This original short story is a special contribution from my friend, the author Chris Corkum, whose debut novel "XOXO Hayden" was the subject of a Q&A in March.
Darlene and Lisa met in the first grade, after Darlene's mother left her boyfriend and moved to Seaton, a town on the coast whose top attractions included Wal-Mart and Dale's Mini-Golf. The two girls had been inseparable since the day they had met, prompting their tenth grade biology teacher, Mr. Jenson, to nickname them, Leather and Lace. At the time, they had playfully argued about who was Leather and who was Lace, though it was perfectly clear who was who. Lisa, or Leather, was the "sexy" one. Her stick straight dirty blond hair cascaded to the small of her back and she swished it from side to side when she walked, like a lion's tail. With each grade, her skirts became shorter and her blouses lower. Inevitably, other names soon followed, though none of them deserving merit, Darlene could vouch for that. Darlene, or Lace, was a softer, tamer version of Lisa, with pale skin, dull brown eyes and a round face, all of which generally failed to leave an impression. She preferred pants to skirts and felt most comfortable wearing sweatshirts and sneakers.
Apart from one fight that took place senior year of high school involving Barry Rollins, the two girls got along perfectly. Occasionally, Darlene wondered what it would be like to be more like Lisa (like Leather) but it was always short lived. Though some might have said she was living in the shadow of her best friend, to Darlene, it felt more like shade. They had survived an abortion (Lisa), STD's (Lisa), boyfriends (Lisa and Darlene) and even the incident of the summer of 2002 when they both got hammered on beer at Carla's Lobster Pot and Darlene drove her Chevy Caprice into the Beauty Nook, taking out an entire corner of the hair salon. Luckily, none of the patrons had been hurt and Darlene and Lisa were forced to pay a fine and six months of community service picking up litter along Route 1.
They had graduated from high school more than ten years ago, a fact neither of them liked to remember. Staying in Seaton had not been part of their master plan. Before graduation, elaborate plans had been made for a future life in a cosmopolitan city. New York, Miami and Los Angeles. All were at the top of their list. But with high school diplomas in hand, life continued moving along. Darlene kept her job at Harvest Basket working as a checker. Eventually she was promoted to assistant manager, though at the time it had felt more like a death sentence than a promotion. Lisa held a handful of waitressing and bartending jobs until she saw a sign at "Brian's Adult World" seeking topless dancers. A $1500 bonus was being offered, a sum of money too great to pass up. Her stint at the adult bookstore was intended to be temporary. She had planned on quitting after six months, after her contract had been fulfilled but she and Darlene had blown her bonus money on a trip to Florida, so she decided to stay on, much longer than planned.
"Brian's Adult World" was a small adult novelty store tacked onto the end of a strip mall along with"Bob's Comics," "Discount Cigarettes" and "Gotta Have Faith," a store that sold crucifixes and rosaries. As if the location itself wasn't strange enough, next door to the strip small was a graveyard with slanted stone markers as thin as dinner plates. It had been there so long that the names on the graves had faded in the elements. No one even remembered who was buried there. The walls and the ceilings inside the store were painted black, as a courtesy to anyone in town who might not enjoy being recognized while shopping for sex toys or porn. There were three sections in the store; the main room where the adult toys were kept, the DVD room and then the private dancing room toward the back. To the left of the main room, was a glass counter, behind which Fat Brian sat perched on his throne like a king, guarding cock rings, condoms and lube.
Lisa first heard the news from Darlene on a cold, February afternoon. She had just gotten in a fight with Fat Brian about the fact that the space heater was broken and she couldn't be expected to dance in such a cold, damp space. He told her that if she didn't like it, she could leave. The idea tempted her, to walk out of the store, away from Fat Brian and the stains on his T-shirt and his boyish face barely able to grow a strand of facial hair. But after examining the few options she had, she returned to the mildew smelling back room and waited for the next customer. She knew she had to be careful around Brian. She was older than the other two dancers and more than once customers had complained about her bad attitude and uninspired choreography. It was clear Brian wanted to replace her.
When the bell on the door jingled, Lisa looked up through the two-way mirror, surprised to see Darlene, lingering in front of the adult toys. Fat Brian hated when Darlene came into the store, which didn't even happen that often. Lisa put on her shirt and stepped into the main room.
"Hey." She was surprised to see how ashen Darlene's face was. Her lips were blue purple. Lisa stared, waiting for a response. Even Fat Brian behind the cash register waited for her to say something.
"Why aren't you at work?" Lisa finally asked.
"Can I talk to you for a minute?"
Lisa glanced at Fat Brian behind the counter, pulling her long hair back with a rubber band. "I'll be right back."
"It's not time for your break."
"There's no one even in here!" she snapped back.
She walked with Darlene through the front door, pulling her arms in close to her body.
"Fuck. I forgot my jacket."
"We can sit in my car."
They climbed inside Darlene's Celica and pulled out cigarettes. After searching for a lighter, they lit them with the car lighter.
"What the hell is going on with you?" Lisa's cigarette bounced up and down between her lips as she spoke.
Darlene took her time. She exhaled and cracked the window, letting smoke drift out of the car. Traffic on Route 1 raced by, each car passed with a hiss. She kept her gaze on the crusty snow bank in front of them. It looked like it had been melted with acid, brown dirt swirled through it like cinnamon.
"Something happened to me last night."
"Finally. You got laid. Who was it?"
"No. It's not that."
"Then what?" Lisa asked, losing patience with her friend's cryptic behavior.
Darlene pulled her phone from her winter jacket and handed it to Lisa. "Press play."
Lisa hesitated a moment, before pressing the button. A high-pitched noise blared from the phone, sounding like a combination of dolphins clicking and radio static, two frequencies colliding. The camera moved shakily through the darkness until a set of lights appeared, pulsing. The lights grew bright and then dimmed, grew bright and then dimmed. There was breathing too, from the person with the camera. Heavy breathing, like the sound of panic. A series of silhouettes passed through the frame, shadowy and vague. The camera jostled again, the high-pitched noise peaked, lights flared and then the screen went dark.
Lisa's brow furled in confusion. "What the fuck is that? I can't make anything out."
Darlene still held her cigarette, forgetting to smoke it. "Don't you see it?"
Lisa looked at the phone and then back at Darlene. She pressed play and watched the clip again. The same high-pitched static filled the car. When it was over, Lisa turned toward her friend. "I still don't know what it is."
Darlene's round face seemed unusually long, the skin below her eyes purple with fatigue.
"You look like shit," Lisa mentioned randomly.
"They came last night."
"What?" Lisa laughed, waiting for Darlene to drop the joke, for her friend's face to return to its normal shape.
"They were in the backyard."
"Ha ha. Very funny." Lisa flicked her cigarette butt out the window. When she looked back at Darlene, her face still hadn't change.
"I'm serious, Lisa. I heard them in the middle of the night and went outside. Play it again. I'll show you."
Lisa glanced up at her confused but wanting to believe her best friend. She pressed play. At the moment when the shadows moved across the screen, Darlene pointed to them with her finger. "There. There. See. They're walking single file."
"It just looks like a bunch of shadows."
"They're there. They didn't like that I was filming them. That's why it stops all of a sudden. They made me shut it off."
Lisa burst out laughing, throwing her head back. "This is hilarious. You really think aliens came to visit you?"
"It's right here."
"I can't see shit. It just looks like a big swirl of lights and noise."
"They came. I'm telling you."
"Did your mother see them?"
"She was sleeping."
"Of course she was."
"You don't believe me? You think I'm lying?"
"No. I don't think you're lying, I just don't...I don't believe in fucking aliens, okay?"
Darlene sank deeper into the car seat, running her palms along the smoothness of the steering wheel. The traffic on Route 1 seemed to grow louder.
A pick up truck pulled up next to them. A man in his sixties with faded, baggy jeans and a red baseball hat got out and slammed the door.
"Oh Jesus. It's Carl." Lisa sighed, watching as he walked toward the front door. "I have to get back in there. Are you mad at me?"
Darlene shrugged, refusing to look at her best friend.
"We'll talk later, okay?"
Darlene nodded. Lisa got out of the car as Fat Brian opened the glass door, scanning the parking lot for her.