A couple of Todd’s coworkers were manning the late shift in Thibodeaux #3’s cramped lobby, checking student IDs and processing off-campus guest sign-ins. A tiny freshman girl was vomiting in a trashcan, near the line for the elevators. A friend held her hair back. The RAs working the desk all wore the same gold uniform and had the same “I’d rather be asleep or studying or out drinking or literally anywhere besides babysitting all these drunk assholes” look plastered on their faces.
The red-headed sophomore with the Introduction to Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Policing textbooks open in front of her was in charge of the ID swiping station. She did not smile when Todd approached.
“Enjoying your night off? Must be nice.”
She took Todd’s student ID and swiped it.
“It’s been wonderful.”
Todd flashed his most charming smile, but his peer still didn’t react. Todd’s face flushed with frustration. He hid the anger quickly, but Todd wasn’t fast enough to keep Melika from noticing his facade starting to crack. It was the first time she saw anything other than exactly what Todd wanted. It would not be the last.
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 Gender Dysphoria, Severe Anxiety and Depression, Drug Use, Sexual Assault, Gaslighting, and Psychological Abuse
Todd squeezed Melika’s shoulders. It hurt just a little bit, but Melika didn’t think Todd had meant to squeeze her so hard.
“This is Melika. She’s my guest. Say hi to Layla.”
Melika managed an indistinct squeak and a quick wave. Lalya managed a brief grunt in response.
“You’re going to have to get somebody else to sign her in as their guest. I’m already covering for Steve.”
Todd didn’t look at Layla as he responded and took Melika by the hand to the guest check-in station.
“That’s okay, Lay… that won’t be an issue.”
There wasn’t anyone else checking in a dorm tryst and so Melika and Todd were able to go straight to the front of the non-existent line. The station was held by a heavily bearded senior who beamed when he saw Todd.
The “American Civil War cosplay” looking RA saw Melika and did a double take. She was used to the reaction, but Melika was too tired and on edge from the fight and the Orchid to say or do anything about this dude’s rudeness. Besides, her initial reaction was almost always to de-escalate a conflict. Melika hadn’t hit someone since elementary school, and adrenaline and testosterone were coursing through her system. She wanted to get to Todd’s room. Melika wanted privacy. She wanted to be alone with the one person she’d seen that evening that knew who she was even when her body sent different signals to the less informed and less inclusive around her.
“You make a friend tonight, Todd?”
“A very good one,” and Todd ruffled Melika’s hair. Melika had ceased to feel the affection in Todd’s touch. Melika couldn’t decide if she had started to have a bad trip or if the Orchid was actually just wearing off and that this was just her body reminding her that she’d never be happy. That she’d never be comfortable or satisfied.
This is it. You are destined to meet earnest, charming suitors and your dysphoria will ruin everything.
“I need you to print your name and sign. Also, I need to make a copy of either a state-issued or university student ID.”
Melika was already shuffling through her purse when she said, “Melika Ghazi,” without remembering what name and photograph her driver’s license actually contained. Melika quietly gave her dead name and then handed her Hodges ID to the RA. She signed into Thibodeaux #3 under the name of a person who had only ever been the palest shadow of her true self.
Melika had only chosen her new name the summer between her sophomore and freshman year. It was an Urdu variant of the Arabic word for “Queen” although Melika hadn’t realized that last part until a couple years later. She’d named herself after an aunt that had watched her and loved her when she was a child. Her aunt was dead now. Melika wasn’t, and she needed something new to call herself.
Melika’s head still snapped if she was around other Desi kids in Oakland and she heard her dead name. It was a common enough boys name for Pakistani kids. However, Melika was Melika, and after the RA handed her ID back, her desire for an evening of lustful misadventures had vanished. Melika wanted to go home and had no idea how to broach the topic with Todd. She didn’t want to let him down.
The bearded RA smiled and his practiced ease contrasted his clear discomfort and confusion. “Okay, well, y’all have fun.”
Todd started to escort Melika to the line for the elevators when the card-swiping RA’s comments came back to her.
“Wait, Todd, I thought that girl said you needed somebody to sign me in as their guest. My dorm at Hodges has the same rule.”
Todd hadn’t expected the question, and Melika watched as he tried to come up with a suitable answer on the spot. Todd hadn’t been stumped or at a loss for words the whole evening, but here he was and Melika was catching his brow twisting as he tried to think of the most polite way to address that he didn’t have to sign her in because she wasn’t a woman as far as the dorm was concerned.
“Oh, right, yeah. Colin is a friend. RAs have a bad habit of letting each other slide when it comes to lots of rules. Guests included. We know that we’ll be responsible. Eighteen year olds on the other hand…”
Todd gesticulated to the cramped crowd around the elevators. Melika couldn’t keep track of all of the teenagers… that she was barely older than. She blushed when she saw a couple — two butch-leaning lesbians — that had their hands down each other’s pants. The shortest of the girls was having a not inaudible orgasm and nobody seemed to care.
Todd grabbed Melika’s hand and squeezed it firmly. “We’ll be upstairs before long.” Todd brushed Melika’s hair away from the side of her face and whispered in her ear. “We can redose then if you want. The Orchid might start wearing off soon.”
Melika and Todd had to wait another ten minutes before they were able to finally get on the elevator. The carriage was elbow-to-elbow when Melika, Todd, and more than a dozen other students boarded. They were among the last people to enter the elevator, and Melika wound up squished in a corner, pressed between Todd, one of the Welder’s linebackers that had broken up the initial fight outside the dorms, and the mirrored glass walls of the elevator.
Melika wasn’t a fan of elevators when she was in them by herself. They were steel death traps, dependent on too many other people not fucking up basic physics and engineering. Melika was a stairs kind of gal if she could help it. Being trapped in this monstrosity with mostly out-of-state PittU students who would gladly projectile vomit all over her if the elevator stopped or started too fast was an indignity she was increasingly not in the mood to bear.
Melika’s situation was not helped by her increasing suspicion that the Orchid in her system was finding its second wind. Melika had done enough uppers to know that the speed portion of her trip was over. The euphoria — both mental and tactile — that had overwhelmed Melika at the club was all gone. Melika no longer felt like she was without limits. She was tired. Her legs ached. Melika’s arms were sore from the tension of keeping the Ed Hardy Bro in that full nelson. Melika was lightheaded and she just wanted some water and to go to sleep more than anything else. However, the tension in Melika’s spine hadn’t gone away. That sense that if she just closed her eyes, then she could see into the hearts and souls of everyone around her hadn’t gone away. It was only getting stronger.
The elevator opened on the fourteenth floor. The carriage had thinned out a little, but the elevator was still overcrowded. The Welders linebacker near Melika tried to gently disengage himself from the group and get out of the elevator but more drunk freshmen girls attempted to board the “up” elevator that they refused to understand wasn’t going downstairs.
The linebacker had little trouble repelling the initial wave. He weighed nearly 300 pounds and even half a dozen freshies was nothing compared to the Miner’s front line in Morgantown. Those were scary college students. The LB had been hit in the face by batteries the student section was throwing when the Welders had gone down to West Virginia to play during the fall semester. What did a couple drunks, weighing maybe a hundred pounds a piece, mean to him?
However, two of the girls were able to sneak under the LB’s outstretched arms as he worked to repel this drunken horde. The pair that made it past him were the shortest and most sly of the revelers trying to force themselves into the elevator. They managed to slip past the LB, but the elevator’s other occupants attempted to shove them back out. The only thing they managed to accomplish was shoving these interlocutors into the LB’s back who stumbled as the freshmen girls bounced off of him and into Todd, knocking Melika over.
Melika was failing to keep her anxiety at bay when the prophecy came to her. The elevator was erupting with movement and anger. The drunk belligerents were being expelled, and the linebacker had stormed away from the scene. Everyone in the elevator was on edge. Melika could see the sheer tension sparking off of her neighbors. Bluish-white tendrils reaching, trying to grab anything in their reach, but as the elevator doors closed, everything and everyone inside of the elevator but her and Todd blinked out of existence.
Melika couldn’t breathe. Her heart wasn’t beating.
Why did you ever let this stranger give you a drug you’ve never heard of? Why would you go home with him? Do you know anything about him? You don’t know anything about anyone. You never will. You’re too naïve.
Todd was frozen in time as well. His arms were wrapped around Melika’s chest. His grip hurt. Melika began to fixate on how much Todd’s touch had hurt since they’d left Jardin. How domineering and rough he was when she stopped and thought about him for even a second. Melika felt like bugs were crawling over her skin, reshaping her into their image. Melika wanted to thrash and kick, but she was paralyzed, like a child waking up from a nightmare that refused to end.
Melika had no choice but to stare at herself and Todd in the mirrored glass walls of the elevator. Melika felt disconnected from the woman she saw reflected back at her. She saw the fear and the barely restrained anger and the glazed over eyes of someone in the throes of a drug trip that had gotten the better of them. Melika hadn’t felt this afraid in so long. She had initially started to embrace her life as a woman because she was so tired of carrying all of that fear and anger inside of herself. Melika knew that there would always be places where she would feel rational fear. Places where she’d never feel comfortable because of her gender and/or her race and/or her religion. At least, though, she was able to stop being afraid of herself. Melika had let go of her self-loathing, but in that elevator, every ounce of every self-excoriating and self-destructive impulse she’d ever had was etched into the lines of her face.
And then there was Todd. Melika realized she couldn’t read anything in that face that Todd wasn’t actively, intentionally projecting. She was starting to wonder if he had said or done anything genuine the whole evening. Todd’s frozen face screamed alertness and attention. His head was turned, studying the deserted space of the depopulated elevator. His eyes seemed to be straining against the cessation of time and movement. Veins in Todd’s forehead bulged out of his head. Melika hadn’t noticed how muscular he was before. Todd’s firm forearms were squeezing her chest, and Melika could feel the outline of Todd’s abs against her back as he held her against his chest.
Melika didn’t think this nightmare could get worse until the glass walls of the elevator stopped reflecting its new, sparse population. Suddenly, Melika saw a dorm room and a bed. The room was a mess. There were clothes sprawled everywhere. The casually discarded clothes were the closest thing that the sparsely furnished room had to any decorations. There weren’t any posters or banners or pennants. No pictures of loved ones, friends, or family. Just textbooks and clothes, a laptop and food. Melika still couldn’t move her body, but all of the walls of the elevator had become glass portals to this room.
Todd and Melika were standing in the elevator, but they were also sitting on the dorm room’s bed. Melika had to watch as every awful fear came true through this looking glass.
Todd and Melika were listening to music. Melika didn’t recognize the melody although she and Robin and Virgil would all come to know it far too well.
“I like this. Who is this? I don’t recognize the language they’re singing in.”
Todd passed Melika a bottle of water that he had stored under his bed.
“Drink this. Orchid dehydrates you… especially since we redosed.”
Melika was sweating. Her eyes weren’t just glazed over. They were watery glass.
“Thanks… I don’t feel so good.”
“You just need to push past that for another ten minutes or so. It will go away soon.”
“Who did you say this band was?”
“Here. Let me help you relax.”
Todd slid behind Melika on the bed and started to give her a shoulder rub. Melika didn’t look more relaxed. She looked like she wanted to throw up.
“I’m okay… really. I kind of want to just lie down.”
The music was becoming part of Melika. She could feel its spiraling structure seeping into her.
You did too much. You always do too much. You can’t ride the high. You can’t take care of yourself. You’ll never be okay.
“Yes! Lie down. That will help.”
Melika watched in frozen horror as she lied down on Todd’s bed. Melika was making guttural moans. The words she could speak were slurred. Melika was drenched in sweat. The perspiration was rolling down her face in little rivulets.
After Melika lied down, Todd laid on his side next to her. He started to kiss Melika’s neck and her face and her shoulders. Melika’s dress zipped up in the back, and Todd started to undo the zipper. He slid Melika’s dress down her chest. Melika was wearing a bralette. She didn’t have large, noticeable breasts. That came with the territory of not being able to afford hormones or top surgery. Melika liked how the bralette made her feel. She liked the security it implied.
“I don’t… I’m not… No…”
Melika stuttered and slurred the words as Todd slid the bralette over her head. Todd was either actively ignoring Melika’s protestations or was too distracted to care to listen. In the elevator, Melika’s muscles strained against their invisible restraints. She wanted to break free of Todd’s statuesque grasp. She wanted to reclaim control of her arms and her legs. Melika wanted to smash the glass walls showing her this nightmare. She wanted her fists to be drenched in blood and glass if that was what it took.
Melika had no choice but to watch instead.
After Todd removed Melika’s bralette, he started to give her a full back massage. Melika moaned in intoxicated pleasure but also moaned incoherent syllables of resistance and discomfort. Todd reached around and grabbed Melika’s chest. He squeezed her small breasts and softly pinched and tweaked her hard nipples. Melika watched as she started to get an erection underneath the light cloth of her dress.
Todd’s hands traveled further down Melika’s chest until he reached her waist where Melika’s dress was hanging loosely at her sides. Todd brushed against Melika’s sex with his hand, over her dress.
“I’m… I’m sorry… I promissh I’m… urgh… a girl.”
Todd smiled his wolfish grin.
“I know you are. Didn’t I say you needed to relax?”
Todd picked Melika’s water bottle off the floor. Melika was groaning and limply trying to push Todd’s hand away from her penis. Melika couldn’t see as Todd dropped another petal of Orchid into her bottle. She was too high to notice that the bottle began to hum a bright orange before returning to normal.
Melika drank the water, but she spat it out almost immediately.
“Thisssh… tashtes baddd.”
Todd put the bottle back to Melika’s mouth and held it there til she drank.
“You’re just dehydrated. That happens…”
Melika tried to sit up but collapsed. Todd uttered more commands of relaxation. Melika struggled to keep her eyes open. Her protestations were becoming weaker and more inaudible. Todd’s hands touched all of the parts of Melika he was never given consent to explore. He removed the remaining clothes Melika wore. He kissed and fondled Melika as she passed out and Melika had to watch everything that came after from the elevator.
Melika was stuck in this hell for what she assumed was eternity. She was certain this was the only life and existence she would ever know again. Then, time unfroze and everyone in the elevator around her returned.
Melika had the anxiety attack she had been failing to stave off the entire evening. One moment, she was watching herself be assaulted, and the next, she was in a crowded elevator, held by the man she had just seen violate her. Melika was hyper-ventilating and everyone on the elevator could tell. Todd tried to assuage the crowd. He told the spectators that she was prone to fits like this. These things happened. Todd held her close to his chest and Melika was breathing so rapidly that she was struggling to not pass out.
By the time, they got off the elevator, Melika’s breathing was returning to normal, and she was not going to go back to Todd’s room.
“I have to go home.”
Todd ran his hands through Melika’s hair and smiled at her. His smile was like a black hole and Melika was being sucked back into it.
“You saw something right? It’s just the Orchid. When you’re coming down, if you don’t redose, it can get weird.”
Todd grabbed Melika by the hand and dragged her into a supply closet that was near the elevators. He turned on the lights. The smell of bleach made Melika ill. Todd reached into his pocket and pulled back out the bag of Orchid. There were still plenty of petals left. Todd had spent the evening with Melika instead of dealing.
“Here. Just take another one. You’ll be fine.”
Melika opened her mouth to say no but she was so tired and exhausted that no words came out. Todd smiled and placed the Orchid on her tongue.
“Sure, I’ll feed this one to you. Is that your thing? I like it when a girl knows her kinks.”
Melika was too tired and scared and beat down to do anything but swallow the Orchid. She followed Todd back to his room. Everything in her vision came true.