Stuttering percussion and icy synths reverberated across the surging dance floor, and Jardin‘s swelling patronage was being swept up in the triphop’s intoxicating physicality. The shuffling, arrhythmic beats pulsing through the bar sent waves of color that folded in on themselves and back out, unfurling and blooming, each permutation an aftershock of the endless reflections.
From her high bar stool, just off the disco’s center, on a little diamond of the labyrinthine, elevated walkway, Virgil scanned the club for familiar faces.
Vol. 1: Overture
By Dawn Saas and Nic Frankenberry
Powered by the Apocalypse and the work of D. Vincent Baker
as well as
Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman
Microscope by Ben Robbins
Content Warning: Depictions of attempted abduction, drug use, and graphic violence.
There was a man Virgil thought she recognized near the restrooms. Virgil didn’t know his name. The man was in his late 20s, and Virgil realized it had been years since she’d seen him. There was a long scar on the side of his face she hadn’t seen before, and the man had gained almost thirty pounds. However, Virgil recognized his square jaw, and she hadn’t seen someone wear a blazer like that in a disco since the 80s.
In the southeastern corner of the dance floor, a tall, muscular black woman in a sparkling strapless dress danced with a stout Dominican woman in a tank top and jorts. The taller woman had a penchant for picking up her much smaller dance partner and twirling her. The sturdier of the two giggled and rested her head against her escort’s stomach. The tall woman rubbed her partner’s back and then kissed her head. The pair started dancing, and the black woman clasped her lover’s back against her chest and swayed.
Jardin‘s proprietor, Arsene, was chatting with a young black man in sunglasses that Virgil recognized and not without a certain amount of distress.
The pair were sitting at the Clit. Arsene was in their favorite outfit. The Laotian disco magnate’s tight, white sweater was a willing canvas for the club’s kaleidoscopic streams of color, and their black, knit cotton skirt reflected a thin, shifting flower bed of its own.
Virgil bent over across her empty table to study the man in the sunglasses. His name was Elijah. Elijah had a long cane, resting against the bar. The cane’s gold handle pulsed in tune with the club’s atmospheric pyrotechnics. Arsene offered their hand to Elijah. Elijah shook Arsene’s hand, and they started to walk towards the club’s rear. Elijah used his cane to guide his path.
Virgil lost track of time.
If anyone on the dance floor had looked up at her, they would have seen her sitting stock still, looking out on the dance floor, focusing on nothing. Virgil was in her black, cotton trousers and dark red button up shirt with the open collar. Her wavy, dark brown hair fell just above her shoulders. Her clutch sat on the table. There were no drinks.
By the time Virgil stirred again, Jardin was at capacity. It was just past eleven and the avant-garde of Pittsburgh’s dance caste were hip-to-hip on the dance floor. Virgil was stirred from her catatonia by the discordant buzz of electronic whirrs. She was whisked away from a daydream of her last shift at the Oakes Mills’ northern foundry. Virgil was a fan of dance music that captured the horror and madness of industrial decay. It felt apt.
Bodies churned on the dance floor. Virgil watched two men without clothes grind against the walls, the more svelte of the pair swiftly stroking his otter’s sex. A tangled knot of men, women, and everyone between and outside of that false dichotomy had formed an undulating blur of hands, tongues, and skin in another corner of the disco. On a separate lane of the elevated walkway, separated from Virgil by a chasm of color and bass, a heterosexual couple were in the throes of their own love-making. The woman was on top, riding her partner who was splayed across their table. The man’s jeans were wrapped around his ankles, and the woman’s shirt had long since been tossed into the frenzied crowd.
Virgil was moments away from leaving her table and making her way to the orgiastic center of the evening when a woman stumbling towards the bar caught her eye. The woman was bouncing off of the exultant revelers occupying the crowded disco. The woman was reeling around like she didn’t see anyone around her although she was also making an unmistakable track towards the Rosebud. The woman was wearing an off-the-shoulders black dress, and her hair fell in light curls down her back.
After the woman made it to the bar — moments after she was hip-checked by a woman with her face buried in the crotch of another woman who was being held in the air by a man she was furiously necking — the stumbler attempted to take a seat but fell off her bar stool instead. As the woman started to pick herself up, Virgil realized Jardin‘s most inebriated spectacle was Robin.
Virgil was out of her chair and heading to the nearest stairwell to the dance floor before Robin was back on her feet. A bearded man in a trelby at the table closest to the stairwell whistled at Virgil and yelled a lewd come on. Virgil didn’t acknowledge his existence.
Cutting across the dance floor as Jardin‘s sexual congress inched towards its climax was no easy feat. The dance floor was limbs splayed in ecstasy, bodies rolling against and over one another, pelvic thrusts and hips grinding. Virgil waded through the orgasmic entropy. Couples and triads and larger, uncountable groupings would reach for her and attempt to draw her into their fornication, and on any other night, Virgil may have joined in. However, that night, Virgil did not stop until she reached the Rosebud.
By the time Virgil made it to her destination, she found Robin sitting upright, if not entirely steadily. The Clit was otherwise empty except for the bartender who seemed unaffected by the lustful energy coursing through Jardin. As Virgil sat down on the stool next to Robin, the music briefly stopped, and Virgil could hear Robin singing.
Virgil had spent a not insignificant portion of her afterlife in nightclubs and was intimately acquainted with popular music. Virgil hadn’t seen a film since her death in 1944, but Virgil knew the music that was played at clubs and had marked the progression of time with the changes in those tunes. Virgil had never heard anything like Robin’s melody, and it was all the more confusing because she knew Robin could not sing.
Robin’s voice and its powerful crescendos and heart-stopping plummets took a deep hold of Virgil, and Virgil thought, for a moment, she was going to simply fade away. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Jardin‘s skittering, percussive dance beats returned, and Robin closed her mouth and stopped singing. Before Virgil could reach out to touch her friend, Robin turned and smiled at Virgil, but Virgil quickly realized Robin wasn’t truly smiling at Virgil or even looking at her. Robin was smiling through Virgil and looking through her, and Virgil knew she was too solid to be looked through just then. Virgil was starting to realize how much older Robin looked when Robin lifted her hands and began to sign.
“Walk with me.”
Robin looked at Virgil, and Robin continued to smile blankly past her.
If I find whoever roofied her…
Virgil didn’t want to think about what she would do. Virgil needed to get Robin somewhere where she could sober up in peace, and Virgil had so many questions and so many apologies once Robin was straight.
“Sure… Robin, where are we going?”
“Somewhere more quiet.” Robin burst out in laughter at her own joke.
Robin grabbed Virgil’s hand and led her to the back of the club. Robin was singing again, and Virgil was too fixated on Robin’s voice to notice the club parting before the two of them as they walked towards the back. Jardin‘s music was so loud that Virgil could feel the rhythm in her spine. Yet, Virgil could still hear Robin’s song. She could feel it on her skin and in her head. The melody was inside of her. Virgil was sprouting up through the earth. She could feel her skin exploding in petals and green.
Virgil shook her head violently, and she was back in reality and Jardin. She and Robin had just reached the back door that led up to the club’s backstage.
“Where are you taking me?”
Robin stopped in her tracks and smiled at Virgil. Virgil thought Robin looked more alert, but her pupils were still dilated and Robin still had that same glazed smile. Virgil was desperate to get her out of Jardin.
“Under the eaves and under the boughs, where only the angels tread.”
Virgil had made up her mind to start dragging Robin out of the club’s main entrance and to put Robin in a cab to Squirrel Hill — if that was even where Robin was still living — when the drug dealer in the blazer with the scar on his face started crossing the dance floor. He was making a beeline for Robin. Just as Virgil began to wonder if this was the man who had drugged her friend, the dealer reached the two of them and started to sign furiously.
“There you are! Where have you been? You had me worried sick. I’m taking you home right now.”
The man in the blazer wrenched Robin by the arm and turned towards Virgil. With a look of thinly veiled contempt, he spoke out loud.
“Who are you? Do I know you?”
Virgil didn’t respond and just stared at the man. The man shook his head impatiently and let go of Robin and then signed the same question back to Virgil who responded only with his initial question signed in return.
“I’m her boyfriend. We’re leaving.”
The man began to drag Robin away again until Virgil reached out reflexively and grabbed the man’s other wrist.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Todd screamed, forgetting to sign.
Virgil squeezed the man’s wrist tighter, and he stared at her in disbelief and agony.
The man tried to wrest his wrist away from Virgil one last time, and Virgil blacked out. Virgil felt the anger flowing through her, and, when she came back to, moments later, the man was screaming in agony. Virgil held the shattered remains of his wrist in her clenched hands.
Robin signed at the man, “Todd?” in sincere concern.
Virgil could feel the eyes of the club turning her way. Jardin‘s coital conglomerations had come to a screeching halt, and everyone in the club in their various states of undress, intercourse, and orgasm were looking at Virgil and Robin as well as Todd’s mangled wrist. Todd had let go of Robin’s hand and held his wrist as he screamed in fury and pain.
Virgil felt time slowing to a crawl. Robin was paralyzed with concern for Todd. The partiers were starting to turn en masse and gather towards the corner.
Virgil let go of the physical tension of existence, and, in a blink, she was gone. To the crowd, where the woman in the vintage clothes had been — looking like a Lawrenceville hipster experiencing a violent breakdown — there was now empty air.
Virgil’s view back on that crowd had changed more dramatically. Jardin and its patrons had been bathed in the phantasmagoric, flittering rainbow of the club’s lights. That color was now muted and dull, like paint that had dried in an overeager sun for decades. Before Virgil stepped back behind the veil, she could see the frayed stitching in Todd’s blazer. She could see the old stains of sweat on his white shirt. Once Virgil phased out of the physical world, the fine details of Jardin blurred like a child’s watercolor drawn in the dark.
Without thinking, Virgil reached out and grabbed Robin by the arm and dragged her across the border of the separate worlds they truly inhabited.
Virgil had never done this before. When Virgil grabbed Robin’s arm, Virgil didn’t feel the physical sensation of touch. She didn’t feel the warmth of Robin’s skin or the short bristles of her thin, brown arm hair. Virgil’s core was consumed by Robin’s song.
Every part of Virgil’s being became intertwined with that melody, and Virgil would have stopped and listened to that song for hours, but the crowd gasped and screamed as Robin disappeared as well and this shook Virgil from her stupor. The pair ran through Virgil’s realm and passed through the walls to the club’s rear like they weren’t even there.
Virgil and Robin were in a narrow corridor behind the dance floor. There was a fire exit to the left. Virgil could feel herself coming apart at the seams. It felt like her consciousness had been poured into a roaring ocean.
Virgil stopped in the corridor and gathered herself back together. The world returned in clarity. The corridor was lit in harsh fluorescents, and its brick walls and linoleum floors were spotless underneath the humming light. Robin had returned as well, and Virgil was about to lead her out the fire exit when a deep, booming voice echoed behind her.
“It is rare for spirits to visit my club. I suspect we may have much to discuss, little ghost.”
Virgil’s head turned on a swivel, and at the opposite end of the corridor, Arsene stood with their arms across their chest.