Hello, readers mine! Our second iteration of Imports From the Bird features a much shorter piece at 1317 words–not counting these introductory paragraphs.
I must confess I do not, in truth, develop ideas for new stories simply by squinting viciously and making awkward noises at my desk until an idea forms. I seek inspiration through effort or simple daydreaming. Sometimes, I am fortunate enough that inspiration seeks me instead. Talented artist and dear friend Ethel introduced me to a certain cursed video featuring a certain cursed Bethesda Software executive.
That video, in turn, introduced me to Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”. One thing led to another.
As I write this, it’s the tail end of an evening spent knocking back whiskey shots while running with the inspiration provided by mournful voices asking for nothing that lasts–just, for one day, to be told sweet little lies.
You’ll be reading this result the morning after: a second-person short story about a cyberpunk runner’s encounter with a very out-of-place goth girl. After I finished the thread, I determined that it was just long enough to merit sharing here–with a few small additions as permitted by WordPress’s more flexible format.
Does Black Dress meet my criteria to count as a Neo-Gothic Heroine? Read on below the asterisks and decide for yourselves.
One of the neons over the bar is flickering again. You don’t mind. It’s part of the place’s charm. No pretensions of glamor. The bartender’s getting on in years. She’s still younger than the prosthetics some back-alley surgeon scavenged to fix her up with.
There’s a timelessness to the grunge. The only up-to-date thing in here is the music. Standard synth pop with a droning beat and vocals to match.
Little chance of the corporate overlords peeking–not worth the cred. The drinks are strong. The company keeps to itself.
You’d be lying if you said it didn’t offend a part of you when she walks in. Everything about her is against the nature of the place. It’s like sacrilege against a religion you didn’t know you believed in.
You and the bartender share a raised eyebrow.
The way the light flickers in the new girl’s eyes, you can see the holy book burning.
Then you shake yourself.
They’re blue. Way too blue to be natural. Augs? Silly, but harmless. Well, maybe not–silly gets people hurt in these parts of the city. The glow’s cute, but not THAT cute.
The dress is ridiculous. Jet black, and on a girl that pale? How many layers of frills does she need? It’s covered in stars made of intersecting lines set in circles. You have a vague idea that’s supposed to be occult, somehow.
It does show off some great cleavage, which is something. There’s a silver pendant nestled in there. It’s another intersection-star.
The invader is so out of date you don’t even know how to process it. Maybe the confusion is why you let her sit down next to you.
“Do you have any Polehammer?” she asks–the bartender, not you.
Old Moll needs a second to process that. “You sure you don’t want something–”
“Polehammer or I’m out,” Black Dress answers.
You don’t know what Polehammer is. Must be more old stuff.
“Yeah, I have a little,” Moll manages. “Hard cred first.”
The usual: copper chits passed over. You’re shocked the girl has those.
“You, uh,” you start. Clever. “You don’t look local.”
Black Dress laughs. “Well, you’re wrong about that. And right.” She points to Old Moll. “Give me the 95%. I’m trying to die tonight.”
Black Dress grins at you. “Not really,” she adds. “I gave that up years ago.” She winks. “It’s unhealthy.”
Moll sets down a glass of clear stuff. The smell alone, pure alcohol, about knocks you out of your chair.
Black Dress downs it instantly. It barely raises a flush on her cheeks.
It occurs to you to ask why it’s called Polehammer.
“A polehammer,” Black Dress says, with grave intensity as she turns those glowing eyes on you, “was a hammer. On a pole. Knights used them to clobber each other to death.”
“Also featuring a nice, big spike on the reverse side for going through plate armor,” she says. She holds up a finger. “Don’t ask what plate armor was. That’s a rabbit hole I don’t feel like going down tonight.”
After an uncomfortable pause, you ask what that metaphor means.
The black-painted lips quirk. “Let’s just say it means a long, complicated topic that leads into a lot of other long, complicated topics, and by that standard, talking about where the phrase ‘rabbit hole’ comes from…” She trails off.
Would be a rabbit hole, you suggest, with a question-mark tone.
“See, runner,” she says, “we can understand each other just fine.”
Black Dress looks to Moll. “Keep ’em coming.”
Moll watches her. “Uh…” she ventures.
“If I pass out, are you going to make it your problem?” Black Dress asks.
Moll shakes her head.
“Then I’ll regret it after I wake up. IF I wake up. Keep ’em coming.”
Moll keeps ’em coming.
You can’t even remember where you heard the term; still, you ask Black Dress if she’s an MPDG.
“Wow!” she laughs, “that old dinosaur? I’m impressed! Truly!” She downs another drink, giggling. “One of the words behind those letters is right.”
Shame you only know the letters.
There’s a light flush in her cheeks now. From Old Moll’s expression, you’re pretty sure Black Dress ought to be dead. Saying that seems rude.
You ask her if she comes here often. “Wouldn’t you know if I did?” she asks, teasing. She gets serious. “No. It hurts less that way.”
She gives you a speculative look. “You probably don’t dance. Undercity runner like you, drinking in a hole like this.” She quirks her lips. “Will you mind if I dance around you? Maybe at you a little?”
You say that what’s on right now doesn’t sound like dancing music.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Black Dress says. “If I’m patient, the tracks will shuffle to something I can work with. It’s late. The system gets quirky when it’s late.”
You note that she seems to know a lot for someone her age.
“And what age is that?” she asks.
Now that the question’s out there, you don’t know. You want to say she looks like she’s in her 20s, because she does.
But that doesn’t feel right. You say she’s too young to be talking like this.
She scoffs. “Age isn’t years. Age is experience. You should know that, runner.”
“Age is… age is as much about memory as anything else,” she adds, nodding like she’s trying to convince herself. That weird silver necklace jiggles, along with other things.
She’s pretty enough, or you’re drunk enough, to say you’re pretty sure you’ll remember her.
She gives you a long look. “No, you won’t,” she says.
That synth pop track ends. You’re pretty sure you’ve never heard the new song before. It sounds breathy, with chimes. Still has a beat to it.
Black Dress starts dancing, or at least bouncing from side to side on her stool.
“Right on schedule,” she says. “Anyway, you were saying? You sound like you’re flirting. Make a case. Let’s see if you can get somewhere.”
The first of the lyrics come in– “If I could turn the page…” And maybe it’s the alcohol or the music or this weird girl in her museum piece of a black dress, but you get sentimental. You say a bunch of stuttery bullshit about her dress, her eyes, the energy she seems to have. You swear that there’s no way you could ever forget someone like her.
She closes her eyes, listening with a muzzy smile. It occurs to you what the lyrics are saying now:
“So I’ll settle for one day,” the song pulses on, as she flashes you a smile equal parts joy and sadness, “to believe in you.”
“Tell me lies.”
“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies,” croons the voice of some ancient songstress and her backups. Black Dress bobs in time, listening to them, listening to you, even as she sings along. Somewhere along the line you have more drinks.
It’s a mistake. That’s how she gets you to dance.
It’s all flashes, light, and sound from there. You’re pretty sure that song loops a few times. There are flashes of clarity: Black Dress spinning with you, her hands tight on yours as you stretch away from each other.
The slip of black fabric away from pale skin.
You know you must’ve left Moll’s bar at some point because you wake up the next morning in your dingy bed.
There’s an impression of lips in black pressed into one cheek, and the hint of a dream you just finished forgetting.
When you see Moll next, you ask her one thing.
“Yeah, about that,” Old Moll says, setting down the glass she was cleaning. She swallows nervously.
“Look, kid, we can’t talk about that night,” she says. “That song that played when she was dancing with you?” She leans towards you.
“It doesn’t exist anymore.”
You barely hear her as she goes on.
“There’s not a single recording left. Only found out the name from some old contact. Had to feed ’em the lyrics.”
You start to mention the system.
“Was on the news. A blank slot across the whole city,” Moll says. “For seventeen minutes last night, not one song played–except right here. I checked the feeds. Seventeen minutes dancing before she dragged you out.”
She leans closer. “My advice? Forget about it.”
You never learn Black Dress’s name, though you do look around.
It’s many years before a drunken friend tells you what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl was supposed to be, back when enough stories had enough soul for it to matter if one didn’t.
Yeah, you think, that doesn’t much sound like her.
Of course, you never get the chance to tell her she was right.
You never see her again. You figure she might turn up when you die.
Turns out even old runners can have wrong hunches.