By Christopher Caldwell
Ash hated Los Angeles. The city was oppressive to him, a sprawling urban spiderweb. The three years he had spent in Colorado, away from the traffic, the noise and the grime that the city was heir to had been productive ones. Ash hated Los Angeles, but today he sat in the greyhound station in Grand Junction, Colorado waiting for the bus that would return him to the place he once called home.
The letter from Rena had arrived three days before. Ash had returned home after a day of watching for poachers, litterers and careless tourists who'd been bitten by rattlesnakes. It was often tiring, but Ash loved his job as a ranger at Monument National Park. It allowed him long hours alone with nature, to think and sometimes to write. Ash, for the first time in his life had known contentment. Gone was the feeling of dread that used to chase him throughout his childhood and adolescence. Until the letter arrived. It was brief and unsatisfactory. It explained nothing, Rena required his help and needed him to return to Los Angeles quickly. Ash thought about tearing up the letter and throwing it away just as he had abandoned his old life in the city. Los Angeles was carcinogenic to him. Anger welled up in Ash. Rena was basically asking for his life without even bothering to explain anything. Unused to the delicious heat of wrath, Ash savored the emotion for a moment before his conscience intruded with cooling remorse. He owed Rena his life, and he had never been one for explanations nor had she asked when he was sparse on details. She had done everything he needed to her without expecting thanks and he had barely bothered to keep in touch with Rena. She was too near his old life, and that contact was always painful and awkward. He owed Rena a debt. Ash began to pack his things and make arrangements for what would be an indefinite leave of absence.
Three days later Ash sat in the greyhound station. His long black hair was neatly pulled into ponytail by a rawhide knot tied at the nape of his neck. The vast majority of the belongings that he thought important were packed into a knapsack that rested across his lap. In fifteen minutes he would board the bus bound for L.A., in a little less than a day and a night he would arrive. A nagging voice whispered to him that there was still time to turn back, still time to forget Rena (who had always been eccentric) and her curt-to-the-point-of-rudeness letter. Ash ignored the voice and glanced down at the sturdy, inexpensive watch on his wrist. Honor and guilt had always been stronger motivators for him than common sense or self-interest. Ten minutes. Ash considered buying one of the cheap novels onsale at the concessions stand to keep him company on the long bus trip, but in the interest of thrift, decided against it. Six dollars for a few hours distraction was a luxury he could ill-afford now. Besides, Ash thought to console himself, the long bus trip will most likely be fruitful writing time. Ash startled at the crackling old voice that announced over the decrepit PA system that his bus was boarding. Ash thought fleetingly of turning his back on this trip and giving up the whole foolish idea of rescuing Rena, then began trudging toward the great argent-colored steel beast that was filling up with passengers.
The bus swam smoothly through the night, its near-grace somehow belying its bulky, awkward form. The gentle snorings of road-weary passengers surrounded Ash, rising and falling like the tides. Ash stared through his reflection at the dazzling, multi-starred sky. Regret rose in Ash liquidly as he realized that the stars and constellations he had gotten so used to would be mostly obscured by the sluggish Los Angeles air and the garish lights of the city. Ash pulled a trim, tan notebook from within his knapsack, and began to write in sharp, staccato phrases.
Dawn came suddenly, brilliantly, the sun rising behind Ash in the Utah badlands. Ash realized wearily that sleep had crept up on him. He looked down at his notebook, and noticed a long streak of ink sliding across the page, disturbing the cramped pattern of his writing. Irritated, Ash tore out the page and crumpled it up, depositing it into the small trashbag by the window. Ash sighed and pulled out a battered, dog-eared book of poetry. It was by far his favorite, Songs of Night and Mourning by Alan Michaels. Ash immersed himself in a world of pain and metaphor and hope of redemption, and filled his head with idle fantasies of one day writing something of such terrible beauty. The bus shortly after stopped for the breakfast break, but Ash did not notice.
The rest of the trip seemed to speed by, the miles of desert fading away as Ash wrote, trying to capture his near-panic at the prospect of returning to the City of Angels, taking a break now and then to compare his own work unfavorably to Michaels'. Ash refined, rewrote and sometimes in frustration ripped to pieces poems about being drawn back inside a trap. He seldom looked up from his notebook and passengers who sat by him seemed to know not to disturb him with questions about his destination or comments on the weather and politics. In Las Vegas there was a two-hour wait between bus changes, and Ash idly munched on a vending machine sandwich. Ash felt strangely at peace. In a few hours he would return to help Rena, if that meant facing the past again, so be it. Ash took a deep, resigned breath before clambering back onto the bus. He had always been a survivor. He could survive his father again.
Ash kept alert for the rest of the trip. He stared out the window and watched the slow crawl of suburbia into the California desert. He smiled wryly at an advertisement for homes near Baker, California. Once isolated hamlets had become prey to tract housing and trailer parks. Ash far preferred cities like New York or San Francisco, for while they eventually spilled over into the surrounding areas, the clustering of the cities themselves seemed to follow some natural law like termite or ant hives. It is wrong for any place to have so much sky with so few stars, Ash mused. The woman sitting in the next seat tried to engage him in small talk. Ash smiled at her absently, genially, but his answers were so distant and so often monosyllabic that the woman soon gave up and returned to reading her magazine. What had been the crawl of suburbia seemed to loom and swell ominously. Los Angeles lay before him.
After what seemed like hours of freeway navigations, circling and driving down streets lined with litter and living humans who found temporary happiness a bottle, Ash found himself at the bus terminal in downtown Los Angeles. Ash waited patiently for the slower passengers to gather up their belongings or children, then gracefully unfolded himself from his seat, and casually strolled down the aisle and into the crowded bus terminal. He pulled out his wallet and was looking through the tiny coin pocket for a change to call Rena and let her know he was here when he heard a voice.
"Ashley", a husky, feminine voice said with wry humor. Ash prepared his standard reply, an irritated 'don't call me that!' when he looked up. The sound died in his throat and he choked back a gasp. Dorene Vivian Martin had always been a large girl. Her generous frame could have most properly been called rubenesque. She had a cherubic face, her skin had contained a healthy pink glow, and her long auburn curls were the envy of most of her peers. She had been a Madonna painted by Giotto. That was not the Rena that stood before Ash. Her hair hung in long unkempt strands, stringy and greasy, the color indeterminate. Her skin was ashen and sallow, there were dark circles around her eyes, but most disturbingly her clothes hung off her like they were hand-me-downs from an aged and eccentric aunt. Ash cut into the awkward silence with a quick, "How did you know I was coming?"
Rena, noticing the horrified look upon Ash's face smiled without humor and cracked, "You could say I've been on a special diet," then her face became mournful and seemed to age suddenly, "I knew you'd be here tonight, something just told me."
"Rena... wh-what happened? Are you ill?" Ash spat out, feeling both awkward and idiotic. "You could say that," Rena said, almost wistfully, "there's lots wrong with me but, this isn't the right place to discuss them. Let's go home"
Ash nodded, still having trouble finding his voice in the face of this new Rena. The two of them walked without speaking into the parking lot where they climbed into Rena's ancient Honda civic.
Ash and Rena drove through the night, without speaking, neither one of them daring to break the awkwardness of years that lay heavy on them. Ash stared out the window at a Los Angeles that was transformed from the one he knew. They drove down Hollywood Blvd, a street once blighted by urban decay, now glistening and clean. The well-lit sidewalks were no longer host to punks, criminals and assorted misfits, giving Ash the feeling that he was on some huge studio sound stage. It was Rena who finally broke the silence,
"I've missed you. I'm glad you got away, wish I had," she said wistfully. Ash heard the pain in her voice but was unable to offer consolation.
Rena parked her car in front of a fading, blue two-story walk-up. They trudged up the stairs and into Rena's tiny apartment. Rena flopped down on the couch while Ash surveyed the room. Rena had always been immaculate, and Ash viewed the dust that was covering her bookshelf and kitchenette table, and the dishes slowly molding in the sink with dismay. He looked again at Rena who favored him with a wan, tired smile.
"I bet you're wondering why I'd call you back into Hell. Believe me, if there was any other way..."
"I'd do anything for you, you know that. What's wrong?" Ash said.
"Man trouble. You know I always lost my head when there was a man involved." Ash looked at Rena again and wondered if she was being abused or if this man had gotten Rena to use drugs. He seethed silently as he plotted terrible revenge at this thing who'd hurt Rena.
"Oh, it's not what you think. He hasn't really hurt me, just changed me. Part of me likes the change, the part that doesn't reached out to you"
Tears overflowed Ash's eyes and slid down his cheek. "Rena, what has he done to you? Who is this man? Why didn't you write me sooner?"
"I didn't want to worry you. You'll meet him soon enough."
"What do you mean, did you tell him I was coming? Who is he?"
"I didn't have to tell him. He'll smell you, he'll come because of you," Rena said, her face transformed from tired into something crafty, something greedy.
"Oh, Ash. Because of you he'll love me again. Get some sleep." Rena turned out the light in the living room and retired to her own small bedroom. Ash lay on the couch, head resting on his arm, and soon fell prey to troubling dreams.
Rena was gone when Ash awoke the next morning. She left a note telling him to make himself breakfast and giving him the time of her return. Ash spent the day cleaning Rena's apartment. He'd always hated cleaning, and was not especially tidy, however, returning Rena's living space to its usual shine gave him a small degree of comfort. Dusk found Ash planted in front of Rena's television, one antenna augmented by a wire hanger, its picture covered in snow. Shortly after twilight a glamorous Rena returned. Ash was used to Rena wearing little to no make-up. The woman who swept in was a compendium of powder, lipstick, eye shadow and mascara. The make- up hid the dark circles and discolorations. Her hair was piled on top of her hair in an elaborate coif. She looked lovely, but altogether alien.
"Oh Ash," she vocalized in a singsong fashion, "He's coming tonight, I can just feel it." Her eyes were nearly glowing with anticipation. Ash, happy to see some spark return to Rena was nevertheless concerned. She never wore make-up, nor did she allow a man's attentions to determine her happiness. Ash attempted to say something about Rena's perplexing behavior when the doorbell rang.
"It must be him," Rena gushed, giddy as a schoolgirl. Before she could run to the door, it was flung open dramatically. In the doorway stood a breathtakingly beautiful man. He was tall, well over six feet, lithe and agile, he reminded one of a jungle cat. His ebony skin glistened in the incandescent light, his generous lips parted just enough to display shockingly white teeth. Rena stood transfixed, reverent, Ash half-expected her to genuflect before this dark god. He looked past Rena at Ash, Ash could almost feel his gaze travelling over his skin, quantifying, analyzing, memorizing. Finally he spoke, looking down at Rena with something approaching affection.
"You are right beloved. He is magnificent," then, "Pardon my rudeness. I am known as Mercutio. You both shall be my guests to a party this evening."
Mercutio looked down at Ash and frowned.
"We shall have to find something appropriate for you to wear," he said to Ash imperiously. Ash was stuck silent by Mercutio's presence. Despite his earlier anger at a man who could reduce Rena into a shadow of the woman she once was, Ash wanted to do anything to make this man happy. Ash noticed his change in attitude, was sickened by it, but felt powerless to rebel against it. Rena was right, there was something special about him.
Mercutio smiled once more. "Come, my limo awaits, and we have many things to discuss before the party". Ash followed along seemingly without volition.
NEXT: Part II, The Gala
Christopher Caldwell is 21 in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/9010