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by Callie Solberg


He was drifting. Clarity broke through in waves, crystalizing the blur of headlights into a clear photograph before sinking back into neon blooms. These momentary snapshots materialized in slow motion, then sped up. He watched the hand of the speedometer inch up and down, up and down. Drivers honked and swerved to pass him, occasionally offering the bird.

He just grinned back.

He liked driving best just after dusk. Sunset strip was gentler then, the blinking lights washing out the pale faces of over-excited tourists. Fluorescent reds and yellows laced around signs advertising another new blockbuster hit. He watched the calves of willowy women pulse as their sky high heels struck the pavement.

The car squealed in protest as he wrenched the steering wheel too far, squeezing into a free space in the dimly lit lot. Reaching into the console, he grabbed an eyedropper and tried to stop the shaking in his hands as he pinched his eyes open. Slamming the car door, he made his way towards the thumping music, blinking as the patterned lights swam in his oversaturated gaze.

“Eli, man, what the fuck are you doing here?”

The coarse voice was a cooling wave amidst the smoke and sweat of the room. He turned to address the speaker.

“Paul, hey. What’s happening.”

The man threw him a puzzled look, as if surprised by his calm demeanor.

“You know, the usual. You’re looking for Marco?”

Paul trailed off, searching Eli’s face. Eli saw that his eyes were focused, sober. His self-consciousness surged.

“Nah, nah. Not Marco. Um...” Eli searched for an answer, an excuse. “Just killing time, I guess.”

“Sure man.” Paul responded, loosening his body language. “How’s that girl you were seeing? Sierra?”

He felt his jaw clench before he could control it. He looked away quickly, avoiding Paul’s eye.


“Oh, right, right. She’s getting used to city life then?” Paul asked delicately. In his periphery, Eli saw him lean forward slightly, trying to read his expression. He despised how people had been tiptoeing around him lately. The way they gingerly probed at him like a mental patient made his stomach twist in resentment. All it did was improve his skill at painting a placid mask over any genuine emotion. His heart skipped a beat, whether from the pressure of the interrogation or the liquor swimming through his bloodstream, he couldn’t tell. Suddenly hyper-aware of that organ, he counted the beating rhythm within his chest, an unseen detonation waiting to explode beneath the surface. He worked against the heat in his face, trying to keep a static expression.

“For sure,” he responded curtly, keeping his eyes trained on the swirl of motion in the middle of the room. He watched a man with a patchy beard turn to his friend and smile as a dark haired girl in stilettos kneeled on the stage in front of him. The sight amused him, like he was watching a cartoon wolf loll its sloppy tongue out of its gaping mouth.

“Well hey, man, you know you’re always welcome to come by. I’ll keep it on the down low if Kiara asks,” said Paul. Eli nodded, the muscles in his jaw still straining against his upper teeth.

Paul clapped him on the shoulder and slid away into the fluctuating crowd. Eli dropped into a nearby chair, lifting an abandoned beer to his lips. The brunette girl on the stage was scooping up bills that floated listlessly at her feet, a song by the Weeknd fading out over the speakers as she finished her dance. Her makeup was gaudy, like a clown. Something about her long hair and the scoop of her lower back reminded him of Kiara. He growled under his breath and stood up, heading back out into the night.

The street was void of cars when he pulled into the driveway. Clambering out of the mustang, he turned to observe the canyon, putting off his retreat indoors. Several homes still had their lights on. He squinted, imagining them as small, shimmering mirages in the dark. Beyond, the bright gridline of the city stretched towards the ocean. After several minutes the night chill soaked through his thin shirt and he moved towards the front door. The quiet of the house boomed against his ears after the noise of the night. Fumbling in the dark, his head swimming, he felt along the wall. A small red light indicated his target and he hit the answering machine, his breath caught in his chest as he waited for her voice.

“You have no new messages,” the automated voice echoed against the empty walls.

“Fuck,” he whispered to himself, running a hand through his hair. In the kitchen he leaned against the counter. The old house didn’t allow any breeze through. He couldn’t breathe.

Everything about the low ceilings and long hallways felt suffocating without her presence. He yanked his sweat-stained shirt over his head and leaned down to the tap, gulping the coppery water.

Straightening up, he wiped his mouth along the back of his hand. He let himself fall back in time to the same room, in an alternate universe, bathed in golden afternoon light. Her long hair swayed as she moved about, measuring sugar and submerging her hands in flour. Dust motes circled her head in a halo, the light through the window illuminating her tangle of curls. She smiled up at him, freezing the moment.

A car door slammed on the street, bringing him back to the dark, silent kitchen. Feeling his way down the hallway he stopped at the doorway of a room. A street lamp illuminated one wall, an eerie yellow glow. The marble vanity was littered with girlish things. An uncapped tube of glowing lipstick, a shimmering bottle of nail polish. He grimaced at the false eyelash clinging to a tissue. It clung lifelessly, discarded. Everything was covered in dust. An image of her swiping blush onto her cheeks materialized in the three-paned mirror. He shut the door.

The velvet of the couch in the living room felt alien under his buzzing skin. He fumbled around for the remote, flicking on the tv. Bright light washed the room, making him wince. He hit mute and let a channel with rotating music videos play as he sparked up another cigarette.

Balancing the butt on an amber ashtray he reached for one of the magazines spread on the wooden coffee table. Sex in Cinema, Playboy, 73rd edition bloomed in purple lettering next to the head of a blonde woman dangling a thick cigar against her parted lips. He didn’t have to hide them now. Didn’t have to avoid her reproachful looks and sulking. He brushed away the secondary thought that this was a pathetic attempt at self-comfort. But something about the girl's
gaze felt glib and plastic tonight. He thought of the girl on stage earlier, artificial makeup and tacky clothing. He tossed the magazine back onto the table.


His gaze refocused on the tv. Abruptly his body went stiff and his tongue worked against the roof of his suddenly dry mouth. It was her. She was dancing across the screen, unapologetically holding eye contact with the camera. Her hair was a brilliant red now but the familiar, voluminous curls were intact. She had powdered her face into a pale white and plastered vibrant blue eye shadow across her lids. Her glossy, pursed red lips moved silently, no sound emanating from the speakers. He leaned forward in a trance, his whole frame shaking. The credited name in the corner of the screen was not hers, but he would recognize her anywhere.

She filled the frame of the camera, swirling against a glittering black backdrop. Her shimmering figure was straight from a magazine cover, boots kicking the air as she laid out on a bar top, flirting with the camera as the shot faded out.

The screen flashed to a late night host, shaking him from his trance. He moved to find the remote, hurrying to bring the sound back. The man's voice broke the silence in the room, “-just listening to Camille Ross, Apple TV’s 2024 Breakthough Artist. She’s currently touring in London, but don’t worry folks, you’ll get a chance to see her at The Wiltern this July!”

His jaw worked furiously again. He tried to drown out the grating sound of the man's voice as his teeth ground together. His body was on fire and in one fluid motion he picked up the ashtray and flung it at the man. A spiderweb crack burst across the screen and the image was shattered. Sound from the speakers continued to trickle into the room.

“She’s gonna be the next big thing, folks. Buy your tickets before they sell out. You’ll regret missing out on this!”

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