The air at Damnation is hot and close, unbreathable with the weight of too many bodies. The regulars are squeezed up against the bar, banging their glasses on the gouged wood. I never used to come here.
It’s been ten days since the night at the Prophet Club. The unprecedented bloodbath. The stringy little bouncer with the blue tattoos. He destroyed a hoard of monsters in brutal splatter, but left me whole, shaking and cowering on the floor.
Since then, I’ve been changing.
It mostly happens at night—this dark compulsion to leave my bed and haunt the city. I wander aimless, trying to ignore the way my bones press through my skin. I’m becoming transparent. My teeth feel huge and square in my mouth, insatiable like the Wendigo, too hungry for its own good. I want to eat everything.
The shadows in Damnation are deep, perfect for self-effacement, my bid for nonexistence. All the bartenders are women with long necks and dark flashing eyes. When the right kind of song comes on the jukebox, they climb onto the bar in twos and threes, dance the gorgeous, smoldering dances of Lamia and Salome and Bathsheba.
Watching them makes me feel negligible, invisible, consumed with a kind of morbid relief. It doesn’t matter that I’m hungry, on the verge of collapsing in. No one sees it. Everyone is busy looking at them.
I’m in the process of disappearing completely, when a man comes looming at me out of the dark. He’s silent and massive, black except for the improbable blue of his eyes and the glare of his white, white teeth. His shirt is black too, with a splash of embroidery on the breast pocket. Neat letters spell out Manager.
He leans to whisper in my ear. “I know what you need.”
When I say nothing, he slips an arm around my shoulders and turns, half-carrying me in the direction of the beer tub, my toes barely skimming the floor. The girl at the tub gives me a resentful look. Her bra straps are showing and so are her ribs. She presides over the bath of ice like a goddess, seething, blaming, hating.
The manager reaches into the tub and fishes around. He pops the top on a can of something sweet and colorless, and slops a healthy serving onto the floor. He produces a metal flask and refills the can with something thick and black. It shimmers like used motor oil. He sloshes the can in a circle to blend the flavors of this crude, noxious drink. When he offers it to me, I smell combustible fuel.
I take it, not certain what he wants or intends for me. His expression is so impossibly bland, a sure sign that he sees the gaunt transformation in my face, feels it in the air when I breathe. But I can’t be counted on to remember how these days. Sometimes my lungs just stop working.
“Drink,” he says, and when I still make no move to do it, he puts his fingers against my wrist and tips the can to my mouth.
It tastes compelling, strangely light. I finish it in long, thirsty swallows and stop feeling cold.
Up on the bar, the girls are dancing, moving their hips to the beat, gyrating in vicious circles. Without word, he grabs me around the waist and swings me up with them. I stand helpless for a moment, looking out at the crowd.
Below me, the manager is grinning wide, teeth incandescent in the dark expanse of his face. “Dance,” he says, like he’s about to laugh. “Get that blood moving.”
When I begin to jerk and sway, I can feel the black cocktail roaring through my veins, thudding in every cell.
Even in my blunt, desperate hunger, I was complacent, reassured that it wasn’t transformation, really. I was still myself, the doomed, perfect failure. I could still hit bottom.
When I move to the music, my bones and skin feel weightless. My hair rises in tendrils around my face, caught on an updraft of quick, scorching air. I was hungry before, becoming frigid and alien, but this is so much worse. I was resigned to becoming the fragile monster, crawling, sneaking, crouching in the dark.
This new vision of myself is scalding and permanent, galvanizing, visible, standing at the pinnacle. I live here now.
There’s no place farther down to go.