The dissolution of a reality as it's replaced by another feels the same as having your heart broken, and since it happens to me usually in the presence of Clyde, it's a feeling I've come to associate with him almost exclusively. All the broken dreams and unfinished plans...
The forced release of my fingers off of those things I wanted to keep hold of. It's always Clyde that tears your fingers loose, using his blunt-nailed thick hands that are twice the temperature of anyone else's. There's a feeling of heartbreak, and then the kind of static and snow that accompanies a fainting spell.
The way other writers would put it is that Coney Island dissipated, and was replaced with a strange land in my... vision, or whatever. How it really works is that Clyde drags us anywhere in the cement embrace of uncaring oblivion.
The world which came to greet me was a hard one, under red sky. When reality comes back to you after the dissolution of an old one, it feels the same as when your lover is replaced by a stranger you've never seen. This looked like the surface of Mars, but I knew where it was by smell. The inside of Brad. The Bradlands.
At the edge of the Garden which makes me, there's a flat plain which begins like grassland and inclines gently to the East. As the land rises, the grass dries and exposes the pink rocks beneath, which blacken as they plateau in the barren distance. All storms which bring rain to the Garden come from that place - the dark horizon where the lightning gathers. That's Brad, out there, always approaching with the pace of seconds between flashes.
Out in the desert, there's a city he keeps half alive and half destroyed. It's on the edge of that city Denton crouches, ready to run to the water when the bomb explodes.
I look around, trying to get my bearings. The city in Brad is always Dummy Town, where the dread and expectation hang thick in the air, but that dread turns it to Springwood, and Amityville, and Derry, and Stepford. I can see the lights from the city glowing just over the hill, sodium yellow against the reddish sky. I walk up an embankment toward where I know the road is, and find evidence of Brad's humorless humor next to the gravel path cut through the rocks: a caution sign that reads BAT COUNTRY.
Outside of the city, it's important to stay on the road, but I don't know why I think that. One of the things hard-wired into me as Brad's twin, maybe; let him be the older twin, don't follow him when he goes out at night, stay on the road when you leave the city, never turn your back on the storms.
The longer I walk, the surer I become no one is listening to me anymore. The clearer it is that they never were. The easier it is to stray off the road.
This is what a nightmare feels like: no outside perspective to reassure you that it’s a movie, or that bad things don’t happen to good people, not that I really believe… I am one… right?
I’ve walked this length of road with Brad before; this piece of the desert which takes your soul away and turns it into something no one else was using, either, so we can just throw it away here in the sand. Out in the flatlands, I think maybe I ought to see them all glittering, the souls people have discarded on the roadside, like blobs of luminescent jellyfish, all blue and cool in the half-light and indicating how fucking good at his job he is, the King of Nightmares.
The sunlight is a slap in the face. Bright cool air, the wind rushing by driving with the top down. This isn’t the heavy transition of Clyde, no sir, this is something else. I’ve gone and got myself somewhere else. I jolt like waking from a dream I was falling, my legs kicking sharp the dark space under…
Under the Stingray. My heart pounding hard, I look up to see Adam driving, his arm resting on the top of the door, his sunglasses rimmed in gold. He looks like an avenging angel, gold and powder blue and brown. He looks clean like nothing in the desert did. The wind is cold and beats on what I can feel is a sunburn on my shoulders.
“Evelyn,” he says, his voice quiet under the rush of the wind, and he points his eyes at me over his sunglasses like the school professor I know he is inside.
“I... “ I wheeze at him, and begin a panic attack, the cream leather of the Stingray creaking under my tight fists. When he pulls the car off the road, I scream at him.
“We have to stay on the road!”
He ignores me over the gravel on the shoulder, and gets out of the car to put me in the chokehold of his embrace and breathe his breath into my mouth so I don’t hyperventilate (a new tactic he’s begun which I find disgusting and I’m sure he finds arousing).
Cars fly by us with the same whooshing sound, irregular and irritating. One, two… one… one… one, two, three… one…
He takes his sunglasses off to speak to me, and his dark eyes are concerned but suspicious.
“Are you alright?”
“You’re burning up.”
“I was dreaming, I guess. About the desert.”
“This desert?” he asks me, and I look around for the first time.
The desert and city both ahead of me are as non-descript as a file cabinet. One is brown, and the other is slightly gray, nodules twinkling in the sun which is bleached a color that makes the baby blue of the Stingray both greener and sicker.
“This is Vegas,” I realize at Adam, who shoves a cigarette into his teeth and lights it around his most sarcastic smile.
“It is, that,” he mutters, his tone smug.
“We’re getting married in Vegas,” I repeat to him, my voice devoid of expression, remembering my agreement with him to get married like the peasants do - like anyone does. I should’ve expected this. I should’ve expected the heart-shaped bed in the honeymoon suite of the Sands because of the lizardly thing Adam is, the basement-dweller of the universe.
He sits me back down into the car and climbs into the driver’s seat. I can see I’m wearing a dress, which I only ever seem to anymore because Adam is wearing a suit. It’s a pink that foils his steel blue suit and we might as well be the peg-people from the game of Life, riding in our baby blue car to the first square which says “Get Married.”
The engine revs as he accelerates back to highway speed. It makes a low humming purr both animal and mechanical and Adam’s hands flex on the wheel because anything both animal and mechanical is an extension of himself.
“Do you know what year it is?” he asks me, and I glance over at him. I’ve written about Adam’s voice as much as I’ve written about Brad’s eyes, as much as I’ve written about Clyde’s hair, and Joshua’s hands, and Matthew’s missing ring finger. I’m a one-note creature the way anyone would be living here and surrounded by the things which they find constantly beautiful. Surrounded as I am by Dean’s shoulders and John’s scars and Nick’s vicious hip-bones.
But anyway, it cuts, his voice. It’s dry and it cuts and turns dour and judgmental. He says, “Do you know what year it is?” and he’s just asking, I already know, but it sounds like I really ought to know the year, and I might not be worth the air I’m breathing if I don’t. It’s a reasonable question, really, given what I’ve just told him, and so I know I should give him a reasonable response.
“Fuck you,” is what I choose instead.
“Ah,” is his reply. “So that’s a no.”
The Las Vegas strip, as it’s coming into view ahead of me, is scattered and pale. There are maybe seven visible hotels, all whitish and gleaming.
“1968?” I ask him.
“For a few months,” he agrees.
Adam switches on the radio, and I think for the thousandth time how he has taken all these things women find so traditionally masculine and turned them into weapons. His cologne is an assault, and his suit is an overt threat of all the things he is expecting of me later, and his car is a declaration of war and the chests of gold he has to fund this endless military campaign. Yes, he’s a man, but sitting next to one throws me into the terse contrast of being a girl. As a girl - as maybe the only girl on earth - I can tell you I don’t really want a man. A man is terrifying.
I can taste his breath in my mouth worn by the flavor of bourbon and cigarettes. Maybe there’s something to all that time women used to spend preparing their daughters for marriage. I’d feel better with a lion and a whip right now, but I try to remember that he feels the same about me - that I’ve perverted almost every delicate thing in his mind to be a weapon of feminine threat to him; that I’ve worried him and bewildered him and that my “fuck you” had hurt him, likely deeply. I don’t know why it’s so easy to feel like I’m allowed to hurt Adam, but it’s probably because he seems allowed to scare me.
“It was Brad’s desert,” I tell him. “That’s what I was dreaming of. But it felt real.”
“You made plans with both of us. Maybe fate is calling in your marker.”
“I’m sorry I said fuck you,” I apologize, and he laughs short.
“Well, you’re accepted, Evelyn. But I don’t know if that’ll save you, now.”
Adam pulls the Stingray up to the Sands, as predicted, but he’s always talking about the safety found in cliche. I’ve had 20 minutes to reconcile myself to the idea of the anonymity of a hotel room and all it’s considerate embarrassments of mouthwash and extra toilet paper and two oversized bathrobes. Because the room already knows what we came here to do.
The sun sinks fast, and sky turns the color of purple blush. The heat raises until the car vanishes, Adam vanishes grotesque like a melting shadow, and the memory of him is blasted onto the rock beside me.
There was something we used to duplicate the burning of a shadow onto a wall, when we were kids; some toy our mother got us which flashed the shapes we made until they faded again and I remember thinking it was magic until I learned about Hiroshima and the concept of Light and Shadow. I remember Brad using it to etch his middle finger into a moment for as long as he possibly could, and me realizing for the first time that I have no profile to speak of at all.
The memory is torn loose from me and exaggerated to something resembling entitlement or ingratitude in the desert where I’ve found myself flung again. How fucking dare we, right? How fucking dare we discuss photosensitivity without the dread of the A-bomb in the forefront of our minds. We were sick children because we were American, you know? Because what that means, really, is a blithe ignorance of how things really are, and we need correcting all the time with those Dad speeches, right?
Brad’s voice is so clear and clean on the wind here, I suck my lip between my teeth and bite until I taste blood. Here in the Nightmare, he can turn any thought in on itself to mean you don’t deserve to think it, even bullshit ones like that, but I’ve never really minded because it feels safe to me. Knowing I was right about everything and deserve nothing lets me know exactly where I stand. Nothing feels quite as good as Brad’s nihilism because everything is too late and what that does to us is secret, but it basically makes us gods beholden to no rules of creation at all.
It’s worth noting, or possibly isn’t, that I am not wearing my stupid dress anymore, but my uniform of jeans and white shirt, and this trip is taking me from one end of girlhood to the other end of soldierboy.
It’s also worth noting, or maybe it isn’t, that Brad has built himself to be obfuscating in this way, to keep anyone out who ever really wanted to love him (both something he wanted and something he never meant to create) (you know, like anything).
We all take this long walk into Brad’s hopelessness. We all walk this long road to the place where the journey never meant anything to begin with. I can taste something in my mouth that might be iron and might be the memory of blood. I used to think he was protecting something wonderful and as I got to know him better, I realized it was probably something like the fucking Holocaust - something he didn’t want anyone to know because it would do something to the innocence of their heart.
I always felt as his sister that it was up to Brad somehow to protect my innocence. He certainly acted like it was his business, and every step I took into the black abyss of all my self-destruction was something he needed to know all about and step in front of first like a speeding train, and maybe this was why. Maybe he’d seen something, or held something in his heart that made him accountable for it.
But as we grew up, I wanted to know about it and as the one who knew him best, I could find it if I wanted to. All our circling one another and ways we couldn’t be close maybe came down to this one place where he just didn’t want me to see who he was inside, or what it was he knew. That’s complicated, but it comes down to our natures and how they differ. That he wants to protect me and I want to protect him and neither of us will ever stop. I mean I could tell other stories about that, but.
The road dips low for less than a mile, and then rises over a hill. Cresting the hill, I see the ruins lay out before me in a small valley of dark stone. The apex of the ruins is crowned with a kind of henge, and I’d seen the long and gentle slopes somewhere before. Maybe the cover of Houses of the Holy, but missing are all the naked children crawling up it’s incline.
The rocks that look as though they’d been laid out in deliberate patterns fade to the pattern on the gold bedspread of the king-sized single. The white box on the bed of the hotel is stuffed with pale blue tissue paper that’s closed with a small length of navy string.
“It’s an English tradition,” Adam says, stretching out beside the box in his suit. “But the usual problem with traditions is, no one will tell you how they came about, except to say it’s good luck.”
“I… I just don’t know why it has to be blue,” I tell him, gathering quickly this is the second time I’ve said this sentence.
It’s Brad tossing me through time, I know, so gleeful and nonchalant. Being split between the two timelines feels like moving from captivity to freedom, with a spinning fear in the pit of my stomach. The hotel smells like Adam’s cigarettes and something impersonal and clean. The heat of the desert coupled with the cool anonymity of the hotel binds together in me a feeling of marriage and warfare - in fact that I’m agreeing to surrender something to Adam by doing this thing which I’ve now done hundreds if not thousands of times.
“You’re not supposed to see it,” I tell him, crossing my arms and frowning at him.
“Well, we aren’t going to be honoring every tradition, Evelyn. Now, that would be superstitious.”
Stretched out on the bed, he smirks at me to belie the fact that this sexually excites him, and my nervousness only makes it better for him. He’s unsympathetic to my time traveling because I was the one who double-booked our date, for lack of a better term, and now I’m reaping what I’ve sown. Not to mention I am being flung from the front lines of Brad to the clean interior of Adam, and he likes the feeling that I’m turning into an animal in front of him.
A blast of hot wind erases Adam, and I feel for a moment that I want to kill Clyde, and if not Clyde then Adam, and if not Adam, then Brad. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s one of those three boy kings who ruined absolutely any hope I ever had of a normal life.
Brad is at the top of the ruins, crouching over the dark stones like he’s testing vibrations in the ground, or tasting the minerals of the stone. His shadow is long, and he looks like a starved coyote.
There are places in Brad I will never go, and things living there I will never understand. I accepted that years ago, when I accepted the idea that not all of him would belong to me. Accepted that, and the idea that I never wanted all of him to belong to me in the first place.
But this part - this crouching madman whom I knew to have exacted a hundred revenges on a hundred girls - is all mine. A part of him complex and violent and romantic enough I had, in both jest and fear, named him Valentine. My Valentine. Happy Valentine’s Day to me.
While he doesn’t look at me, the expression on his face tells me he knows I’m approaching him, climbing the razor stones up the spine of this monster to reach the black apex of the ruin he’s standing on. Whatever ruin this is, is what Brad’s true kingdom is, somewhere under the rocks and shrouded in secret.
“And abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is,” I tell him as I get close, and he looks at me with a ready smile and a fast wink on his American face.
“Valentine," he greets me, and I shrink from his smooth voice.
Valentine, yes, fine, is something he sees in me also, but what form the name takes on is something I don’t know, and finding out means looking under these same black rocks I’m standing on.
I’ve seen this part of Brad…
This part of Brad now smiling in the red sunset, I have seen…
“You like that word ‘purloined’?” he asks the girl, and she doesn’t move. Her brown hair is stuck down with silver duct tape, and she hangs limp off of the metal shelving unit, her feet secured to the bottom shelf and her arms to the top in a tape and electrical cord crucifixion. Her face is tilted down, and Brad can, from his slightly lower angle, see the tears fall down her cheeks.
“Hey,” he says, his voice soft, and he stands and touches her face. “Hey, I said, do you like that word? Purloined?”
The girl’s eyelids flutter, and his heart stops for a moment. The running black of her eye makeup catches on the edge of the duct tape like a dam, and makes black ridges on her cheeks. She opens her eyes, which are round and dark. She shakes her head. Brad smiles at her like a movie star.
“No? I like it. We’re reading the Purloined Letter in school.”
He sits back down, and the girl breaks her eye-contact, and cries more.
“It’s kind of a sexy word,” he says, pulling a thread from his jeans. “Purrrrloined. It means stolen.”
He slaps his thigh with a buttery velvet sound, rubbing his leg in some triumphant thought.
“Hey, that’s like you. You’re purloined.”
The girl whimpers in her throat, a high and broken sound that makes the hair raise on his arms.
“Valentine,” I answer him back.
When he stands, he puts both hands on my shoulders, and his eyes try to make me understand.
The lights come up on this Wicked Little Town, and I never marry Adam.