For Judith Kramer, the script for ‘Growing Old Disgracefully’ was a life preserver in an ocean far from the shores of her former career. The project had been assigned two award-winning actors to star alongside her, and a number of television sketch comedy stars to keep the youth market happy. After eighteen years of struggling for air, both figuratively and literally, it was like returning home.
The press didn’t hurt, either. Not even the tabloids irritated her; so long as they they kept the momentum. “Judy’s back!” the headlines said. “Star of stage and screen overcomes illness to make her triumphant return!” It was the kind of story an audience lived for, in which the heroine was victorious against all odds.
“I owe it all to my friends and family, and most of all my devoted fans,” she was quoted as saying. Even if they had forgotten her for the better part of two decades, what did that matter? She was loved in the present; praised and sought after.
She sat in her trailer and breathed in time with her reflection. The layers of foundation may have shaved some years off, but she could see them in her eyes like rings in the base of a tree. No amount of hair dye, beauty treatment, or metro chic could hide her experience, least of all from herself.
Her arms tightened, no matter how much she stretched. How was she supposed to do ‘funny’ on film when she was so damn tense? The call to appear on set didn’t help, either.
In her desperation Judith reached into her handbag and unzipped the case she carried with her. Inside was an autoinjector and a series of phials filled with smoke colored liquid. Without any hesitation she loaded the syringe, shimmied from her slacks, and pressed it into her thigh with a sharp sting.
The first treatment had been instantaneous, and worth every cent of the ten thousand she’d put down to acquire it. Soon she was injecting three times a day, maybe more, and wouldn’t feel the effect for hours after.
Five minutes to filming, and tendons curled her knuckles into a ball. No matter; she was a professional, and could find a workaround.
She stepped out and onto the street, barricaded from one block to another, and populated entirely by extras. All of the cars, new models fresh off the lot, had been coordinated to pass at key intervals. Even the wind was bound to a script.
Judith did as her job required, though her mind was somewhere else. She chided the handsome older man as he jumped out of a limousine, and begged her to take him back.
“I swear, it’s not what it looks like!”
“Your secretary?” she echoed for the thousandth time, though her voice was as stiff as the rest of her. What was supposed to be indignation became a gasp of horror, as her eyes rolled back in her head.
Her co-star, whatever his name was, considered her and stepped away. “Jude, are you okay?”
She shook herself back to reality. Finally, her joints eased, though another, more potent sensation washed down her skin. It was cool, refreshing, and numb in a way she couldn’t say was unpleasant. Her head was light, thoughts tumbling around, until they spilled from her tongue.
“Geez, way to interrupt a scene, Hugh,” she grinned, though his name wasn’t Hugh.
Cast and crew alike stood idle, like children in an unfamiliar room. Did they have any idea how stupid they looked? Judy laughed so hard that she almost doubled over.
There were men - they were always men - in jackets and caps coming from behind the director’s chair to shuffle her away. Somewhere in their spiel were the words ‘drunk’ and ‘high’ and ‘maybe both’, as though such things weren’t inevitable on a film set.
Judy shrugged them away. “No, I want to finish my scene!”
“Ms Kramer,” they pleaded.
The actress, ever professional, straightened herself and cleared her throat. “Look, boys, the script says that my character beats her husband with her handbag, and by golly that’s what I’m going to do!” She arched on her heels toward the director. “You’ll want to start rolling now!”
Glee filled the air as she swung the leather bag at Hugh, or Sean, or Colin, or whoever the hell this guy was supposed to be. She laughed, and wailed on him with a series of smacks. As the crew stepped in she started on them as well. Each blow was more satisfying than the last.
Judy cackled like a banshee, and flew in every direction. Then, as quickly as she’d come apart her thoughts came back together, and in place of giddiness was cold and despair. Every eye around her, flaring with surprise, horror, or worse, drove her shame deeper.
Her voice caught in her throat. “I…need to go…”
Nobody followed her as she sprinted between the barricade and past the trailers. Some might figure she was in need a walk, others a stiff drink, and that she would be back soon. Truthfully, not even Judith knew if or when she would be back.
Six weeks later and there was still no word, not even from family or friends. For all people knew Judith Kramer had vanished from the face of the Earth.
* * * *
If you’ve never heard of Race O’Halloran you should count yourself lucky. From Monday to Friday, five to eight, and syndicated across the airwaves on fifty stations nationwide, Milestone’s local loudmouth is there to put his foot down and tell you what to think. Past hits include ‘slavery was part of God’s plan to save the African people’, and ‘hard-working CEOs didn’t need a set minimum wage to get ahead.’
I guess it was a matter of time before turning his lash my way.
“By now you’ve heard the news,” he hummed to an audience of thousands. “The hero of Milestone City, my hometown, is not as female as his or her name might suggest; but part of a swarm of ‘transgenders’ becoming oh-so prevalent in today’s society. Friends, like you I was aghast when I read the headlines, as I too was taken in by this wholesome facade. Once, I would have called this ‘Glimmer Girl’ a role model for our youth, but that was before learning the real story; a tragic story, of a confused young man seeking the wrong kind of attention.”
Who would have thought that the author of ‘The American Foundation: Relearning our National Heritage’ and ‘A Patriot’s Journey: Traditional Values and the New United States’ would be a narrow-minded jerk. The only surprise was in how those jowls and crooked smile remained sprawled across so many billboards. To think, someone cared about what he had to say.
Race propped himself on his elbow and leaned toward the mic. With every thought his hand chopped the air, as though cutting through the imagined lies and doublespeak. “Friends, these are troubled times. Our culture is at war. When everything's so muddled, when men aren’t permitted to be men, and we’re inundated with ‘cisgender’, ‘polygender’, and ‘metrosexual’, how are we supposed to guide our children into leading decent, normal lives? When we acknowledge someone like ‘Glimmer Girl’ as a ‘hero’ we lift up gender confusion as something to aspire to! I ask you, where does it end?”
I closed the video and dropped the phone. No more time for masochism; I had a class to prepare for, no matter how much the comforter begged me to stay.
Tanya’s aura loomed as she sniffed the air. “Jeez, KC. When’s the last time you did laundry?”
I groaned from under the blanket. “Laundry is for people with dignity, lives, and/or future prospects. Look in the room where I keep mine and you’ll notice it is empty.”
Without warning she pulled the comforter away, opening the way for an assault of cold air along my limbs. I’d been wearing the same shirt for days, my hair was a tangled weave, and the sparse patch of stubble that hadn’t been lasered out of my face roughly matched that of a fourteen year old boy. Maybe that should have bothered me, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.
“You need to start looking after yourself,” Tanya said. “I can’t play spare mom forever.”
I stared at the ceiling, and barely spoke. “What’s the point? My life is over.”
“Maybe it is for Glimmer Girl, but you’re still the same Kaira, with passions that are disconnected from your life in costume. You just need a new hobby is all.”
My head rolled so I could face her. “It’s not a hobby.” Gods, I couldn’t even get angry.
Tanya sat on the corner of the bed. “Are you sure? Because I’ve known you forever, and you put on the suit every time you get bored. Saving the world is just a good excuse.” Gods, I hated her knowing me so well. “Admit it. You feel lost because Glimmer Girl doesn’t feel ‘free’ anymore.”
There was no doubt that Tanya was going to make a fantastic shrink one day; if only she spared friends her analytical prowess. Her words churned in my gut, forcing me onto my side and into a ball. How many times was I going to cry this out? It’d been the better part of a month since Simon broke the word.
I said nothing, and choked on the sobs.
Tanya’s hand ran down my arm. “I know this is hard,” she said, “but you’ve got to pull yourself together. Life goes on, and it’s not going to slow down or wait.” She sighed, turned away, and bit her own harsh tongue; she always hated tough love as much as I did.
Her tone softened, and she leaned closer. “You know you’re not alone in this, right?”
I knew, but it didn’t seem to change anything.
Tanya sighed, and jumped to her feet. “You know what? It’s Friday, and tonight I’m dragging your butt out. We’re going to get you all pretty, take you out dancing, and you’re going to have the most fun, whether you want to or not!”
“No,” I whined, and drove a pillow over my head, but it was too late; Tanya was already folding my laundry in with her own, including the black dress I hadn’t worn since fall of last year.
“Yes,” she sang back.
“I hate you!”
“Love you too,” she hummed, and carried the basket out the door. Sometimes having a best friend was a pain in the butt.
* * * *
She could remember like yesterday that old bed with the lime, tan, and fuschia duvet, and the bodies rolling underneath it. In two steps she’d crossed the room, and threw the sheets back to reveal her ‘husband’ and another woman, both in their underwear; him in silk boxers and a white undershirt, and her wearing a matching red bra and panty set.
“It’s not what it looks like!” Dave exclaimed.
The woman in red, half his age and picked off a line of would-be models, threw her arms over her chest and rolled to the corner of the bed.
Judith sneered, placed her hands on her hips, and raised a questioning brow. “Well you sure ain’t doin’ the hokey pokey,” she said, and paused.
Laughter erupted from the fourth wall, where in place of drawers or a closet sat a live studio audience; tourists mostly, rounded together to witness the ‘magic’ of television firsthand. The jokes didn’t have to be funny; they laughed when on cue, and what beats they missed could be dubbed in post-production.
It was a simpler time, when all Judith had to worry about were the shakes. At least she could pretend that was the worst of it, before the pratfalls and the nausea, the headaches and the growing need for bedrest. Then, overnight, her life was feeding tubes and respirators, until everything she was ended at the bedroom door.
They never said her career was over, or that the show was cancelled; just on hiatus, until things picked up. God, she hated them for that.
Back in the present and twisted under a hoodie, Judith had to keep from bouncing. Her legs were wound like steel springs and were twisting her bones into dust. She giggled, dizzy with the rush of adrenaline, as she fought the shifting gravity of the path.
She found her way to the loft entrance of a building, tucked away in an alley and hidden behind a dumpster. From the outside it looked like a boarded up shop, just like the others in the former distribution hub; anyone might have thought it was a ghost town.
She banged against the door, and again when there was no answer. Judith giggled and wept, and continued to bash the rusted iron until someone answered.
A speaker crackled to life. “Yes?”
“I need another treatment,” she rasped.
“It’s been over a month, Jude,” a steely voice replied. “We assumed you had, erm… taken your business elsewhere.”
She supposed it was natural, given her absence. The entertainment networks, papers, and news channels all had their theories as to what had happened, but it was all smoke. If the world saw the truth, and the way her hands stayed locked in fists, her career would have died a second time.
“I need,” she said, this time more forcefully; “a treatment.”
The speaker considered her. “Do you have the thirty-thousand?”
She reeled and spat. “Thirty? It used to be ten!”
“Call it ‘hazard pay’,” the voice said. “You’re drawing a lot of unwanted attention, Judith. We’ll help you, but it’s going to cost.”
She gasped, fell against the door, and followed it to the filthy ground. Her savings were tapped, and there was no way to access the funds provided by the studio off the grid. Even her ex-husbands would think twice before helping her out of this one.
The speaker crackled. “Judith?”
“There’s no way,” she said. “I… please, just one treatment up front, and I can sort something…”
There was silence. For the sake of his humanity she hoped the man inside was considering her plea.
“We don’t do loans, Judith,” the speaker said, “but there is something you can do for us, if you agree to our terms.”
She writhed in place and stared up. There were no lights save the pollution from midtown that blotted out the stars. Even the streetlamps had gone in this forgotten corner of the city.
“Yes,” she gasped. “Anything!”
The door buzzed and hung open. Judith hooked her knuckle against the dumpster, dragged herself upright, and stepped into the midnight stairway inside.
* * * *
I used to feel guilty for wanting to be pretty, like there was something wrong with plucking my eyebrows, or shaving my legs. Wearing makeup and styling my hair always felt good; and as I slipped into a nice dress, and laced up my platforms the guilt dropped like a bomb. The voices I’d collected would say I was trivializing what it was to be a woman, like having fun was the worst kind of sin.
“Don’t let them do that to you,” Tanya had said more than once. “Everyone on the planet likes to feel attractive now and then. Why should you be any different?” She knew the answer, same as I did; same as she knew it was the paranoia talking.
That night I was so beautiful even I couldn’t hide from it. Depression melted away in the mirror’s glare, where a tall girl with cascading waves of hair and eyeliner pointed to kill stared back. She swished in her black sequin dress with one sleeve, and platforms that carried her to the stars. Somehow through the shame and torment I’d forgotten her, though I was suddenly sure I’d never do that again.
It was destined to be a special night. Tanya stepping out in a dress was like the planets aligning; rare, and spectacular. She beamed and swished in the purple chiffon that was so typical of her, and though the contacts replacing her glasses seemed alien they made her features so much brighter.
She planted her boots in a power stance. “Well we’ve got you half smiling,” she said. “Let’s go show the club what for.”
Time flew on the way to Eastbridge, where bright neon pulsed against the backbeat of the night. I knew the streets, and the names of all the bars, though I’d rarely seen them from the ground. There were people everywhere, moving back and forth, thick with the smell of smoke and perfume that grabbed me from my balance. I was wild and giddy, and without the need for a drink.
It was only then that I realized how removed Glimmer Girl was from the crowd; being above them, and not a part of them, was safe. Was that the cost of flying? Once I’d had all the freedom on the world, but nobody to laugh with; not like the strangers huddling around tables on the sidewalk.
Tanya snatched my hand and pulled me to the next corner.
Trix was waiting for us, leaning by a convenience store like some leather wrapped fixture staring into the ether. She looked over the crowd with the profile of a shadowy goddess, and only by her grace were they allowed to pass. Cross-legged beside her on the ground was Ashley, her newly straightened hair rendering her unrecognizable, along with her black and white polka dot dress.
Once she and Tanya were in range they were magnetized, and flew together for the kind of obnoxious PDA that was typical of them. Ashley lingered around the other side, wary of getting too close.
“So, what are we doing?” Trix grinned. “Margaritas? Shots?”
I stopped, and looked to the others. Neither Tanya nor Ashley seemed surprised by the suggestion, even though they were also underage.
Trix considered me a moment. “Or… we could do mocktails at an all-ages lounge.”
“No, we… we can drink if you want.” Gods, I was so innocent.
“This isn’t one of those after-school PSAs,” Tanya said. “Nobody’s going to pressure you into anything. Tonight’s all about you, girl. What do you want to do?”
I rolled the thought around; after all, we were supposed to be having fun. I folded my arms and frowned. “Don’t we need fake IDs or something?”
“Nah,” Trix said. “I know a guy who owes me. So long as we don’t make a scene, we’re cool.”
All eyes were on me, waiting on a decision. I’d tried alcohol before; that was inevitable at college, but I’d never been drunk. It looked stupid, but fun; more fun than I’d had in a long, long time.
“Tequila?” I grinned.
We linked arms and covered the sidewalk, following Trix’s lead to parts unknown. There was a whole night ahead of us, and I was eager to taste.
* * * *
‘Eclipse’ was more like a time capsule than it was a nightclub, splashed with electric blue and hot pink, geometric shapes, and palm trees in every corner. The DJ grooved on his podium, broadcasting Top 40 anachronisms over the blinking tiles on the dancefloor. Bodies stretched from one end to the other, moving with the rhythm, while the bass pumped in all our collective chest.
Trix beckoned us to the bar, where a bare-chested man in suspenders and a black bow tie filled a string of glasses with an amber liquid, each served with a slice of lime, and a salt shaker to share between us. She yelled over the music, but I couldn’t make out the words. Instead I just did as she did; poured salt on my hand, licked it, took the shot, and bit into the fruit.
The girls watched as I poured the contents down my neck. It was like swallowing fire with a bitter aftertaste, but eased with the citrus saturating my tongue. My head swayed, like being kicked, until I shook myself back to reason.
Tanya leaned over Trix, while Ashley peered from behind. “Well?”
I slammed the glass topside down, and beamed. “Who’s up for seconds?”
The party threw up their arms, and cheered. After all, if all the hype was to be believed this was one of life’s great milestones, and I was there in perfect company. We fell into each other and laughed, while shirtless-nameless-cheesy-sex-beast poured the next round; and again, and again.
Next I knew we were on the dancefloor, flowing like waves along the ocean current. My head was swimming, light and without thought. There was only feeling; warmth in my cheeks, and the shifting gravity pulling me into freefall one limb at a time. Laughter burst from every pore. I never knew being alive could be so good.
A voice called to me. I could barely make out the words. “Hey, what’s up?”
I’d never seen him before. He was tall with short hair and a fade cut, wearing a loose white tee that shone neon colors under the house lights. I smiled and shuffled away, but he kept following, and snaked around the other partygoers to jump into my path.
“What’s your name?”
I didn’t say anything, and swayed in search for an exit. There were bodies everywhere, standing like walls on the other side of freedom.
Suddenly, a hand flew over my shoulder. I recognized the purple chiffon sleeve, and pulled it closer. Tanya was warm, even if her breath reeked of the booze we shared.
“Are you hitting on my wife?” she huffed, fighting to stifle a giggle.
The stranger cracked a sideways smile. “Your wife, huh?”
She nodded. “Childhood sweethearts, you know. Thick and thin, death do us part, yadda yadda.”
I couldn’t stop smiling. Her touch was like a dream. It was safe. Was that just the alcohol?
“You know this is a fantasy of mine,” he said, like he was anything other than sleazy. The more he spoke, the more I frowned, the closer I pulled Tanya around me.
Another weight landed on our backs, before Trix barked at the would-be Romeo. “Are you hitting on my wives?” she said, and burst into a fit of laughter. It was contagious, and spread. We were drunk, and we were stupid.
Finally, the stranger gave up, and moved his attention to the other side of the dancefloor.
We fell apart, though Tanya grabbed my arm. Lucky, or I might have fallen. “You doing okay?” she asked.
I nodded like a ragdoll and beamed. I was more than fine.
Satisfied, she released her hold, and sashayed back into Trix’s embrace. Things were getting hot and heavy between them, and I needed to collect myself. The world was swimming, and I had to remember which way was up.
Ashley was waiting at the bar, forcing a half-smile and swirling a straw in a glass of ice. Had she been there the entire time?
“Are you okay?”
My hand reached out to hers, but she pulled away. “Sorry,” she said, shaking. “Places like this are over-stimulating for me.”
I nodded, barely keeping my head on my shoulders. “You want to maybe go outside and get some air?”
She exhaled, stood, and all but bolted for the door while I struggled to keep up. To think she’d been struggling all that time, and hadn’t said anything.
The clock tower across the street read one-thirty, and the cue for entry stretched around the corner. I doubted our chances of getting back inside, but maybe that was for the best.
Ashley folded her arms and drew a sharp breath. The beat from inside kept a steady pace, but struck softly through the layers of brick. The smell of cigarettes wafted, and prompted us to the other side of the road.
“Sorry if I ruined your night,” she said.
I shrugged. “It’s okay. I think I was starting to get partied out.”
Her eyes were glued to the asphalt. All she wanted was to feel like a regular person, and to connect. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, no matter how hard you try. Gods, it was like a flashback to high school.
“Usually this isn’t my scene, but I heard you were having a hard time, so I thought I’d try. Guess I should have known better.”
“You didn’t ruin anything,” I said. “But seriously, are you okay?”
Before she could answer a ball fell from the sky, unfurled into the shape of a person, and landed on the sidewalk with cat-like grace. The crowd scattered to reveal some kind of hobo clown wearing boxing gloves, a jester’s hat with bells hanging on either side, and a hideous clay mask with a deformed nose.
At a glance it might have been sinister performance art, until the clown turned toward a nearby teller machine and planted a fist at either side. With a grunt the machine twisted, and the mysterious figure ripped it from the wall, and tossed it into the street! They leapt, and started to bash it until the cash dispenser came open.
“Stay right here,” I told Ashley. She was frozen stiff, but I was halfway down the alley next door.
In the seconds it took for Glimmer Girl to burst on the scene the layout had changed. Partygoers rounded the stand-off between the mystery clown and two uniformed police with their guns trained on them. It was a tight space for a firefight, and too many bystanders to take the risk.
“Hands where I can see ‘em!” one of them barked, while the other circled around.
I held myself as upright as I could manage, and made doubly sure to enunciate. “You best do as he says. There’s no way you’re walking out of this.”
“We need back-up, not a drag show,” the other cop spat. Maybe it was inevitable, but there was no stopping the grind of my teeth.
Suddenly, the clown leapt into the air, and two rounds exploded after them. Dozens of people screamed and dropped to the ground, while the two arms officers unloaded their weapons.
What happened next was instinct; I twisted in the air, and lay into the cops with blasts to their torsos. They went down like lightweights, but were otherwise unhurt, coughing as they fought to regain their wind.
“What the hell were you thinking? Don’t open fire in a crowd!” I snapped.
They wanted to argue, but the mystery clown was getting away. Meanwhile, Ashley was in a ball on the ground, crying her eyes out. Gods, why couldn’t things just be easy for once?
I shot over the rooftops, across which my target was making light work. They ran and jumped like a superstar athlete, and made a show out of twists and flips. Were they human, or superhuman? Their endurance was seemingly endless.
After swooping overhead they dived for cover, and found shelter behind a cooling vent. I floated in a long arc, making sure to keep my distance, and flushed them out with a blast.
They fell on their face, while the ugly mask flew across the gravel and bird mess. When they crawled back to their feet I didn’t expect to know them.
“Hey, you’re on TV!”
Judith Kramer, former sitcom star and I guess current supervillain, rolled her eyes and flashed a defeated smile. She looked every bit as washed up you’d expect a fallen star to be, with bloodshot eyes, patches of dry skin, and split ends flying in every direction.
She raised her boxing gloves and lowered her head. “You got me, kid. I’m cornered. You can take me in.”
Somehow I had doubts it would be that easy.
I lowered to the ground and approached, slowly. What was I going to do, carry her to the station? Usually I’d knock out my enemies and let Ortega take care of the rest. This was just weird.
“Put your arms behind your back,” I said, “and we’ll wait for the authorities to arrive.” That seemed the most sensible option.
Judith snapped a grin, and quick as lightning sent a boot up the front of my skirt. There was a flash of pain as bright as anything I’d ever felt, causing for me to grab myself and squeal. My balance left me and I fell to my side, unable to hold back an ocean of tears. I couldn’t believe she gave me such a cheap shot!
The villain picked up her sack of money, and waved. “Sorry, kid. I know that’s a sensitive area, especially lately, but it’s a dog eat dog world out there.” Like that made any difference; like I was going to forgive her. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta exit, stage right.”
She bounced from the rooftop, to the next, and into the night. Just what I needed; another fight when I was at my most vulnerable.
* * * *
To be continued...
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