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The Last Dance of Darling Nikki, Part I


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I shoulda known that call wasn’t gonna do anybody any good from the start, but then having a phone in the middle of a titty bar never did make much sense to me. The cord would get wrapped around the girls passin’ by or knock over people’s drinks, but Old Joe didn’t care. He kept it right at the bar, in the middle of everything, and he expected whoever was around to answer it, the next lap dance or tip be damned. (Not that he really cared about the tips until it was time to take his cut, but nevermind all that. He was just in the way back then; no sense puttin’ him in the way now.) Lettin’ a call get to three rings was trouble, and five rings meant everybody on the floor was gonna catch hell for it later. Better to hustle and lose a few bucks.

It’s not like that phone was hard to hear once it got goin’, or like you wouldn’t nearly bust a heel tryin’ to make it stop. The sound of the thing was half boxin’ ring bell, half fire engine siren, and it would make all the johns nearby freeze for a minute, like they were sure they’d been found out. They’d eyeball you while you talked, just waitin’ for a sign that it was time to make their exit, but the calls never were for them. Most of ‘em were wrong numbers or suppliers or strangers askin’ for Joe, and every now and then you’d get a sick kid callin’ for their momma - but the calls usually ended up bein’ good times for me.

Why? Well, because of the way they made people feel, to start with. And because I wasn’t like the other dancers at The Hot Spot anymore. Not that any of them knew it, but I wasn’t really human. I guess you could say I lost a deal with the devil and went to hell for almost a decade. Spend that much time somewhere people weren’t meant to go and it changes you, but not in a way ordinary folks can see. When I crawled my way back to the real world, I found out I could suck down people’s feelin’s like Coca-Cola through a bendy straw. They just needed to feel somethin’ deep enough while I was close by, and I could drink it right out of the air without them bein’ any wiser.

I’d gladly answer the phone for a chance to sip at their reactions, and I almost had my routine down pat. I’d raise my perfect penciled eyebrows a tetch, like I was gettin’ a hot little earful of some juicy gossip, and by the time I scoped out the bar, somebody would have a ball of fear floating halfway up their throat for me to share. And if I was real quick and careful, I could even catch a bite of the relief that spread over everybody when I put the receiver down. It wasn’t just that I was well fed. Oh no. Their dread went down like whiskey, and their lust went down like wine. There was a reason I was a stripper, and a reason I got a kick outta that phone.

Until that night, anyway. One call changed all that, and I’m not convinced that was entirely for the worse. It just felt that way for a long time afterwards. But it all started with that godawful phone screamin’ across the dance floor with extra metal in its clangin’, makin’ me wonder who the hell had dropped it and messed up the ringer. Nobody was lookin’ ‘round like they could hear the difference, though, and that’s when I knew somethin’ was wrong. That’s when the ball of fear started rollin’ in my gut. By the time I reached out for the handset, my arm seemed to stretch a mile long, the way it does in your nightmares.

“Hot Spot,” I clipped into the rounded receiver, tryin’ to rest the hunk of plastic on my shoulder so I could reach for the nearest bottle. Just in case.

“Janice.” Not a question. Just my name, my real name - the one I never used anymore anywhere, not even in my dreams - and in a voice that sounded way too much like my momma’s for comfort. She’d been dead a long time by then, and that was almost a relief, but there was at least one other person on Earth who still sounded like her.

Me.

The other me, drawl and all.

The copy of me the devil left behind to take my place.

It’s a damned strange thing to pick up a twin later on in life.

“This is Nikki.” It came out cold and flat, worse than I meant it to, but it was the name and the person I’d decided to be, and we’d already had that fight.

“We need to talk, Nikki.”

There was only one way she’d be calling me. I could feel the rims of my eyes freezing in place and noticed how black and long my lashes were, built up with falsies and coated over with mascara. Like I was starin’ out from behind a camera and this was all about to happen to someone else.

“Which one of them was it?” I forced out of lips that were so tight they’d hardly move.

“What?” she asked, probably drowned out by the synthesizer crap pumping out of the speakers while the girlies jiggled on stage.

And that’s when it hit me: This was how I was gonna find out one of my sons was dead, my own nipples barely covered, my ass hanging out of glittery pull-off short-shorts and my feet up in heels almost as high as the pair that got me into this whole mess in the first place. This was really how I was gonna lose one of my boys, leaning against a sticky bar top outlined in neon lights and smellin’ like cheap beer.

“Which one of them was it?” I repeated louder and not about to give a damn who heard.

“This ain’t about them,” she said firmly, soundin’ less like me and more like Momma layin' down the final verdict. “They’re all right. No, this is about us. We need to talk, and I need you to visit where folks ain’t around to see.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered, as if she was my momma or someone from that generation, and I wasn’t bein’ a smart-ass about it. She was the woman I gave my old life to, the one I chose to finish raisin’ my boys, the one I let live even though she wasn’t supposed to be a proper person at all. I’d only told a couple others like me that she was around, and they’d told me to get rid of her and save myself the trouble of havin’ to do it later. She was just a copy of who I was when he took me, a bunch of lies stuffed into a body that was never born. They said most copies were real messed up from the get-go or went sour eventually. If I killed her or let them do it, she wouldn’t be around to do anybody any damage. But they wouldn’t force me, and I wouldn’t do that.

Not after I’d watched her and found out she was a better momma than I ever was.

A better daughter to my daddy.

A man’s wife, which is something I never was.

“I’ll be free just after two,” I informed her, and just so she didn’t panic and think I’d be stupid enough to head over there I added, “so make sure you’re good and asleep by then.”

“All right,” she agreed softly, not soundin’ like she wanted to stay awake in any case. At least she seemed to remember that I could find my way into her dreams. But I’d promised not to invade her privacy unless I was invited, and she’d promised she’d never invite me unless there was no other way around it and the boys needed me. For what it’s worth, I’d believed her, and she’d kept her word. She coulda called long before and begged for clothes, food, or money. I probably woulda given them up, too. They weren’t poor but they’d never be rich, and I had plenty of ways to raise extra cash and only myself to spend it on. I’d already learned that you can only buy so many shoes. But I knew she was too proud to interrupt all that.

I know I woulda been. Hell, I was.

The receiver made it into its cradle with a final chuk sound just in time for the bartender to call over, “You’re up next, darlin,’ ain’tcha?”

And I was. I went up the stage steps feelin’ like I was back on the other side of reality, trapped in my terrible red shoes, dancin’ like a puppet on strings any time he wanted to watch me bleed. I danced right out of that prison just to spite him, and I danced into workin’ as a stripper to take back every step he ever stole from me, and I even danced through liquor bottles and smokes because it was my body to use how I saw fit. This was my world, my time, and my dance.

Wasn’t it?

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