...When I look back over my shoulder, the crowd is surging inside the front doors which just got thrown open, and I can’t see any of the gymnasts. A second later, another of my bags ruptures, and in my haste to keep my fabrics out of the leaf choked gutter, I put the ponytail girl out of my mind for the time being.
When it comes time for lunch, we go to the outdoor café, O Pássaro. My annoyance from the morning has mostly worn off, so I don’t protest anymore (there’s no point anyway.), even when CiCi says, “Table for three please! We are waiting on a guest!” When we take our seats, I say, “Do you honestly think he’s even going to come? Maybe he was just trying to sell you fabric?” She rolls her eyes, and ignoring this, she looks past me and breaks into a bright smile, and starts waving exuberantly. Moments later, the orange-velvet clad Flafrin pulls out the third chair at the table and sits down, a huge used-car salesman grin on his admittedly handsome face. Something about him just seems off to me though, and I catch myself leaning slightly away from him physically. I make as if to bend sideways to grab my purse and scoot my chair a few inches closer to CiCi and thus further from him. When I straighten, he’s ordering a fancy bottle of wine from the waiter.
He turns to me and says, “Your charming friend told me that you’re the Queen of Santa Veta!” I nod politely, “Yes, I am,” I busy myself with unfolding my napkin, which is folded elaborately into the shape of a swan.
“It’s a small world! My village is only a few miles down the river from there!”
“Yes, you mentioned that,” I say, trying to think what his motive is, because I just have this overwhelming sense that there IS a motive here.
CiCi says, “So, the Mango Boys are a club?”
Flafrin looks delighted, “Only the most exclusive men’s club in Brazil! Maybe even on Earth, but I’m biased!” He laughs, continuing, “You should come visit sometime! Both of you. And bring your girl friends!” My eyebrows shoot up.
He sees my expression and says, “Well, if the ladies in your village are anywhere near as beautiful as you two…” He laughs again, and I smile tightly, “It sounds lovely.”
The rest of the meal is spent with CiCi describing our town in more detail than I would prefer, despite it being readily available information on the internet. Flafrin seems overly interested in specifics like the population of single women, and what kind of security we employ. After an awkward but blessedly quick lunch, we are able to part ways with him.
CiCi gives him her phone number and he looks delighted, and tucks it into his breast pocket with a solemn pat. With a flourish, he bows over CiCi’s hand, giving it a loud smacking kiss before he turns and strides off jauntily.
“Ew,” I say, picking up my last remaining, overstuffed bag.
“I like him,” She says glibly.
“You would,” I retort, laughing. CiCi has dated a few different guys over the years, having always been a bit more advanced than me in her attitude towards boys and romance.
“At least he’s not forty,” I add, halfway to myself and halfway towards her, remembering the investment banker phase. That guy was truly a creep. I guess Orange Suit could be worse.
(I was wrong in many ways, but it would be some time before I knew how wrong.)
We get back to the village the next morning, and CiCi asks me if I’ll help her carry her stuff inside. I grab her overnight bag from the back seat, and start up the walk to her front door as she pops the trunk and starts rifling through to find her (non-exploded) shopping bags.
As I approach her front porch, I notice something moving in the breeze. It looks orange, like construction caution tape maybe. When I get up the steps, I stop dead. I don’t know how I didn’t see it all the way from the street but her front door is COVERED in orange streamers. I set her bag down with a thump.
“Ummm…” I say loudly, staring. Affixed to the center of her screen door is a large orange envelope. CiCi comes up behind me, huffing and puffing under the weight of her bags.
“Oooh!” She breathes, and moves past me and grabs the envelope. The streamers rustle ominously. I pull the screen door open, and brush the streamers aside to unlock the door, taking CiCi’s keys from the top of her purse. When I turn the key in the lock, there’s a loud BANG! A cloud of orange fills the air. WHAT THE HELL?! With a yelp, I stumble backwards over her bags and almost topple down the three steps leading to her porch. Confetti wafts through the air, raining down on CiCi, her bags, and the entire diameter of her porch. My heart feels like it’s about to burst out of my ribcage.
I’m utterly nonplussed. I’m fairly used to strange things happening at CiCi’s house, but I’ve never had a confetti bomb go off in my face before. As I become steady on my feet and start to slowly approach the door with suspicion, CiCi turns around to look at me.
“This has got to be the most ridiculous home security-“ I start, and then I see that a mile-wide grin has spread over her face, and her cheeks are flushed.
“Is this a joke?!” I shake my head and confetti sifts down from my bangs. I blow it away.
“What? A joke? No! Flafrin-remember him?”
“How could I forget? We just met him yesterday-ohhh…” I see this situation suddenly in a whole new way.
She’s holding a folded piece of pale orange paper out to me. I take it and begin to read,
Roses are orange, violets are not.
I think you are super hot.
Just kidding, well no, I’m not kidding about you being hot, but this poem is a-well, never mind. Since meeting you yesterday, I haven’t been able to get you off my mind. I must see you again! Let me take you out to dinner! I won’t take no for an answer!
“First of all, roses aren’t typically orange,” I say, looking up at her, an eyebrow raised.
“They can be!”
“You don’t think this is weird? It’s one thing to ask you out, but…” I gesture to the literal PILES of confetti in a ten foot radius around us.
She snatches the letter back, “What’s weird about it? I like confetti.” She reaches forward and turns the knob. I flinch, but nothing explodes further.
She goes inside and I follow, picking up her bag again.
When we get inside, CiCi busies herself putting things away, but her cheeks are still pink, and she’s smiling slightly. I go and sit down on her lemon yellow velvet couch. Her house is very interesting. When I said I was used to strange things with her, this is just one reason why. The floor is a thick, fluffy white carpet, and there are colorful rugs spread out all around. Her walls are crammed full of decorations, from clocks ticking disparately to colorful tapestries. She loves pineapples, so they are everywhere. There’s even a huge velvet painting of one over the couch. From the center of the living room ceiling, instead of a normal light fixture, hangs a disco ball. The bright sunlight flooding into the windows glints off of it, throwing sparkles of light all over the room. Her curtains, which are tied aside to let light in, are bright red satin, and always remind me of what I would imagine hangs in a fancy brothel. When CiCi is done bustling around, she comes back into the living room and flops down onto a lime green bean bag chair. With a little cough, some tiny Styrofoam beans poof out into the air.
“You’re losing your beans,” I say.
She waves a hand carelessly, and I see that in her other hand, she’s still holding the envelope and letter.
“You really don’t think rigging your front door with a confetti cannon is a weird way to ask someone out on a date?”
She shrugs, “I’ve seen weirder things,”
“Have you?” I ask, laughing, but I can’t help but wonder what she’s keeping to herself about the Vogwen. I decide to try to bring it up.
“Yes?” She looks up from the letter at my tone of voice. Her big blue eyes look suddenly worried.
“What do you know about the Vogwen?” Best just to be out with it.
She almost seems to flinch-a minor twitch of the eyelids, a flick of her gaze around the room.
“Nothing much,” Her tone is light but there’s something behind it. Caution? A warning?
“Ok, what nothing much do you know?” I don’t like to press her, but something in me springs up, awake, alert, wanting answers. Needing answers.
She sighs, and drops the letter over the side of the beanbag to the floor. She kicks her feet, looking at her toes for a second.
“I mean, obviously I’m Vogwen. You too,” She starts, and the girlish blush is gone from her cheeks. Now she looks white around the eyes.
I wait, not saying anything.
“I don’t remember anything though. I was…really young. REALLY young, the last time I saw any others. Except you!” She brightens a little bit.
“It doesn’t matter anyway. No more than it matters that you’re Vogwen too.”
It matters though. I say so.
“Why? You saw what they’re like. And..” She bites her lip, then takes a deep breath, plunging, “I don’t know what happened last week but you’ve been off since you went to see the,” Her face clouds, “Since you went to see the prince. What happened? You want to ask me all these questions but you haven’t even told me why you’ve been so upset.”
“I’m not upset!” I exclaim, defensive. This is a lie, of course, though I’ve felt better since yesterday. Getting out of town helped. Somehow being in Rio energized me.
She pushes herself up, and points at me.
“That is a LIE. I’ve seen you walking around like a ghost. And you seem nervous.”
“In my defense, a confetti bomb just blew up six inches from my face,”
She laughs, and I do too. I sense her relaxing a bit, which lets me relax. I know she’s right. I haven’t been able to get my head on straight since the event last week. And maybe if I tell her what happened, she’ll realize she can trust me with whatever it is she’s holding back on. If there really is anything.
With a sigh, I say, “I just haven’t really known how to even wrap my head around what happened,”
“I’ll make some tea, and you can tell me, if you want,” She smiles, then flails around, trying to get up out of the beanbag. More beans fart out into the air. Before I can get to my feet to help her, she rolls out of the chair, onto the floor, then stands up, brushing Styrofoam static clinging to her legs off onto the floor. She clunks around in her kitchen for a few minutes, then comes back out, carrying two mugs shaped like sharks. She glances at the beanbag chair, then skirts around it to sit on a spindly stool instead. Taking a sip from the toothy open jaw of the shark mug, she looks at me expectantly. I launch into the story, starting with when I got to the ship and encountered Bryl; how Rejir intercepted me and brought me inside.
“He could have killed you!” She gasps, slamming her mug down onto the coffee table and sloshing tea everywhere.
“I know,” I say, and the surreal sense of unreality begins to come over me again as I recall the look in his eyes as he drew the gun, smiling, pointing it lazily towards me.
I go on to tell her about touring the ship, feeling my heart begin to trip quickly as I come up to what happened in the cantina. My legs are tightly crossed, and I’m jiggling my toe, trying to keep my body from starting to shake. I set the mug down and wipe my clammy palms on my skirt. Feeling the need to approach this part of the story slowly, I describe the cantina.
“It was so weird. It almost didn’t seem like it was meant to be a kitchen or lunchroom or whatever, because there were all these rooms lining the sides, and the central area was like a long, wide hall.”
Her eyes widen. I can’t read her expression. She leans back slightly on the stool, crossing her arms tight across her chest, lips pressed together until they’re colorless.
“Did you ask him what they were?” Her voice is dry, tight.
“I did. He said-you’re not going to like this at all-but he said they were…rooms for girls kept on the ship.”
“Girls kept on the ship.” Not a question. Her eyebrows are high, wrinkling her smooth forehead.
“He told me-“ I try to remember the exact wording. Everything about the experience seems foggy, tinged red.
“He told me that women are usually kept on Merr ships. You know, because they’re property to them.” I brace myself for the explosion. CiCi is stock still, but her face is expressionless, with no visible reaction.
I wait. She rubs her hands over her face with a loud exhale.
“Is that when you came home?” She asks, hands dropping into her lap.
Shoulders drawing up in discomfort, I say, “Well, no, but I did sort of flip out. I didn’t really give him a chance to explain at first-“
“There’s nothing to explain,” Her voice is a whip-crack. I look up from studying my hands, and see her eyes are ablaze. I understand completely, because I was shocked and angry too, so I rush on, trying to explain,
“He’s not like that though!”
She stands up abruptly, “Are you kidding me? Tmonk-Tmonk-he is THEIR PRINCE. You actually think he’s NOT like that?”
“There weren’t any women on board-“
“How do you KNOW that?” Her voice is raising. She goes into the kitchen and comes back with a towel and begin furiously wiping up spilled tea. She looks at me vehementy, “Are you that naïve? Don’t tell me-you just BELIEVED him. Took him at his word?”
Well, yes. I’m speechless in the face of her mounting rage.
“I just-he seemed-“
“HE SEEMED. Oh I’m sure.” She snarls. I start to get mad myself. I’m not stupid.
“Are you going to let me finish?” I snap, clenching my fists in my lap.
Crossing her arms tight across her chest, she sits back on her heels on the floor beside the coffee table and looks at me stonily.
After a moment, I say, “Anyway, obviously I demanded that he explain things better. I still don’t really understand-“
“Jesus Christ, Tmonk-Tmonk, what is there not to explain? They keep girls as sex slaves.” Fury crackles off of her like electricity.
“I know that.” I hiss. I don’t know why I’m even trying to talk to her about this. She’s not listening. Her arms are crossed so tightly across her chest that I can see the flesh of her fingers turning white as she grips her bicep.
“It doesn’t matter.” I say, with a sigh. I skip to the point,
“The reason I’ve been upset has nothing to do with Merryt. Well, it does but it doesn’t. Bryl, the blond guy-“
“Yeah, him. While Merryt and I were hashing it out about the women, he came bursting in and-“ I swallow, my mouth feeling suddenly dry. I pick up my mug and take a sip of now room-temperature tea.
“He and Rejir came in, and Rejir went into the kitchen, and Bryl sort of-went crazy. He grabbed me. He moved so fast.” It’s all playing in my mind’s eye again, taking me away from the comfortable living room and back into the paper walled cantina. I rub my upper arms, feeling his fingers sinking into the flesh. CiCi’s face has drained of color again, and all traces of anger are gone. She uncrosses her arms and grips the edge of the coffee table.
“He grabbed you? And what?”
As I describe the scene, I begin to shake in earnest, like I did in that strange, austere apartment, the day it happened. Her eyes get wider and wider. She doesn’t even try to interrupt, and when I finish, saying, “And when I said, I’ll see you later, he just looked at me, and said, maybe. And walked off. Just like that. I don’t know what I expected, but…not that, I guess,” Trailing off, I fall into silence, which then hangs heavily in the room. All traces of anger are gone from CiCi’s demeanor. She’s still sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table, and she looks like she’s rooted to the spot. Her gaze is clouded, as if she’s deep in thought, and even though she’s looking towards me, I don’t think she sees me. I realize my fingers are gnarled together tightly, and all feeling has gone out of them. Pulling them apart, I rub my hands over my face, cool, bloodless fingertips tingling. The sensation is welcome, because I feel surreal again, like I might just float off from my body. I lean back into the overstuffed cushions, laying my head back and gazing up at the wall behind me and ceiling above.
CiCi stirs, and lets out a long, low breath. I see her get to her feet, and I raise my head. She sits down beside me and leans her head onto my shoulder,
“You could have been killed,” Her voice is very gentle, no tint of familiar laughter.
She loops her arm through mine.
“Is it completely pointless for me to make you promise not to see him again?” She looks up at me from my shoulder. I don’t answer right away. I don’t think odds are very good that he’ll come around again, but if he did? What would I do? What should I do?
CiCi sits up, still holding onto my arm, answering before I can gather my thoughts,
“He’ll be back, Tmonk-Tmonk. Just…” She looks down at my arm, where the bruises around my elbow and bicep have faded to pale yellow.
“Just be careful, ok?”
Bryl is dead, so the eminent danger seems to have passed, but I sense that she’s not thinking about him. The image of Merryt, standing half swathed in shadow, at the bottom of my front steps swims up in my mind’s eye. Dark eyes glinting with gold in the waxing moonlight, hawkish features seeming sharper as he withdrew.
“I’ll see you later.”
To Be Continued...