Between the Lines: Sylphie

RATED: PG for language

I straighten the straps on my red silk nightgown as the second chime rings through the Oasis, trembling the rotten wooden walls. The grease-spattered window in my room rattles in its pane behind the ornate drape I use to keep out the rust-colored planet light of Jupiter.

I snatch a cigarette and my lighter off my crooked nightstand and light up as I open my door. The mezzanine sounds like a shoe store with a sale, girls giggling and chattering and blah-blah-blahing at the top of their friggin’ voices.

They line the mezzanine railing, looking down to the empty bar below. Well—empty except for Oscar, the boss man, and Cedric, his boy toy.

I take a drag from the cigarette and take my place at the rail, the girls close to me shying away like I still smell like the greasy miner I spent the last two hours with. Hell, I hope I don’t still smell like him. That son of a bitch reeked. But I won’t sniff myself, not while they’re watching.

I’ve got a reputation to maintain.

And who gives a shit if I smell like shit. I’m the moneymaker here. All these little girls had better remember it too. Maybe they bring in few hundred credits a night, but I’m the real prize in this rundown hellhole. If it weren’t for me, the Oasis would run dry.

And Oscar knows it.

The giggling and twittering stops as Oscar starts counting. One of the girls—girls, they’re just girls—shifts back and forth. She’s new. Too young to be from another house, so she’s probably local off the streets. She scowls when Oscar gets to her.

Doesn’t like the count, does she? Well, it takes some getting used to.

I take another drag on my cigarette and puff the smoke out.

When I first started here, I didn’t like the count either. Makes you feel like a product on a shelf, Oscar taking inventory last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Sort of like you’re a piece of meat at a market.

The kid will learn some day. That’s all we are. Products for sale, flesh for price, a night on the town for the highest bidder—or any bidder. She’ll learn to deal with it like I have—or she’ll leave, either on her own or after Oscar finishes with her.

I hate it here. Someday I’ll get out and be free. I’ll make a life for me, and I’ll only tumble when I feel like it—not because I want to eat.

When the count is done, we scatter back to our rooms. The rest of the girls have all learned not to linger once Oscar’s finished inventory. I slam the door behind me and put my cigarette out in the dish on the table against the wall, stripping the nightgown off. I’m still sticky and greasy and—hell, I do smell like that son of a bitch.

Not that Callisto’s water smells any better. Everything here smells like piss or worse. The air. The dirt. The people.

I shift the fancy woven drape hiding the rotted wooden walls of my room aside and grab the plastic paint bucket from the corner. I drop a fragranced sponge in it and let it soak while I pin up my hair.

It’s a nightly ritual, scrubbing off the grease the customers leave. A couple don’t come off. Bruises. Son of a bitch. That’ll affect my rates. Clients pay for clear skin here, not girls that are battered like beat-up pieces of fruit. I’ll salve the bruises up and hope they clear by morning.

When I’m done, I pat myself dry with an oiled towel and don a fresh nightgown. The miner smell is gone, and thanks to the fragrance on the sponge, the gag-worthy scent of Callisto water doesn’t hang around either.

I perch on the edge of my bed and light another cigarette. Lights are still on downstairs. I heard a tussle down there today, so maybe Cedric is still cleaning up.

The lights could flash any second. If Oscar catches me out of bed, he’ll take me down himself. The last girl he caught out of bed after curfew couldn’t walk for a week.

But I didn’t get my bourbon. And I do love a glass of bourbon before bed.

Decision made. And Oscar can just screw himself.

I throw my door open and march for the stairs. Cedric has just put the mop up when I hit the main level.

“What? Sylphie?” He yelps and flaps his arms. “What are you doing? Why are you out of your room? Don’t you know what time it is?”

I jump on a stool at the bar and knock on the bar, puffing smoke at him. Messing with Cedric is always fun. His panic attacks make Oscar’s threats and beatings worth it.

“No!” He crosses his arms. “Bar’s closed.”

“Get me a bourbon, boy-lover.”

“Go back to bed, whore. Or is it too lonely for you without a customer?” He marches up to the bar and leans into my face, beady eyes like lasers. “I could call Oscar for you.”

“Bourbon, boy toy, or I walk. And you get to explain to Oscar why he can’t pay the bills anymore.”

Cedric’s mouth opens and closes like a suffocating catfish. He stands there, breathing sour breath in my face for a few minutes, before he gives in and grabs a glass and a bottle of bourbon.

“Bitch,” he snarls. “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” He shoves the glass of bourbon at me.

“Well it sure as hell ain’t about you, sweet pea.”

“Do you even realize what I had to put up with down here today?” He snatches up a filthy rag off the end of the bar and starts scrubbing at a stain that’s been on the counter for ten years. “Bounty hunters. Two of them. Broke a table—and seven glasses—and three chairs. And who had to clean that up?”

I sip my bourbon. It burns going down.

“And then they beat the shit out of each other. Blood everywhere. One of them lost teeth. Who had to clean that up?” He snorts as he throws the rag down. “Me. Just me. Only me. Like I don’t have anything else to do. Like I didn’t have to mix two Lunar Rainbows today! Two! Do you know how long those damned things take?”

“Longer than your temper tantrums?”

“I need an assistant.” He caps the bottle of bourbon and sets it back on the shelf. “Somebody to help out around this dump.”

I swallow the last of the bourbon in one gulp. He holds out his hand, and I set my glass on his palm.

“Done, your worship? Shall I paint your nails? Shine your shoes?” He wipes my glass down and sets it under the counter.

Normally I’m back up the stairs by now. But Oscar hasn’t caught me yet. And even though Cedric is a whiney bastard, he doesn’t spend our conversations staring at my rack.

Cedric straightens up behind the bar. “You got your bourbon. Why are you still here?”

“Maybe I just want to sit here. That all right by you?”

“No, it’s not all right. When Oscar comes out, he’ll see you, and he’ll blame me. And I’ll lose my job.”

The Oasis shifts as the wind outside shakes it. I’m surprised the place hasn’t collapsed on itself yet. Callisto weather isn’t exactly temperate, and something about Jupiter’s light turns wood to ash ten times faster than artificial sunlight. Or maybe it’s something in the atmosphere the terraformers didn’t get.

“Would that be so bad?” I return to my cigarette. “You like it here that much you don’t want to leave?”

Cedric stops for a minute, and I can see the gears whirring in his bald head.

“This place is the ass-end of the universe,” he says. “I hate it.” He goes back to scrubbing the stain that won’t come off. “But I need the credits. Can’t get nowhere without credits.”

I take another drag from my cigarette. “Some life.”

“Yeah,” Cedric mutters. “Some life.”

A board creaks at the back of the room. That’s Oscar coming out of his office. Cedric arches an eyebrow at me.

I could run for it, and Oscar will chase. I could hide behind the bar, and Oscar will find me. Or—I can face that smug bastard and blow smoke in his face, and he can do whatever the hell he wants. Nothing he can do to me that some miner on this dirty rock ain’t done already.

Decision made.

Oscar steps out of his office and into the bar area, but he stops short when he sees me. His face turns red. His eyes start snapping.

Poor Oscar. One of his little whores is out of bed without his permission.

I slide off the stool and face him. “I wanted my bourbon.”

His face turns redder, so I blow smoke at him.

But he doesn’t touch me. Doesn’t even move. So I raise my eyebrows at him.

“Upstairs, you filthy slut,” he snarls at me.

I put my cigarette out on the floor and turn my back on him. I don’t look back, even though my heart is pounding. He could follow me upstairs, but everybody knows Oscar only beats girls in his office.

Cedric scurries around behind me, cleaning up my cigarette butt.

I don’t look back until I’m at my door. Oscar is staring at me, so I wink at him. I don’t wait to see his rage, and I slip into my room and slam the door. The lights flash soon afterward, which means everyone sleeps. Period.

I sit in my plush chair with my legs folded under me. I don’t sleep in the bed. The bed is for working.

In the red planet-light of Jupiter burning through my drape, I can still see the bruise on my arm. I didn’t salve it.

I’ll do it tomorrow. Or I’ll cover it.

Either way, it’s like the stain on Cedric’s counter. I don’t think it’ll ever come off.

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