Beyond the Pale Motel
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Maternal, sexy Catt and her beautiful, daring best friend Bree are hairdressers at an L.A. salon called Head Hunter, and work out at a gym called Body Farm. They have over a decade of sobriety behind them and are getting close to living the lives they've always wanted. But when Catt's husband, Dash, leaves her, and then her neighbor is brutally murdered, possibly by a man being called the Hollywood Serial Killer, Catt's world begins to come crashing down. The murdered victims all seem to bear a chilling resemblance to Bree. Catt suspects that Bree is the next target of the Hollywood Serial Killer...is she losing touch with reality or simply coming to terms with the truth?
Release date: September 16, 2014
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 224
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Beyond the Pale Motel
Francesca Lia Block
At Head Hunter we massaged the scalps of our clients as if they were our lovers; we swept their snipped hair up off the shiny black floor ("A mirror for the Peeping Toms," my best friend, Bree, joked); we sterilized the combs and brushes in blue liquid-poison Barbicide, in glass jars; we basked in the light of pale pink glass chandeliers and blasted nineties music. The Crystal Method, Marilyn Manson, Nirvana, the stuff we loved when we were young and fucked-up, going to raves and grunge shows. Our development had probably been arrested back then, which was why no other music affected us as much. They say addicts tend to get stuck at the age they started using.
Bree and I got sober with the help of the same AA sponsor, Shana, a hot lesbian documentary-film producer, and the black coffee that we drank all day like we used to guzzle Jack. Which was better than shooting Barbicide; we knew a boy who had killed himself with it and we both got clean the day after his funeral.
Another thing had changed for Bree and me in the last eleven years—the birth of her son, Skylar, whose school picture smiled at me from the corner of my mirror so I could look at him all day long. The green and darker-green-ringed eyes gazed up from under the thatch of brown hair, pouring energy into my arms and wrists when they tired, soothing the ache in my temples when the hairspray fumes got to me at the end of the day.
"Sky-Sky asked me if you could take him to his baseball tryouts in two weeks?" Bree said over the sound of the blow-dryer as I styled her hair.
I sometimes wondered why Skylar wanted me, not his mom, to take him to things like this. Maybe he was less worried about having to impress me. Bree wasn't demanding of Skylar, but she was such a perfectionist herself that he couldn't help but feel some pressure.
"That is, if you're still here after Dash eats you alive," she added.
"I'd come back from the dead to take Skylar to baseball," I told her. "But I hope I get eaten a little at least." My husband, Dash, was arriving home from a gig in San Francisco that night.
"The way you look right now, I don't think it'll be a problem."
My bob was freshly dyed jet-black, my foundation minimal enough to reveal the freckles on my pale skin, but my brown eyes were heavily lined. I wore high-heeled suede boots and a red silk kimono wrap dress printed with pink peonies and white cherry blossoms. Even though the fabric was soft, it made my skin itch; I was most comfortable in dark vintage dresses, or dark denim jeans, but I was trying to get my husband to devour me again. Like when we met. Back then, when he wasn't touching me, he was staring at me with eyes hotter than his hands. Six feet two inches with a shaved head and tatted biceps, he convulsed on the stage at Outer Space. I'd never been with anyone like that. My nipples tingled, I was always wet, a permanent state of arousal. "Please let me have your baby," I would beg, the words orgasming out of my mouth before I could stop them. He would kiss me shut. Over a decade later I was thirty-six and the clock was ticking so loudly it would keep me awake all night while he snored next to me.
I wanted Dash's baby, I told myself, because of how much I loved Dash. Now I wonder if maybe I just wanted to hold on to him. And to make a child who would never leave me.
But I had left my own mother, ultimately, trying to get back at her for abandoning me so many times. At least I had Dash and Skylar and Bree. No matter what, I had them.
"So hot, Catt," Bree promised, checking out my push-up-bra-enhanced cleavage in the mirror. Not me, but Bree is hot. Always. I had dyed her hair pale pink this time. Most people over the age of nineteen couldn't easily get away with pink hair unless they were rock stars, but Bree could, even at our age. And a bit of a rock star she was, at least at Head Hunter. She had on a white lace dress and pink slip she had designed and made, along with over-the-knee platform boots of black Spanish leather, her pale eyes always slightly askew as if she were looking through the air at something better than you will ever see.
"Thanks, baby blue. I tried to channel you today."
She turned her head, reached up, and kissed me on the lips, hers like a MAC ad. Ample Pink gloss that costs $20 for a tiny tube. I bought some once but put it in the back pocket of my jeans and it slid out and into the toilet bowl. I will never be Bree. Sometimes her full-frontal kisses made me have to squeeze my thighs together even though I could never sleep with her again—not sober; I'd compare our bodies the whole time and it would ruin the experience. (She is tall and lithe, while I was shorter and curvy. "Voluptuous," Bree said, but that wasn't always the word I thought of when I saw my reflection.) More important, Bree was family and I didn't want to risk losing her if something went wrong. She had pretty much expressed the same sentiment after the third time she and I slept together, in a threesome with Baby Daddy, and she conceived Skylar.
The first time Bree and I slept together was the night we met—just teenagers at a party in the Hollywood Hills. I don't know how I got there. But I remember that it was the Fourth of July because you could see the Hollywood Bowl fireworks from the balcony, and I remember every detail about Bree. She was wearing a white satin 1920s nightgown with a big silver zipper inserted down the front and combat boots. Half of her head was shaved. Nine Inch Nails was playing and she was singing along.
I went up to her and said, "We're going to be friends forever."
She said, "How do you know?"
I said, "I just do." Then I said, "I like your hair." I told her I wanted to be a stylist because you could make people feel good every day.
"And make ourselves feel good by partying every night," Bree added.
We went out on the balcony under the fireworks and snorted some coke and drank some more. I marveled at her firework-illuminated beauty even in that high and drunken state. Somehow we were in bed together. She smelled like white roses and felt as satiny and fragile as her dress. A man Bree knew—a fairly well-known actor from a TV show—came into the room and got under the covers with us but I mostly ignored him. He touched her breasts and my ass and jerked off while we kissed and put our fingers inside each other, as if we were petting the shyest animals, until we fell asleep. She woke later, feeling sick, and I walked her to the bathroom and held her forehead and her tiny, heaving torso while we knelt on the black-and-white tile floor. Afterward I wiped her face with a wet washcloth and found a clean pack of toothbrushes in a drawer for her to use.
In the morning I saw that the room we'd slept in had dark wood furniture and very white curtains and sheets. The sun shone through cathedral-style windows, making my hangover worse, and in the distance I could see the palm-treed hills hazed with smog. Bree and the man and some other people and I went out to breakfast. We ate pancakes—Bree's stomach was better by then—and wore our sunglasses and smoked cigarettes on the patio. Bree had a black Mercedes SUV that her parents had bought her when she turned sixteen and she blasted the music so loud it rumbled in my chest.
"You're right," she said, when she dropped me off at my house later that afternoon.
"We're going to love each other forever."
It hadn't been forever yet, but it had been eighteen years.
"What did you do this weekend?" I asked grown-up, sober Bree, spritzing the last bit of hairspray on her bubble-gum-colored locks.
"Baby Daddy had Skylar so I went on another FU Cupid date."
I scowled at her in the mirror.
"I know. I have no idea why I go."
Bree told me she kept her profile up for the hell of it, an ego boost after pandering to female egos all day. That part I understood, although one of the female egos I pandered to was hers. I loved her enough to keep doing it no matter what, and it had gotten easier after I met Dash.
"This guy was fine, though," she said. "A dermatologist, if you can believe it. Black Irish. Free Botox." I didn't think she needed to get the botulinum toxin injected into her muscles to freeze them, but she said it was preventative. "And he wrote to me like one hundred and fifty times before I responded."
Honestly, in spite of the fact that I knew a few people who had gotten married to someone they'd met on the Internet, I wasn't sure how safe it was. But Bree said that was part of the thrill and that she could take care of herself. At least she never invited them over when Skylar was around.
"Which monster?" I asked, though I could already guess.
She shrugged and eyed her reflection. "A bit of a Vampire."
Since we were in our twenties, Bree and I had come up with names for all the guys we met. Vampires were elegant, refined, and sensual. Dash was a Zombie, which sounded like a bad thing but was actually hot according to our system. Zombies were big and brawny, a little clumsy, but ravenous sexually. They wanted to come back to life and you could give them that, which was empowering. Goblins were the businessmen we never dated. Ghouls were trouble—junkies and alcoholics, the ones that trickled in and out of my meetings but couldn't stay sober. Manticores, with their three rows of proverbial teeth, could look like anything but would devour you whole. Woman-eaters. We had taken to writing about all of them in our blog, Love Monster, in which we collected the things in life that made it tolerable after alcohol had been removed from the equation. Although I had become the main contributor, the idea for Love Monster had been Bree's. She thought it was important to keep track of our distractions and fascinations.
"What did you do?" I asked Bree. With Dr. Vampire.
"Aloo gobi at Lotus Eater, and then we went to Sound to see some Swedish band. My ears are still ringing. I'm too old for this. What's up with that sound system?"
"He's really a dermatologist?"
"Yes. But he should do porn. Serious. His dick is like James Deen's."
She stopped as the door jingled open and our first customer came in, Stu, a TV producer who lived in the Valley but slummed in Silver Lake to have his cut buzzed weekly by Bree, probably just so he could stare at her in the mirror. So I didn't get to find out more about the Vampire's penis. I didn't mind; I was thinking about resurrecting Dash. How he would rip off the itchy red dress and pump me full of life. Maybe I can get him to lose the condom tonight, I thought.
"Check that out," Stu said, nodding at the TV and flexing his hands as Bree tied the black nylon apron around his thick neck.
The sound was off but a selfie of a pretty young woman smiled from the screen. Under the image were the words HOLLYWOOD SERIAL KILLER STRIKES AGAIN?
Stu hit the volume button on the remote and scrutinized the TV. His eyes were such a pale color the pupils looked like spots of black ink. He rubbed his fingers over his slightly receding chin. "They found this one in the hills like the first. Her name's Adrienne something. Banks, I think. Model/actress, same as before. He cut off this one's legs. Brutal shit."
The girl before, Mandy Merrill, was found by hikers, not far from the Hollywood sign. Her arms had been cut off, severed precisely at the shoulder joints.
Bree and I looked at each other. There were instant tears in both our eyes. She took the remote from Stu and shut off the TV.
"Arms, legs. It's like he's collecting," said Stu. "I wonder if someone is going to rip it off for a series or something. I might have to get on that. Oh, snap, did I just say rip it off? Bad pun, Stu, bad."
Bree and I exchanged another glance; we played monster dating games, but neither of us had much tolerance for the real thing.
When I was a teenager, they caught Jeffrey Dahmer and I was haunted by his pale, bloated face—the petulant lips and dead blue predator eyes. How he had lured all those young men, killed them, violated their corpses, cut them into pieces which he stored in his refrigerator. Sometimes he consumed parts of the bodies. I'd read somewhere that he wanted a dead lover because that was the perfect kind—they didn't move or speak. He'd even tried drilling into some of their skulls while they were still alive and injecting acid into their brains to animate them. Looking back on it, I wondered if the metaphor of dismemberment, brutality, and monster-making reflected my own confused and agonized teenage state of mind. I thought I'd transcended all that as an adult, a sober, married woman, but with the mention of the Hollywood Serial Killer the obsessive fear came back like a needle to my spine.
"Okay, that's enough," Bree said, frowning at Stu.
I rode a surge of nausea and tried to pretend it was because I was pregnant. Maybe I will be after tonight, I thought. Better to think of that than of what was happening to these lovely, severed girls who had only ever wanted, I was sure, like me, to be loved by someone.
Looking at Skylar's photo again, I could almost smell his floppy hair—baseball-field dust and chamomile-honey baby shampoo. Skylar made everything feel better, but my heart still ached, overfull with love and fear.
* * *
After work I decided to go to Body Farm even though I'd have to redo my hair and makeup, change back into the dress and the boots that crunched, like teeth, the bones of my feet. I needed to sweat off the news and Stu's response to it.
The gym was a small, mirrored mini-mall world full of eastside hipsters, not unlike the place I worked all day, except here they dealt in muscles instead of hair. Big Bob, the owner, was training a ridiculously gorgeous young woman I hadn't seen before. She looked like a pageant contestant—high ponytail, enormous breasts, tiny waist, Bambi eyes and legs—white-hot beautiful even by Body Farm standards, which was saying a lot.
"Cute dress," she said to me. Genuinely sweet. I said thank you, secretly glad Dash wasn't there to see her.
Bob was kneeling over with his hand on her thigh, stretching it back toward her head, fondling the muscle, and as I passed, he turned and looked at me in a way that sent an air-conditioned blast down my dress. His arm was much thicker around than her leg, and his skin gleamed with spray tan and oil. I've never liked Bob, and between his energy and the plethora of hot, young girls whom I tended to compare myself to, I always thought I'd stop going to Body Farm. Creepy name anyway, isn't it? But I stayed because Scott was there. And, if I'm honest, because it had a reputation for "making" the best bodies in town, or at least Big Bob was known for that. I didn't train with him though; he charged $200 an hour and scared the crap out of me.
"How's my girl Bree?" Bob asked, flashing some teeth.
I said fine and walked away.
Scott was there that night, as always, standing with his hands in the pockets of his nylon Nike sweatpants. He never wore shorts because he'd had some surgery on his leg in his early twenties, although I was never quite sure exactly what it was for, just that he had a big scar he didn't like anyone to see, that he smoked medical marijuana to help deal with some residual pain, and that he couldn't do high-impact exercise.
Sometimes I wondered if Scott ever left Body Farm. We used to tease him about sleeping on the machines and showering in the bathroom before we got there.
He didn't fit any of the monster categories. Which is why we loved him. And had never dated him. Sometimes it takes a monster to scare away the stress of daily life.
Smelling of expensive, subtle cologne, Scott gave me a kiss on the cheek. "Hey, Catt."
"Hi, sweet one."
He asked how I was.
"Ugh. Freaked-out. Did you hear about that other girl who was killed?"
Scott shook his head. "It's horrifying. Makes you want to go far away and never come back."
Rick and Todd, with their matching buzz cuts, Aztec tattoos, and Air Force 1s came over, oblivious of what we had been discussing. "Good timing, Catt. We were just telling Scotty here his hair is getting a little long, don't you think?" Rick said.
Toddrick, as we called them, liked to tease Scott about being vain, even more meticulous than they were. His hair was always perfectly cut, by me, of course. He never let anything about him get messy.
I touched his neat, well-shaped head. "Looks good to me," I said. "Now you, on the other hand…"
Rick backed away. "No way, Edwina Scissorhands, I won't go anywhere named for cannibals."
"Yeah, Blow is much better for a hair salon." That was the place in Boys Town where Toddrick went for their matching cuts.
"I'd rather do blow than have my head hunted."
"I'd rather be blown," Todd offered.
"Okay, cats and dogs, let's not get crazy here," Scott said. "Besides the horrors on the news, how's it going?" he asked me, pointing at Todd to get on the lat machine.
"Dash is back tonight."
Scott raised his eyebrows. "You sure you want to get sweaty now? Won't there be enough of that later this evening?"
"Not the way things have been going unless I play it right. But I gotta work off the jitters."
I'd been nervous about trying to get my husband's attention; now I was thinking about dead girls. As I picked up the first set of weights and smelled the tang of metal, I thought of the girl whose arms had been sawed off, the other without legs. In that moment I was grateful for my own body, which beat with life, especially in Dash's embrace.
"Well, just don't forget how lucky that man is to have you," Scott said, trying to make me feel better, the way he always did.
* * *
Dash, that "lucky man," and I moved into the bungalow when we got married. He actually carried me over the threshold on our wedding night, into the empty rooms—just the bed and the vanilla gardenia candles and bouquets of pink and white peonies Bree had installed secretly that morning. Dash knew how to fuck; he was big, and hard, and the best I'd ever had, and knowing that he was my husband had made me wetter and more responsive than ever.
"I think you just set a record, babe," he said, when I came again.
Our place was built onto the side of a hill, overlooking the lake, the palm trees and cypress, bougainvillea and oleanders. You have to climb up a steep, white staircase, pass through the thick arches into the courtyard with its ferns, bamboo, and koi pond. Inside, one bed, one bath. No space for a kid, Dash said, but I knew the tiny office where my desk and futon were could be converted if necessary. Wood floors, white built-ins, including a mirror over the fireplace. The fireplace is not safe to use, but Dash lit a fire in it anyway sometimes. Pink-and-black tile in the kitchen and bathroom. Probably lead-based because of how it shines but I didn't mind. I had once done a whole Love Monster post on the toxic beauty of 1950s bathroom tile.
Our poisoned bungalow was all I ever wanted, really. When Dash was there, anyway. He's as big as the Cal King mattress and didn't even fit in the claw-foot tub. His giant black Docs sat by the front door because we agreed we wanted the floor pristine. We had meditated together every morning and before bed, slipping the cool, clicking beads of the malas between our fingers. My mala's made of rhodochrosite, pink and marbled, and his is wood. As a teenager I'd used a rosary to help me fall asleep at night, especially during that Dahmer phase, when I couldn't stop thinking about heads in refrigerators and organs in Ziploc bags. After I got sober and met Dash, Catholicism started making less sense than Eastern religions.
It was better than drinking, better than cigarettes and caffeine, our meditation practice, our lovemaking, our life. But it had been changing in the last year, a slow decline. I didn't want to admit it to myself.
As I headed into the bungalow, our neighbor from down the block ran by in a streak of neon short-shorts and tan skin. Dash and I called her Skipper; she was always running, sprinting, skipping backward, sometimes twice a day, nose, breasts, and butt pert, high ponytail bobbing. Must have been one of those model/actresses that come to this city in droves, I'd thought. Not quite pretty enough to be Barbie; more like her sidekick. I'd almost asked her to dinner once but decided that between Dash's gigs, our AA meetings, Head Hunter, and Body Farm, my husband and I had enough estrogen in our lives.
That night I was making him pho with fresh herbs, rice noodles, shrimp. For dessert—freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, which were our favorite. The smell of butter, sugar, and chocolate, and lemongrass, ginger, and jasmine tea, filled the kitchen. When I heard Dash at the door, my heart flipped like a fish about to be reeled in. I wished I hadn't worn the red dress all day. I should have just put it on after work, but I'd wanted to pump myself up, see if any men looked twice to remind me I was worthy of Dash.
I called out, "Hi, baby," waited, counted to ten, trying not to rush to him.
He came in while I was crushing the garlic, popping the skin with the flat of a knife, and I glanced up and saw that his face looked different, white and still. Black T-shirt and black jeans as always. Muscles defined by pale blue veins. I always felt small around him, which was part of what turned me on. I was really heavy in high school, and even though I'd lost a lot of weight after getting sober, I was still a big girl. But not in his arms.
"Hey, baby, you okay?" I put down the garlic, wiped my hands on my fruit-patterned, vintage apron, and went to him, untying the apron strings to show off my dress.
He kissed me, but it was in a distracted way, eyes open. He was chewing peppermint gum but I could taste the tobacco and caffeine on his lips.
"What's wrong, baby?"
"I'm just tired. Smells good in here." He moved away a little too quickly, and something fell and shattered inside of me, like when I had dropped my favorite gold shot glass that time. I should have known. Women's intuition and all. But who wants to know? Delusion is so much more pleasant in the end.
* * *
When he finally told me, it was dawn and we were lying awake, sweating, not touching each other. My cat, Sasha, had abandoned her usual post on my pillow. The fan wasn't cooling the room, just making an annoying sound as it blew hot air around. I wanted an icy-cold gin and tonic more than anything at that moment so I went through the acronym of AA warning signs, HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. I wasn't hungry. I was tired for sure and very lonely, even with Dash lying there beside me in his underwear. I was angry.
"What?" I said finally. The word that always preceded our arguments.
"What what?" He groaned and turned away from me, onto his side. His back looked meaty and pale in the light that was starting to finger us through the blinds.
"Something's wrong," I said.
Dash sat up with an exhale and rubbed his forehead. "You always think something is wrong."
"Well, is it? You haven't touched me, you hardly ate."
"So this signifies a problem? Because I didn't fuck you after being up for, like, twenty-four hours? Because I wasn't in the mood for pho? Seriously, Catt?"
"Just tell me," I said. I was quietly leaving my body already at that point, everything going numb as I slid out of my skin and observed myself from some odd spot on the ceiling. I looked bloated and washed-out and my hair was tangled. Get up, I told myself. Leave now. Don't listen to him say it. But I couldn't move.
"Okay, fine. You can't just let anything lie, can you."
I don't want you to lie anymore, I thought. In that moment, even before he said it, everything I had been denying was becoming clear.
"There's someone," Dash said.
"What do you mean there's someone?" I just couldn't move any part of my body. He had met someone? On his trip he'd met someone he liked, that was all. He hadn't actually …
"There's been someone. It's serious."
I doubled over, grabbing my stomach, feeling the layer of fat there. He'd socked me in the gut with two words and I couldn't breathe.
"What are you talking about?" I whispered. But my voice was getting louder and louder. "Who did you meet?"
He wouldn't look at me.
The thoughts careened into each other as they fought to get out of my mouth. "Who is she? How long has it been? And you're telling me now? Tonight?"
"You asked me what. You always want to know. What, what, what? Okay, I told you. Are you happy?"
The ice pain in my abdomen flared to heat that spread through my whole body. My heart was pounding like I was on the Body Farm treadmill. "What the fuck? Am I what? Happy? Get the fuck out of here, Dash."
He got up and put on his jeans. The belt, decorated with skulls, was still threaded through the belt loops, and the heavy metal buckle clanked.
He pulled on his T-shirt without looking at me. His back was huge, straining the cotton fabric as if it might tear. I realized I would never touch him again. Everything irrevocably over. One of us might as well have been killed in that instant. And it was probably me. My first death of nine. Who was the zombie now?
When I was in my early twenties, I had a dog I'd found on the street. A gentle beagle-and-pit-bull mix I called Pinkie. I walked and fed her, she slept on my bed. It was good for me, at that time, to have something to take care of, even though I couldn't care for myself. Then the seizures began. Her body hurtling against the walls, mouth lathering, shit everywhere. Afterward she wouldn't recognize me, would just growl for a long time. Once, after an episode, she looked at me without recognition. When I reached for her, she bit my hand, breaking the skin, though it wasn't that deep. The meds they gave me for her didn't work, the tumor they discovered was inoperable, and finally I decided to put her down. I was drunk. It was raining. I drove her to the vet, who told me I should leave, that it wouldn't be pleasant to watch. She was still big and strong, nothing seemed wrong to look at her. The vet walked into the back room and she followed him, trotting along, trusting. Sometimes I still dreamed of her bony head, her lopsided eyes, and long, graceful legs.
"I'm sorry," Dash said. For the first time since I'd asked the final what, his voice sounded human, even kind. This made it worse. I wanted to grab him, tear him back from wherever he was. I was going to be alone. I was going to die alone like my mother. Unless I could get him to stay.
"Wait, please. Dash. Talk to me."
He shook his head.
"Why?" I screamed. "What did I do? What happened?"
"It's not about you and me," he said and his voice was cold again. "It's about me. And her."
Copyright © 2014 by Francesca Lia Block
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