A voice rang through the small dressing room, but Lucia barely heard it. She was too distracted by the person who was staring back at her in the mirror. The eyes were the most distracting part. They were huge and startled and tipped with wispy eyelashes that must have been made from goose feathers.
Vaguely, she could remember that this person was supposed to be herself.
All she could see was a collection of random lines and streaks, and for some reason her brain could no longer collapse this image into something that she could easily recognized. The makeup she had so meticulously brushed onto her face hours before looked like a mess of zig-zags and blurred tones. It may as well have been an abstract painting with hundreds of overlapping strokes covering every inch of the canvas.
There was a smell, too. Lucia thought she had grown used to it after years of painting her face, but that distinct bouquet of oil and wet mud suddenly permeated the air around her like a cloud. She could smell it even through the cigarette smoke that wafted into the dressing room between the wide cracks in the particleboard. She could smell it through the tinge of cheap liquor and sweat that seemed embedded into every wall in the nightclub.
She had smeared that same foundation from that same makeup stick on her face hundreds of times. Not only was the smell of that foundation suddenly unbearable now, but she could also feel its slick texture weighing heavily on her skin. For no reason at all, it felt like she was wearing a mask, a mask that she hadn’t noticed even just ten seconds before.
Without thinking, she snatched a handful of makeup wipes from the counter and rubbed them hard against her face. The foundation smeared, but most of it didn’t come off. A few streaks of dirt from her mascara mixed with the pale stickiness on her cheeks. It felt like she could have rubbed forever, but it would have just spread the makeup around and around in endless circles.
She stared into the mirror, bewildered. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting. It was the same face she had worn for countless weeks, but as she looked at her reflection, she could hardly recognize herself.
“It won’t come off,” Lucia whispered, a bit of panic in her voice, though she didn’t know exactly why she was saying that. Of course it wouldn’t come off in one stroke. Some weird thought floated to the top of her mind: she thought that maybe her actual face wasn’t underneath all of that dirt after all.
“I told you, girl: oil sheen,” a husky voice boomed through the room, loud enough that Lucia could hear it over the thumping music that vibrated the walls.
Broken abruptly out of her daydream, Lucia felt her body start a little. She shook her head and peered into the other mirror right beside her, into the face of the hefty queen who was busy peeling off her first layer of eyelashes. Even with the bright row of light bulbs above them, she couldn’t place where she had seen the queen before—but of course they must have performed on the same stage at some point that night.
The queen wasn’t looking directly at Lucia. She was staring at her own reflection, but for some reason Lucia could still feel her side-glance very heavily.
“Huh?” Lucia managed to say, though she wondered if it was loud enough to compete with the bass of whatever party song was playing over them.
“Oil sheen,” the queen repeated again. She tossed another row of eyelashes into the trash and started on the next. “Just spray some oil sheen on that face, then wipe it up with a towel. Takes it all right off. You don’t even need water.”
The queen turned to her suddenly, squinting at her through the harsh light of the dressing room. Her expression broke into a smile and the powder on her face cracked in several places, in a way that reminded Lucia of a desert landscape—except with a touch of glitter.
“Hey, you’re Salamanda Super-Nova’s drag daughter, ain’t ya?” the older lady asked.
Lucia nodded, but couldn’t fight the urge to turn back towards the mirror and look at herself again. Strangely enough, the mood of moments before had disappeared as quickly as it had come. Her face looked normal again, albeit messy. It was like that brief exchange of words had given her an identity.
“Ah, yes, I thought so,” said the old queen. “I know that face anywhere. That’s Sally’s face on you, isn’t it? Did she do your makeup tonight?”
Lucia, still a bit thrown off, brushed the tips of her fingers against her cheek. The makeup felt sticky on her fingertips. “No,” Lucia replied. “She’s still touring up and down the coast for the next couple of weeks. I did this myself.”
“Is that right? All by yourself? Well, that’s a fierce look you had on tonight, girl. You look just like that old bird Sally when she was young and we were just starting to work the drag circuit. ‘Course, that was a long time ago—a real long time ago. That’s back when there was actual money in this godforsaken town.”
The queen handed her a green spray can, and it took Lucia a moment to realize what it was. She caught a short whiff of olive oil that seemed to compete with the staleness of the room itself.
“Just close your eyes and spray, honey.” She pushed a stack of brown paper towels across the counter to her. “It’s a real shame to see that face come off, though,” she said wistfully. “No one does classic drag like that anymore. Out of all of Sally’s daughters, I can honestly say you’re the one who comes closest to her charm. Are you going to be marching with her at the Pride parade next month?”
“We have a spot on Blast’s float,” Lucia mumbled, scrunching her eyes shut and spraying the oil sheen across her face. She inhaled some of it accidentally and let out a throaty cough. It sounded weirdly husky to her ears, like it didn’t match her voice at all.
But the voice of the queen next to her was much deeper, so she felt a bit less insecure than if she were alone.
“She has you on the float with her and everything?” the queen replied, clearly impressed. “Well then, no doubt about it now: you’re her favorite. You’re competing in the Miss Blast Ultrastar pageant this year, too, right?”
Lucia tried to smile. “Yeah, my drag mom’s helping me put the formal dress together. It’s been…expensive.”
“Of course! That’s how the pageant system is, honey. It’s the path that we all have to walk to pay our dues.” The queen started dabbing at her eye shadow with makeup remover. “Once you win a title or two, things get easier, though. People start calling you for paid gigs and you don’t have to fight other girls for tips so much. With the right package, you’ll be part of the regular cast here in no time. It definitely helps that you have a momma like yours helping you out. Congratulations, girl!”
“Thanks.” Her heart wasn’t in it, though, and she knew that her response sounded a bit too flat. She shrugged. “It’s probably better to wait and congratulate me when I win.”
In truth, she had other things on her mind—things that had made it hard for her to listen to what anyone had to say all night, things that had made it impossible for her to enjoy the music or lose herself in her performance.
Lucia dug a wad of paper towels into her skin and scraped it across her face. She did it harder than necessary, but only realized it after her skin felt a bit raw. But just as the old queen had said, the makeup had come right off. She looked in the mirror. She saw Lucia’s face—whoever that was.
The music had stopped. She wasn’t sure when that had happened, but she noticed it all of a sudden. When she glanced up at the old clock near the top of the wall in front of them, it seemed to read a bit past two o’clock.
“It’s after last call,” Lucia said, turning to the queen beside her with a polite smile. “I’d better go get paid.”
“Of course, honey, get that money! Gotta pay for those titties somehow.” She grabbed the can of oil sheen and turned back to her reflection.
Lucia winced and packed up her makeup kit. She swung her drag bag over her shoulder, the strap pressing hard against her flat chest. Gotta pay for those titties.
Salamanda Super-Nova was a titty queen. All the regular cast members at Blast Night Club were titty queens, and so was nearly every past winner of Miss Blast Ultrastar. Naturally, everyone seemed to assume that Lucia Garcia Nova would also become a titty queen—as soon as she could afford the silicone.
“Speaking of which,” the older lady said as Lucia was unlatching the thin plywood door to the dressing room, “Dr. X is in town next week. Maybe you should come on down to a ‘coning party and give your momma a nice surprise for when she comes back.” She gave Lucia a sideways glance. “If I were you, though, I’d start with the hips and thighs. You can always wear a good pair of gel chicken cutlets in your bra, but I ain’t never seen a single pair of hip pads that look real.”
Lucia merely nodded as she stepped out. As soon as she shut the door, all the light seemed to disappear and she was faced with the dim hallway that led out towards the back of the stage. The space was littered with boxes and microphone stands and random electrical cords that led to nowhere. She nearly tripped a few times, but managed to make her way towards the front of the stage.
She peaked her head between the closed curtains, the velvet sticking uncomfortably to the sides of her sweaty neck. Through the low light, she was still able to see the edge of the bar nearby and the shirtless bartender who seemed to flex his muscles with exaggerated effort as he wiped down a stack of glasses.
“Hey!” Lucia called out in a hushed tone. She wasn’t sure why she felt like she should be discreet, since there was no one else around. Perhaps it was because of what she was about to ask.
The bartender looked up and gave her half a smile. “Yeah, what?”
“Have you seen Mickey around?”
Lucia let out a heavy sigh. “He’s supposed to pay me. He said that he couldn’t pay me until all of the sales had been made tonight, that I had to wait until we were closing—so here I am, waiting.”
“He said he was going to pay you?” He raised an eyebrow and turned towards her, leaning up against the bar. “I thought ya’ll worked for tips.”
“I’ve been performing here for like two years. He pays me every other Saturday now, as of three months ago.” She dug her fingers deeply into the velvet of the curtains’ edges until they were bunched into her fists.
“Oh yeah? How much is he paying you?”
It took Lucia a moment to realize that she was gritting her teeth, so she consciously let out another breath to try to relax herself. “Forty dollars.”
“Ah,” the bartender said. Lucia didn’t like the strange smile that had slithered onto his face. “Well, I haven’t seen him since the closing number during the show a few hours ago. He could be anywhere.”
“Anywhere in the bar?”
“Anywhere in town, honey. You know how he gets when a boy catches his eye.”
“Oh, for the love of—”
But Lucia didn’t finish. She was interrupted by the whining sound of rusted metal echoing through the space. Half a second later, a pure white sun was blasting straight into her eyes.
“Ah, Jesus!” She put a hand up to shield her face, and she could hear the bartender chuckling at her. Before long, she realized that she was being seared in the heat of a huge spotlight, one that was quite a bit brighter than she remembered from earlier that night during her performance.
“We’re not Jesus,” an androgynous voice emerged from somewhere high in the rafters across from her. When she squinted, she could make out the silhouettes of two figures on either side of the source of the light, but little more.
“Don’t you know not to shine that thing at a drag queen out of face? I look a mess!” Lucia protested. It was lame, but it was the first objection that had showed up in her brain. Vaguely, she realized that it was her mother’s objection more than anything—that Salamada Super-Nova had spoken through her in that moment.
“You looking for Mickey?” the disembodied voice from the sky continued, a voice that definitely did not belong to Jesus.
Lucia reached her hand up higher and covered the light as best she could. As her eyes adjusted, she could make out a very small bit of detail. On the left, from where the voice seemed to be emerging, there was a lean, slightly muscular frame covered in shadows. The face was indistinct. The hair was short. She couldn’t tell if it was a feminine man or a very butch woman.
“Yeah,” she finally said, calling out towards the shadow. “You know where he is? He owes me money.”
“We heard. Forty bucks, right?” There was an annoying smile in the voice now.
“Why does everyone seem to think that’s so funny?” Lucia snapped. “And will you get that damn light out of my face?”
There was a pause. The spotlight seemed to dim a little—or perhaps Lucia was only growing used to it. “If you’re looking for Mickey…I think he went down the street,” the voice said, “to the costume store. A couple of blocks over.”
Lucia scratched her head. “A costume store? I’ve lived in this neighborhood for a year and I’ve never seen anything like that. I always have to go halfway across town for wigs and costume jewelry and—”
“It’s called The Eye of Doris. Right off Crumby Street.”
“I’ve never heard of it, not even in passing. What does it look like on the outside? My phone’s dead and I can’t use any GPS. How do I find it?”
A different voice joined in, floating down smoothly from the opposite side of the spotlight: “No need to look. That place will find you eventually.” It was a youngish voice, not raspy like that of the chain-smoking old-timers that ran the place. It was distinctly male, though, distinctly masculine.
Then the light suddenly went out and darkness filled the room. She thought she could see smoke billowing in the air like a candle had just been extinguished, but after a moment she realized that it was just dust raining down in front of her from the old curtains. She couldn’t see much further than the stage and a few feet into the dance floor.
“Hello?” she called out. The voices had stopped. Only her own internal voice remained, which she preferred not to be alone with. Even the bartender had disappeared.
The more paranoid section of her brain wondered briefly if she had imagined the whole thing, if she was slowly going insane over an elusive forty dollars, a pair of twenties that were probably soaked with cheap vodka and lube.
What do I want money for, anyway? she thought all of a sudden.
But then she decided that this was a stupid thought. Of course she wanted money. Everyone wanted money. She pulled herself back through the curtains and made her way towards the hidden employee entrance that let out near the dumpster behind the building.
She didn’t run into anyone as she walked down the outside steps. The place had suddenly become a ghostly shell of what it was when it had been filled with people to distract her. It spooked her enough that she found herself jogging towards Crumby Street, skipping down the dirty sidewalk and hopping over a guy who had fallen asleep on the curb.
When her feet touched the pavement of an intersection, she barely felt the gravel crunching under her before a loud screech blasted through her ears. She felt the heat surging against her skin. She could taste the rubber in the air. She saw the huge tires inches in front of her before her brain even noticed the rest of the pickup truck. Her whole head vibrated with the booming rumble of the engine.
Seconds later, a string of obscenities echoed through the otherwise empty street, a string of names that she realized suddenly were meant for her. Time seemed to move so slowly. She looked up to see the red face of the driver who was about to turn right into her. He screamed at her at the top of his lungs, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying anymore. His speech was slurred. He had swooped by so closely, she could smell the booze emanating from the inside of the truck.
He barely missed her, then he sped off.
Even through her shock, she had recognized his face. She had seen him in the club hours before. It had been his birthday and the queens had dragged him up on stage to give him the traditional birthday shot and lap dance. Lucia had been the one to serve him the drink.
She had fallen over into the middle of the narrow street, just a few feet from the curb. Somehow, through some ancient instinct of self-preservation that was much smarter than she was, her body had managed to jump out of the way as the truck had swerved towards her. She was on her hands and knees. The hard pebbles of asphalt were digging into the palms of her hands.
She was too frozen with surprise to do anything but let a shudder run through her.
She didn’t want to think about it.
She didn’t want to think about it—and more, importantly, Mickey owed her forty dollars.
Lucia looked up, and noticed some flashing neon signs for the first time. The light was coming from an alleyway around the corner that she usually ignored, one that seemed to hold the typical “massage” parlors that the area tended to attract. There was a strange little storefront there, however, one that she could barely see, one with a small door and windows painted over in black. There was a lit up sign that said “OPEN.”
Still a bit stunned, she managed to bend her frozen joints until she stood up. She dusted herself off. She heard the jostling sounds of her spilled makeup kit dancing around loosely inside her bag.
Dammit, she thought, I hope none of the expensive stuff broke.
She fought the urge to check. Instead, she shuffled her way out of the street and stepped into the alleyway. As she moved closer to the door of the queer-looking place that had caught her interest, the sign above the threshold became clearer.
The Eye of Doris, it read.
The front of the door had a glass window built into it, but it was covered by various posters advertising events. There was a poorly-designed flyer announcing a new independent theater. Another print-out gave the dates for a traveling actors’ troupe that was doing a musical that season. Then, of course, there was a poster listing some of the cultural events that would take place during Pride the following month.
She couldn’t see a thing beyond those posters—only a soft glow of light filtering through the paper. Etched onto the glass were the store hours:
Sunday – Friday: 10 AM to 6 PM
Saturday: 8 PM to 4 AM
Lucia raised an eyebrow, but nonetheless reached out and grabbed the brass handle of the door. When she pushed it open, the hinges creaked loudly and a little bell rung overhead. The musty smell of the room was what hit her first, even before the wild scatter of color and texture.
The store was small, no more than maybe twice the size of an average bedroom, and yet it was crammed from end to end with all kinds of random merchandise. There were coats and handbags and hats on one end, then miniature Greek statues and taxidermied animals on the other end. In the middle, there were piles of books and craft items displayed on a long table, along with an array of incense sticks and what looked like bottles of perfume.
As Lucia scanned her eyes over all of the products, it seemed that there were no more than one of every item. She felt like she had just walked into some packrat’s living room.
She let the door fall shut.
“Hello?” Lucia called out. As she took a few steps forward, the wooden floorboards let out an angry groan.
The room was quite dim, with only a dozen battery-powered candles laid around throughout the space, though she did notice a single glowing point of light further towards the back. When she followed the light, she was met with the store’s front counter, a tidy jewelry case that displayed all manner of clip-on earrings, hair accessories with gaudy designs, and a few expensive silicon breast pads. A florescent light shined over the wares. It gave off an annoying buzz.
“Hello? Is anyone—”
A dark figure stood up suddenly from behind the counter and it made Lucia jump back with a shriek. Her heart pounded in her chest almost as hard as it had when she was nearly run over only minutes before.
“I’ve had worse reactions,” the looming figure said to her in a wry tone. “No need to apologize.”
But Lucia was too dumbstruck to have even considered being polite. She was pressing her hands hard against her mouth, a much too late attempt to stifle the scream. “Uh, sorry!” she said, also belatedly.
Lucia looked up at the tall woman in the black dress, who must have been rummaging around behind the counter before she had walked in. What had startled her more than simply the sudden presence of another person was the way the lady looked. She was strikingly pale, which served as a shocking contrast to her dark clothes and dark hair and dark makeup. Her nose was also disturbingly long and thin, with a bit of a rise in the middle and a little hook at the end.
Clearly, a witch.
At least that was the first thing that came to Lucia’s mind in that split second after the shock had worn off.
“I told you,” the woman said in a raspy voice, “no need to apologize, dear. What brings you to The Eye of Doris?”
Lucia clutched the strap of her bag and looked around awkwardly. “Um…are you Doris?”
“That’s right. How can I help you?” The lady leaned over the counter and Lucia could suddenly sense the unpleasant odor of cheap coffee on her breath. “Looking for some clip-ons? A new wig, perhaps? An amulet for your wrist? Or maybe…some breast forms?” She was staring rudely right at Lucia’s chest. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m…not sure,” Lucia said. She had momentarily forgotten what she was there for.
“Well, this whole place is full of things to not be sure about, but you’re not going to buy anything unless you hurry up and pick one, are you?”
Lucia suppressed the glare that was threatening to come over her. “I came looking for Mickey. I heard he was here.” For some reason, she felt a bit stupid asking about it now.
“Ah, that’s more specific, then.” The witch stared at her for a long, drawn-out moment that made Lucia feel even more awkward.
“So you know where he is?”
“No, I don’t sell anything like that here,” Doris said. Then she paused in thought. “Mickey? The owner of Blast Nightclub down the street? Why would anyone be looking for him?”
“He owes me money for my performance, and I can’t figure out where he is.”
The weird smile that everyone had seemed to be giving Lucia all night showed up on the witch’s face. “Well, if Mickey owes you anything, then he’s probably not anywhere, is he?”
“Sounds like you know him,” Lucia grumbled, letting out a long huff.
“I know everybody here.”
“You don’t know me.”
“Maybe I don’t.” The Witch paused again, staring at her, seemingly waiting for an introduction to fill the empty space.
Lucia took at step back, a bit reluctant to stay now that this side-quest had obviously led to nowhere. She began to turn around and gave Doris a polite glance of finality. “Lucia Garcia,” she introduced herself quickly. “Well…now it’s Lucia Garcia Nova.”
The witch let out a cackle all of a sudden, one that Lucia did not understand. “I live!” she said. “Salamanda Super-Nova’s daughter, is it?”
Lucia cocked her head to the side. Apparently, her reputation preceded her. She couldn’t help but smile; a small part of her felt a surge of pride even through her worry and distraction, even though she was still uneasy about being called by her mother’s name. “Yes, I—” she began to say.
She was quickly interrupted. “In that case,” the witch said, “then I do know you. I have something here that’s been waiting for you.”
Lucia, who had half-turned away from the woman, abruptly turned back. “What?” she mumbled in confusion.
The Doris lady didn’t explain, however. She merely reached down somewhere behind the counter and produced a small white envelope with some handwritten text on the outside. She leaned over the counter and passed it over to Lucia. Utterly perplexed, Lucia merely reached out automatically to accept the letter.
She looked down at the front, where the address was supposed to be. It read:
Lucia Garcia Nova
Daughter of Salamanda Super-Nova
Blast Night Club
The return address in the corner was even stranger:
Bottom of the Well
Daisychain Cafe (off Milne Avenue)
On the opposite corner, there was indeed a stamp, but it was not postmarked and didn’t look like it had been through the mail service at all. In fact, the stamp itself appeared completely foreign to Lucia. It had a picture of an egg and was covered in the words of some language that Lucia couldn’t read.
She looked up at Doris. “What the hell is this?” The envelope crinkled in her hand and she thought she felt a few pieces of paper in there—or one single folded sheet; she couldn’t tell for sure.
Doris shrugged. “How should I know? Sometimes things just show up here.”
Lucia turned the envelope around and found that nothing was written on the back. She shook her head. “When did it show up? Who brought it here?”
Again, Doris shrugged dismissively. “I don’t know, yesterday, I think? I wasn’t here when someone brought it in, though. One of my cashiers was running the place. I only come here on the weekends when I’m pulling my all-nighters.”
“Well,” Lucia said, rubbing her chin, “I do have a few fans, especially since I became Sally’s drag daughter. Some of them are weird and message me pictures of themselves naked, but that’s only over the Internet.” She stared again at the messy scrawl of the handwritten “address.” “I’ve never gotten a letter in the mail from any fan before. It makes me a little scared to open it.”
“There’s always risk in opening anything you get in the mail. It could be a bomb,” Doris replied, nodding with concern.
Lucia pursed her lips. She looked down at the flat envelope, and thought that it probably wasn’t a bomb. It was about the size of the threatening correspondence that her credit card company would send her every once in awhile—nothing that could carry more than a couple of sheets of paper. She squeezed it between her fingers again and tried to make out if there was anything besides paper inside.
Well, she thought suddenly, it could be money. She was a drag queen after all, and it wasn’t unusual to receive tips belatedly on occasion—even if they usually came in the form of a fistful of singles crammed into her bra by some random hand at the end of the night. In spite of the strange delivery method, perhaps she had attracted a patron. Her own drag sister had a few generous donors funding her lifestyle, after all, and it didn’t seem too uncommon.
Maybe this was normal and Lucia just hadn’t encountered it yet. Maybe it was even Mickey’s payment and this was just his idea of a stupid joke.
If there was money in there, though, Lucia decided, it was probably best not to open it in front of a stranger.
She cleared her throat and unzipped her drag bag, cramming the envelope inside. “All right,” she said, “I guess I’ll just figure out what that is later. Right now, I really have to get home. It’s almost three o’clock, and I’ve already waited for that bitch long enough.”
“Maybe you’ll run into him tonight,” Doris suggested.
“Yeah, and maybe buckets of rhinestones will rain down from the heavens so that I can finish my formal dress for the pageant without having to sell my kidneys,” Lucia said. She sighed and rubbed her face with her hand. “I really needed the money tonight, though. I don’t know if I’ll have enough for Monday without that money.” She was too exhausted to censor herself anymore, even though she knew it was probably none of this lady’s business.
“What’s on Monday?” the lady asked anyway, her tone genuinely curious.
At that, Lucia let out a mirthless laugh. “The doctor,” she said, her hand gripping the strap of her bag tightly as she began to turn around again. “I start hormones tomorrow afternoon—if I can pay for them.”
Every step she took towards the exit rung out through the room like a desperate knock against wood. The floor sounded hollow for some reason. Lucia briefly wondered if there was something underneath those creaky boards, but she quickly put it out of her mind.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, though she wasn’t sure if Doris had heard. She pressed her weight against the front door to push it open and stepped out into the night.
A slow drizzle had started to come down, bathing the alley in a mist. She huffed and pushed her way through that curtain of droplets. She pressed her chin against the edge of her sweater, trying to keep her face warm, trying to look away from the empty 3:00 AM streets that always made her question whether the world had ended and she was the only one left.
When she rounded the corner, though, she wasn’t alone at all. A hand reached out from the darkness and sunk its long fingers into the meat of her forearm. Lucia gasped, her breath spraying the air with a cloud of heat, her eyes widening as the pale arm dragged her quickly into the shade of an abandoned stoop.
Then she could see nothing.