hundred times because you looked so pathetic,” the conductor says. “But now you gotta make room for paying customers.”
“Thanks, mister,” Bat says through cracked lips. She gathers up her fetid pillow case and heads out into the day. It’s piercingly, devastatingly bright.
Her eyes adjust and she spots the Hothouse Diner across the tracks. She staggers in, orders a medium rare steak which she eats, and a raw steak which she holds against her eyes. She finishes stitching up her knuckle wound and chin gash, then sneaks out without paying.
It’s a twenty minute walk back down to Sal’s Crab House. Although she’s happy to have somewhere to go, she can’t say she’s too enthused that it’s the underwater headquarters of Hawthorne Grain. She doesn’t like spaces with undefined or unfavorable escape routes. She’d avoid the southern woods even if they weren’t a popular hangout spot for freaky animal demons. The trees are too dense, the trails too meandering. Deserts? Too deserted. Caves? No way. Even the open sea gives her the itches. Nothing but endless miles of liquid you can’t breathe, filled with monsters you can’t see? No thank you.
But then she goes into Sal’s and there’s Sal and he says, “Hey! Mina’s fun sister! You’re still alive!” And he seems genuinely surprised and pleased. And the hissing woks smell fabulous. And Bat wonders if this is what it’s like to have a home. And it seems nice.
The vague dread returns, however, as she takes the elevator down to the old marine biology research facility. And sure, it’s been remodeled to look like a luxury hotel, but no amount of tasteful decor is going to make her forget she’s in a maze of dead ends surrounded by saltwater.
As she steps off the elevator and tries to orient herself, her body says, politely at first: Uh I don’t think we belong here? Which quickly escalates to: Listen up girl we’re gonna die down here, why’d you drag me into this, what’d I ever do to you, etc.
After getting very lost in some maintenance tunnel, Bat finally manages to locate the executive office. Margaret’s not at her desk, it’s just the three teenagers right where she left them last night, on the sofa overlooking the kelp forest.
“Why if it isn’t Miss Batya Hull,” one of them says. “Ready for a real job this time?”
Bat never knows how to deal with this age group. Why do kids this young and dumb always know more than she does? So she just stands there and gives them two stink eyes.
“Margaret’s in her private chambers with your sis,” another girl says, pointing at the sliding door in the back of the room. “She’ll be right with you.”
“Private chambers, huh,” Bat says.
“I know, so corny,” the third one says. “You want a drink or something? I don’t know if we have anything. I don’t think we have anything.”
Bat sits down, looks them over. “Your boss must be pretty important to have three secretaries.”
The teens crack up. “We look like secretaries to you?”
“I dunno. Cheerleaders?”
“Listen to her with the cheerleaders.”
“What do you do, then?” Bat says. “Besides take up space.”
“Lady, we’re the archivists. We basically run this place.”
“You’ll figure that out soon enough.”
“We know everything that goes on upstairs.”
“You didn’t know everything about me,” Bat says. “Or anything.”
“We know plenty now, don’t worry.”
“We got a whole sheet on you.”
“So, what, you gals raked the dirt?” Bat says.
They giggle some more. “Is that what they called it in your day, old timer?”
Now Bat’s embarrassed, which makes her mean. “I been around a couple times but I ain’t much older than you little dildos.”
They die laughing. “We know lots about you.”
“We raked the dirt.” Almost peeing their pants now.
“Then I guess you know how many fingers I’m holding up,” Bat says, flipping them the bird.
“We’re just shaking out the sillies.”
“Let’s all be nice to each other from now on.”
“Why should I be nice?” Bat asks.
“If you’re nice, we’re nice. We can make things a lot easier for you here. Hook you up with the good jobs.”
“What about this big job coming up?” Bat realizes she’s still giving them the finger and puts it away.
The girls groan. “That’s a bad one.”
“What’s so bad about it?”
“First off, hostile dropoff point.”
“And more unknowns than we’re comfortable with.”
“Though what we do know is the likelihood of success is pretty much zilch.”
“Now, if you want the plum jobs, the juicy juice—”
“Oh so juicy juice is what they call it now?” Bat says.
“She just made that up.”
“…if you want the fat peaches,” more guffaws, “then bring us little presents from upstairs and we’ll be nice.”
“You mean like…” Bat hesitates to say her word for bribes, fearing more youth mockery. “Sweetener?”
The archivists do a decent job stifling their laughter this time. “No. Just goodies.”
“What kind of goodies?”
They think this over. And, for the first time, Bat sees them as individuals instead of a three-headed bully hydra.
“I like fried pickles from the cart on the esplanade.” This is Anabel.
“I like pictures of the fishing boats. And the fishermen.” This is Carmen.
“I like funny postcards.” This is Kimani.
Now she recognizes something in their eyes, something she’s seen in plenty of street kids, and in the mirror. Bat’s always called it the fear.
She says, “You girls don’t get out much, do you?”
The archivists look at each other, then look at nothing.
“We like it down here,” Anabel says.
“Safe down here,” Carmen says.
“Things work how they’re supposed to work down here,” Kimani says.
Bat nods. “This place gives me the willies. But a roof’s a roof.”
The sliding door opens and Mina steps out. “Batty! You made it. These snitches giving you the business?”
“Yeah they hurt my feelings,” Bat says, getting up. “But now we’re all gonna be nice.”
“OK, but watch out for that one,” Mina says, pointing at all three.
The archivists find this funny. Bat’s pretty sure her sister has brought them plenty of upstairs goodies during her stint here.
“Margaret would like a word,” Mina says, and as Bat heads toward the private chambers, they briefly link pinkies. A little gesture from their childhood that can mean I love you or good luck or keep your eyes open or some combination of all three.
This has been Chapter 17 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: Intolerable Sensations