The girl in the top hat ordered something from Beth and sat at a small table near the counter to wait. She took the guitar case off her shoulder and leaned it against the table, dropping a smaller bag at her feet, before she glanced around the room to take in the new surroundings. I snapped my eyes down to my half-finished meal before her eyes swept my way. After a few seconds, I looked up at her again. She was looking at the stage with an odd expression as Beth brought her a steaming cup. This girl had gently exotic features with origins that I couldn’t place, but something about her brought Asia to mind. And she was wearing black lipstick. She might have been pretty without it.

“Excuse me,” she said to Beth as she turned to leave, “but can I borrow the stage for a minute?” she asked, gesturing to her guitar case. “If it’s not any trouble, I’d like to try something.”

“Oh,” Beth said, thinking. “Yeah, sure. There’s not really anyone here tonight, but go ahead.” I took a quick look to see that the new girl and I were two of only five customers. There was a group of three at a table in a far corner, staring sleepily at each other and not talking much.

“Thanks,” the new girl said with a smile. She opened her small bag and pulled out a white thing that looked like a laptop computer. It only took her a few minutes to hook it and a purple, electric bass guitar into the sound board on the stage. When she took her green jacket off and left it at her table, I saw that she was wearing a black t-shirt with a giant, silver ace of spades printed across the front, with black fishnet mesh sleeves down to her wrists. Fashion sure had changed a lot since I’d last looked.

With the Baroque music now silenced, a new sound came from the stage. It was a piano piece, playing through the sound board from the laptop. At first, I thought that something was wrong with the computer because the piano melody kept cutting out sharply and then coming back again. Then I realized that it was happening with a rhythm, and the girl—now sitting on the edge of the stage with her laptop beside her and the bass in her lap—was doing nothing to fix the problem. Soon, more sounds added to the piano as she fussed with the laptop, but they were all somehow inorganic and very rhythmic. As I listened to the stilted sounds, I started to recognize the melody that was being disrupted so savagely. I knew that song, somehow…

Once the noises started to blur together in my head, it sounded more and more like a song. Now I was sure I’d heard it somewhere before. She finally began to play the bass, pulling the melody that I’d been hearing out of the chaos and noise with gentle, deep, and melancholy notes. I instantly recognized the song and the lyrics began to follow her fingers soundlessly in my mind.

When marimba rhythms start to play, dance with me, make me sway. Like a lazy ocean hugs the shore, hold me close, sway me more…

It was one of my favorite songs of all time; a smooth, sultry, torch song from the 40s. I must have listened to Julie London sing it a million times over the years. But this girl never sang, never spoke a word of the song, but played her bass with a gentle calm that sang the song off the strings as beautifully as any voice I’d heard before. When I focused on the bass line, the rest of the noise fell into place, adding a spicy and electric edge to the background. It even started to sound smooth and cohesive somehow by the time the song came to a close. Never in my life, had I heard anything like it. When the sound stopped, it left an emptiness in the air that, for a moment, I could hardly stand. Then the girl gave a happy sigh and stood up, leaving her equipment on the stage to stretch and look around at the room. Her frame looked much more slender when she moved like that.

A shuffling sound came from the three that were now all standing with the coats on, ready to leave. It seemed they had waited for the end of the song. They all smiled at the girl as they left, and one of them said “that was nice.” The girl smiled back and thanked them before they moved out into the rain. She looked around the room quickly and caught me watching her. I threw my eyes down to my coffee out of instinct, but I heard her heavy boots walking closer to me.

“This seat taken?” she asked, standing beside my table, her still steaming cup in her hands. I looked up to find her smiling at me with those black lips.

“I’m sorry?” I muttered, feeling a little numb.

“It’s just you and me now,” she said, taking a seat across the table from me with a flouncy sort of motion. “It’d be pretty awkward not to talk to each other,” she added before taking a sip from her cup.

“Oh,” I said, looking around to make sure. We were the only customers left in the café now. “Oh, yes. I see,” I uttered stiffly, pretty certain that having her at my table was way more awkward than not talking.

“That was great!” Beth said, appearing at the table now too. “Did you write that?” she asked excitedly.

“Thanks,” the girl said back nicely. “I didn’t write the melody, but I came up with the rest of it. I’m glad you liked it.”

“Yeah, you should totally come back and perform when there’s people here,” Beth said.

“Maybe I will,” the girl said, thoughtfully.

“Hey, we’re closing the kitchen because it’s so slow tonight, so do you want anything first?” Beth asked, offering the girl a menu. The girl gave my plate a glance.

“You do normal French fries?” she asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Beth answered, still holding the menu.

“That would be perfect,” the girl said with a happy sigh.

“Coming right up!” Beth chirped brightly before bouncing off to the kitchen.

“Well that one’s hyper,” the girl muttered as soon as Beth was out of earshot.

I didn’t have a clue why she was sitting at my table, or how I was supposed to respond to her comment, so I just kept trying not to stare at the ghoulishness of her appearance. What’s the point of wearing fishnet sleeves anyway? They couldn’t keep her warm…

“I’m Nora,” she said, offering me a hand across the table. When I looked up, she was smiling at me from under that tilted top hat on her purple hair. “What’s your name?”

“Steve,” I answered, taking the hand shake. I was acutely aware that those cool, slender fingers had magic in them as I held them. And her fingernails were painted black. “Nice song,” I offered. “It was Sway, right?”

“You know it?” Nora toned, her face taking on an intrigued light. I only nodded, unsure what else to say. “So, how was the sound in here?” she asked, leaning forward with her elbows on the table top.

“Oh, it was fine,” I said, trying to focus on the organization of what was left of my sweet potato fries. “It sounded good to me.”

“Maybe I will do a show here,” Nora said softly, looking the place over again. “I just got to town tonight, so I’m still not sure what I’m going to do yet,” she added with a flippant little shrug.

“What do you mean?” I asked. That comment had sounded strange to me, for some reason. “I mean, are you just not sure about your hobbies, or…”

“No, no,” she said with a wave. “I mean, I don’t know if I want to get into the music scene here or if I want to just get a job.” Beth returned with a plate of french-fries and a bottle of ketchup, and left it for Nora.

“Well, then why did you come here, if you don’t know what you’re going to do?” I asked.

Nora looked up at me over a french-fry, held between poised fingers. “Everybody’s got to be somewhere.”

I frowned at her, confused by how simple an answer that was to something so complex.

“What about you?” she asked, after eating the fry. “Why are you dressed like Bogey?” she asked, waving a hand at my general style.

“What, I can’t look nice for dinner?” I shot back immediately. I frowned at myself. Why was I being defensive, exactly?

“Well, I think it’s kinda cute,” she said through a wicked smile.

“Thanks,” I muttered, after the shock subsided. What was I supposed to do with a direct compliment like that? Was she being sarcastic? This was exactly why I didn’t like to talk to people. I wanted to go home.

“Oh hey, I need to ask you something,” she said, leaning forward on the table again.

“Yeah?” I asked back, before taking another bite of my cooling sandwich.

“Are there any good places to stay around here?” she asked me. “Like, cheap but nice?”

I stared at her, suddenly very aware of the rain as it continued to softly hit the window. It was a very cold night. She had just arrived in town, but she didn’t have a place to stay? I pulled my silver pocket watch out of my vest pocket to check the time.

“It’s almost two in the morning, and you don’t have a place to stay?” I asked.

“You carry a pocket watch?” she asked, her voice bright with glee. I put it back in my pocket and caught her gaze with my own.

“Really, you don’t have anywhere to stay in this city?” I asked her, seriously.

“Well no, I just got here,” Nora said with a shrug.

“But ... it’s cold. And raining,” I tried.

“Yeah, and it’s Friday morning, too,” she offered, as if we were play a game of ‘let’s state the obvious.’

I looked down at her dinner. She was buying french-fries for dinner, and she had no good reason for even being in this city in the middle of the night, asking about a cheap place to stay. My instincts screamed at me; this girl must be in some kind of trouble. She needed help. Hundreds of images of chivalrous men in the movies I watch came flashing to mind. What would Errol Flynn do?

“Well,” I said, fidgeting with my fork and not looking her in the eye, “I’ve got a couch, and I live right next door. You could stay with me tonight and then figure out tomorrow.”

She didn’t answer right away, making me feel even more awkward. She was just looking at me, not moving. I opened my mouth to try to blow it off somehow, to back-peddle for dear life, but she spoke first.

“Are you a frequent murderer?” she asked me, calmly.

“Wha—No!” I answered instantly, more shocked then I think I’ve ever been in my life.

“How about a rapist?”

“No, God no,” I blurted, feeling my face grow warm.

She leaned closer, staring me right in the eye. “Slave trader?”

“No,” I answered firmly. “I’m not creepy in any way, I assure you. You just look like you could use a couch to sleep on for one night and I’ve got one. That’s all.”

She stared at me for a moment longer, calculating, and then moved back. “Okay, I’ll take it,” she said, smiling softly to me. “But I’m just sleeping there, and you’re not invited, right?”

“Yeah, of course,” I said, taking a breath as if oxygen had been returned to the world.

“Cool, thanks,” she said brightly, picking at her fries again.

I took a moment to focus on getting my heart to stop pounding. I couldn’t figure out why I’d gotten so worked up about all that, until I realized that I’d never, ever, invited a strange girl to go anywhere with me before; let along staying over. I couldn’t actually remember asking anyone up to my place above the theater, either. I never end up meeting that many people, and I’m sure it’s obvious my people skills are shaky. None the less, I couldn’t just leave a damsel in distress, even if she was dressed like a ghoul. I took another breath and scrapped the remnants of my confidence back into place.


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