Previously: Bat and Mina learn that the mysterious symbol represents some sort of secret competition happening tonight, accessible via an ice cream parlor in “the Terminal.” What can it mean. I’m as baffled and yet feverishly intrigued as you are.
— 11 —
The sisters come barreling out of the lighthouse. The waves crash, the foghorn keens. The old woman in the ebony cry-mask is still there on the beach by her dinghy. “I see you have survived your journey to the tower,” she says. “And prevailed.”
“Yeah we prevailed the shit out of it,” Bat says.
“Say, can that tub make it across the harbor?” Mina says. “We need to get to Guncotton pronto.”
“The Invoker can ferry you through the perilous tides, taking you far from the skinless who skitter amongst these trees, if that is your desire.”
“Thanks, Invoker,” Bat says.
“For a price!”
Mina looks like she’s about to have another tantrum and Bat hopes she does. “What price, nai nai.”
The Invoker slowly runs a wizened thumb along the blade of her harpoon. “Twenty dollars.”
“Outrageous,” Mina says. “Sawbuck, final offer.”
“Seventeen dollars and fifty cents.”
“Fifteen—C.O.D.—and we promise to listen to your tale.”
The Invoker stares at Mina through empty black eyeholes. “The Invoker agrees to your terms,” she says, then starts yanking the rope on her outboard motor.
The dinghy putts them across the foggy marina toward the northern piers. Bat and Mina huddle together, getting splashed with icy saltwater every ten seconds. Behind them, the deep ancient voice is muttering:
“…and the roots were umbilicals, and the trunk was vast tendon twisted and tight with spasm, and the sap was thick reeking ichor, and the leaves were wings of damselfly, and when they rustled ‘twas a song that drove brother to flay brother…”
Bat: “Her story’s taking forever to get going.”
Mina: “Do you have cab fare for this windy old hag?”
“Can’t you, like, get your company to pay for it?”
“Not right this instant, no.”
Bat, sulky, rifles through her innumerable secret pockets. “The wad from my hotel job is here somewhere.”
“Ah. About that. I may have filched it while you were knocked out.” Now Mina starts going through her innumerable secret pockets.
“What! What is your problem? Why are you such a hairy corncob?”
“Ta-da!” She produces the little roll of cash, bound tight with a hair tie, and right then the boat abruptly stops and the sisters tumble forward. Bat watches her money fly out of Mina’s hand and off into watery blackness as the Invoker stabs her harpoon through something starboard.
Mina doesn’t hesitate, whispers, “New plan, soon as we hit the shore, just make a break for it. We’ll have to owe her one.”
Bat, clumsy with rage, grabs at Mina’s face. “That was all the money I had in the world.” More a guttural screech than a discrete series of words.
The Invoker pulls up a winter flounder, thrashing around her spear’s barbs. “Look, children. Its very soul is squalling.”
Mina slaps at Bat’s hands a few times. “You mind stepping on the gas, Invoker? Another five bucks if we get there before that fish’s soul lights out.”
The Invoker pauses, murmurs something to the flounder, tosses it overboard, guns the motor.
Bat turns her back to her sister, trying to wrap herself up in an impenetrable pout-shield. She just wants to go back to yesterday when Mina was not a thing. Then her brain, hostile as ever, says: Don’t be stupid, stupid. She is never not a thing.
The dinghy’s still maybe twenty feet from shore when Mina does the whippoorwill—the special signal only they can hear—and they leap out and haul ass best they can through the shallows. The fleeing seems to be going pretty well until there’s this deafening tsunami of rage behind them: the ghastly voice of the Invoker surging through their bodies, ricocheting through their eardrums and sinuses, filling their minds with a single dreadful phrase:
You jackals owe me twenty dollars!
Bat and Mina’s parents handed down one hundred life lessons, most whispered right into their fontanelles, and the relevant one here is: Something chasing you? Run away. Don’t think about it. Figure it out later, or not.
So they heave themselves out of the surf and onto the esplanade and then book it, shoes squishing. They run through the rows of longhouses where the dockworkers and stevedores live, turning as many corners as possible, then Mina stumbles next to an idling pupusa truck and squats down to catch her breath.
“Sheesh,” she says. “She is much madder than I expected.”
Not to brag but Bat’s hardly winded. “We better pay her or she’s going to gnaw our balls off for eternity.”
“We will. We’ll be flush after this job, and I’m sure she won’t be hard to find.”
“Well yeah, she’s gonna be lurking behind every shower curtain till the day we die, which’ll probably be today.”
“Cheer up, bitch,” Mina says, sort of an old family catchphrase. Gets Bat a little misty, truth be told. She knows this sounds dumb but she loves that Mina’s known her her whole life.
They peer around the truck and all’s quiet except for two little kids in the middle of the street taking turns hitting each other with an oar. They run toward the streetcar tracks and follow them inland, bolting past the rowdy estuary neighborhood called the Holler, past the brine sluices and evaporating ponds of the desalinization plant, past the animal squawks and roulette clicks of Marvelous Marv’s.
Then they hit Thousand Avenue where the tracks disappear into the arched tunnels of Guncotton Terminal, looming like a great granite citadel, its flag-topped parapets swallowed up by the fog.
The cavernous main concourse is pretty empty this time of night. There are a few stragglers weighing their options, a handful of sleepers on the cracked wooden benches. The echo renders all broadcast announcements useless. There’s a clacking departure board and a giant statue of Phadis the sea-paladin and a bank of elevators, which is where the sisters go. They skid across the recently waxed floor and pile into a waiting lift. Mina’s finger hesitates at the buttons. “What floor is the ice cream place on?” she wheezes. “The winter one?”
(Above the streetcar station are nine floors of themed retail stores and restaurants capped by a penthouse suite where the Fleet Admiral’s mistresses live. The winter one is called Ice Station. There’s also Outer Orbital, A Night in Cornborough, The Aerie, The Bayou, et al.)
“You’d think so but no,” Bat says. “It’s in the Pit.”
THE PIT IS A HELL-THEMED FOOD COURT CONVENIENTLY LOCATED ON THE 8TH FLOOR OF GUNCOTTON TERMINAL OPEN NOON-2AM CASH ONLY
The elevator door slides open and they’re hit with a blast of suffocating heat. The Pit is a hazy, lurid scarlet, lit by fake torches and periodic bursts of real flame. The walls and floors look like volcanic rock. The ceiling is a roiling cauldron of projected clouds and lightning. The background music features the cries of tormented souls. The cashiers wear devil horns and pointed tails and don’t look happy about it. Once in a while, Satan the manager strolls through the crowds with a pitchfork and asks how everyone’s meal is.
The sisters weave through dozens of tiny restaurants tucked in between the stalagmites and pools of lava. The intermingling of all the different spicy aromas is profoundly overwhelming: birria, mapo tofu, doro wat, chilli paneer, aji de gallina, kai tod. There is copious weeping.
And then, at the far end of the Pit, almost blindingly bright white, looking like a portal to some middle school play version of the Pearly Gates, is their destination: the ice cream parlor called Clingingsmith’s. Fingers crossed there’s actually someone in there expecting their delivery.
This has been Chapter 11 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: An Arousing Itch