In which many a soul are left sorely disappointed
and Freckle catches a bug
Calvin McMurray was a lot of things. A dancer was most certainly not one of them.
It's not that he was inherently averse to the concept, or condemned dancing as a whole; it was just that damn introversion of his at work. His mother, herself not a huge fan of these scandalous new twentieth-century dances that were coming in vogue at the time, would sometimes urge her son to try it out at school festivals and birthday get-togethers back when he was little, hoping it would help him overcome this natural caginess that worried her so, but to no avail; in all his eighteen years on this Earth, Calvin had not once dared move his body in synch with any type of music in a public setting. As with all things that did not involve balls and bats, tools or firearms, he approached dancing with all the self-assurance of a particularly skittish rabbit set upon by a skulk of foxes.
Which was unfortunate at best, considering his current and first ever girlfriend was arguably the most avid dancer in all of St. Louis, and perhaps the entire state.
Ivy Pepper was something of a godsend to Calvin. For one, a girl with her forwardness and ability to take charge was just about the only hope the boy had for any kind of romance; and she seemed to really like him, for whatever reason. It was a little perplexing actually, but Calvin was sure he liked her even more, so he did not question it. Ivy was the only good thing to have happened to him ever since he'd thrown in with the Lackadaisy gang all the way back in May, and anyone who could make even this guilt-addled life of crime somewhat bearable for him was clearly someone to be cherished. But still, he did not dance.
The circumstances of their meeting were as unusual as they were memorable. They involved a secret invitation to an underground speakeasy, an armed group of vengeful rubes and a fair bit of murdering, followed shortly after by a brief nighttime adventure in the countryside where again death turned out to be a central theme. The event became something of a bonding experience for the two, such as it was, and Ivy came to recognize that this job was especially taxing for her new boyfriend, in more ways than one. So, seeing as she did like this one quite a lot, she decided to cut the poor guy some slack and not push too hard on the dancing issue, at least not right away.
Besides, there were plenty of other dates to be had. Ivy took it upon herself to introduce an inexcusably unfamiliar Freckle to the wondrous world of motion pictures, and the couple had become fast regulars at the local theater; though Freckle was admittedly less about fawning over Valentino's debonair charms and more about the overall technical marvel of the experience, as well as Ivy's tendency to lean on his shoulder during romantic scenes. They also sometimes listened to baseball broadcasts together at the café or other eateries around town, which were the only times Ivy got to see him gushing with such enthusiasm over something he was unashamedly passionate about, and in turn Freckle would often tag along on her numerous shopping sprees where he was expected to share his clueless opinion on more chic articles of headwear than he had ever thought existed.
And then there was that one time Ivy had snuck them into her rifle team's shooting range for the afternoon, which Freckle had found particularly enjoyable. An intense fear of freaking her out had kept his gung-ho side mostly in check, and there was just something special about a pretty girl who could outshoot most promising cadets he'd known from his time at the police academy.
Calvin, for his part, was perfectly content with all this. Ivy, not so much.
She figured she could take a short break from the dancefloor at first, which actually felt kind of appropriate given Lackadaisy's struggles at the time. This break had to be extended slightly at some point in early summer when Freckle was tasked with assisting a still recovering Viktor with his work at the garage whenever he wasn't otherwise engaged, further adding to the boy's workload. At the time Ivy had been more concerned with the old Slovak's treatment of her boyfriend than anything, but when questioned Freckle kept insisting that nothing untoward was going on in that garage. She pretended to believe him.
Then July rolled around, and for all the places they'd been to all over the city during daylight, they had still yet to spend a single night together at their very own establishment. Freckle wasn't as keen to amend that as Ivy, but she couldn't well object; most every night he was out and about helping execute his cousin's zany machinations, which were really the only reason there still was a Lackadaisy to spend the night in in the first place. On the few times when he was free by nightfall, Ivy would take one look at his spent, baggy eyes, a result of his stressful efforts to keep up with Rocky's manic energy throughout the day and whatever the hell Viktor was putting him through when she wasn't around, and she just wouldn't have the heart to place any more pressure on him, not even for a single dance. He looked like he could barely stand, anyways.
It couldn't be helped. It was his job to fix things and shoot people, and in the speakeasy's crumbling state, there was never short demand for either service.
That is, until said machinations finally began to bear fruit and Lackadaisy started getting its feet under it once again. The gang had fought tooth and nail just to keep their operation afloat for most of the summer, but over time they had managed a number of significant victories culminating in a decisive high-profile hit job carried out at an old riverside cabin south of town around mid-August. The hit saw a small band of impertinent booze thieves soundly wiped out, their swag restored to its rightful owners and a conveniently graphic description of the event circulating the streets, grabbing the attention of competitors and potential customers alike. The speakeasy had struck back with a vim that did not befit a dying enterprise, which introduced the possibility that it wasn't quite in its last throes after all.
As word of Lackadaisy's apparent resurgence got around town –or at least the circles where it would do the business good rather than harm- Mitzi had the idea to hold a little soirée at the last Saturday of summer to help cement the impression that they were back in the game and there to stay. All pickups were made ahead of time in preparation, the cellar was filled with reasonably palatable alcohol, the band was seen actually rehearsing for once and even their surly bartender was convinced to slip on a casual shirt and jacket for the occasion. There was triumph in the air and, for the first time in a long while, an empowering sense of optimism.
It was at this point that Ivy decided to put her foot down and finally demand the dance that was owed to her. With their supply routes uncontested and no more hooch left to be smuggled until the next batch, the two cousins would have that entire weekend mostly free of their usual duties; and so Freckle, bereft of excuses for the night and aware of how badly she had been missing this, had little choice but to half-heartedly abide. His only hope now was that she wouldn't dump him on the spot after he'd made an absolute fool out of them both.
He and Rocky entered the club some time before midnight, and already the turnout was looking rather promising; more a crowd than a smattering, at least, which was in itself a victory for the venue. Rocky bid his cousin farewell and rushed off to join Zib's crew with his old violin in hand, remarking that this was, after all, what he was originally hired for, and in that same instant a visibly exhilarated Ivy materialized next to Freckle in her favorite beaded dress of bright yellow, grabbed him by the arm and began to drag him toward the dancefloor with barely a word of greeting. She was gabbing off a long series of steps Freckle could neither understand nor memorize while he shrunk to half the size, his stomach in knots as they approached the flush, glistening surface in front of the stage and the half dozen couples already swinging away to the band's lively tunes.
Ivy led them straight to the middle of the floor, then whipped around with unbridled eagerness and asked if he had gotten all that. He gulped hard, which must have been a passable response as she beamed at him and struck a pose, ready to get them started as soon as she caught on with the song's flow. Freckle's knees might have buckled in that moment had they not gone so completely stiff.
Then all at once the music was drowned by a blaring cacophony of shattering glass and gunfire, and the cavern descended into chaos.
The attack was not quite as bloody as the one back in May, in the sense that this time there were no injured parties on either side. It was far better coordinated, however, and much more successful in what it aimed to accomplish.
An unidentified car had swerved past the corner on the street above, paused right outside the ostensibly closed Little Daisy café and opened fire into the premises. The noise echoed loud and clear in the caverns below, and while the car quickly drove off before anyone could even catch a glimpse of who the attackers were, the harm was already done: panicked patrons cowered in place for a while and then, ignoring Mitzi's torrent of desperate reassurances, hurriedly cleared off into the night to seek relief from their scare, either at the peace of their home or one of the city's many other, safer watering holes. It was a fast, sudden and efficient hit, and it had managed to ruin both the auspicious night and Lackadaisy's hopes for a dynamic comeback in one fell swoop.
Mitzi withdrew to her quarters above the café shortly after, leaving the rest of the gang with no clear orders on how they should proceed. Rocky allowed himself exactly half a second of despondence before perking up again and running upstairs to console her, only instructing his cousin to keep an eye out in case any more unwelcome surprises were afoot, but adding that it wasn't likely. The message was heard, loud and clear; the assailants, whoever they were, had no reason to risk returning now and facing them in the open.
And they appeared to be cautious like that, these ones. It's likely they had gone around the block a couple of times before striking, deliberately picking a moment when the café was empty so as to avoid any fatalities among the clientele. The killing of neutral bystanders was considered bad form, and it generally garnered more attention from the authorities than your standard run-of-the-mill shootout between rival gangs.
Freckle anxiously reasoned that a standard, run-of-the-mill shootout of the kind that had just transpired was already more than enough for the police to get involved, but Rocky assured him otherwise.
"No, we'd be hearing their song by now if any were about," he said to him before they separated. "And you know, Freckle, much as it pains me to say, your old chums-o'-the-buzzer tend to be somewhat on the truant side… and those who've proven not to are generally holed up over in Sleazy Town at this witching hour."
They never did become my chums, Freckle thought plaintively. "But won't someone call to report it?"
"Aah, you appear to have vastly overestimated our neighbors' nerve, cousin!" Rocky grinned, hooking an arm around Freckle's neck and pulling him close. He nodded toward the shut, lightless windows across the street, cocking a full brow with meaning. "See, they'll have heard all manner of ghastly rackets around these parts since the times of ol' Atlas, and if they're still alive enough to dial the fuzz line, I reckon it's 'cause they've long learnt to keep their noses, eyes, ears and whatever other sensory structure they've been endowed with well outside the business of their vengeful neighborhood gang. Wouldn't you say?"
Freckle opened his mouth to respond, but fell silent as he caught the motion of a shifting curtain behind one of the higher windows. They both stared at it wordlessly for some time.
"… But do try to stay low while you're at it," Rocky added in a low voice, grin stretching an extra inch. "You know- just in case."
And with those decidedly non-encouraging words and a light pat on the back, Rocky promptly turned heel and made for the upper floors two steps at a time, abandoning his cousin to his guard duty and newfound paranoia.
Still, Rocky turned out to be right: a full hour later there had been no new signs of trouble. It was a tense, restless hour for Freckle who, with no better idea in mind, simply stalked the wider area around the café on the alert, collar popped high, hat tipped down over his eyes and Tommy gun clutched tight beneath his draping coat, taking care to keep in the shadows as per his cousin's sage advice. He was acutely conscious of each lone vehicle rolling harmlessly down the street, every nondescript city sound that echoed distantly into the night and the myriads frightened, curious eyes he imagined staring down at him at every step from the safety of their homes above. His nerves were in shambles.
It was not until the repetitive trek around the block started to feel tedious that Freckle finally decided to pause and take new stock of the situation. He cut into a strait one-way sandwiched between two tall residential buildings, put his back against one of them and glanced up and down the mostly vacant street, listening hard for the sound of gunfire, speeding cars or -God forbid- the wail of approaching police sirens. He strained his ears, but heard nothing of the sort. In fact for a while now everything seemed eerily, almost unnaturally quiet.
Freckle slumped against the brick wall and exhaled at length, letting the tension flow out of him together with the air. He spent the next minute stifling that niggling sense of disappointment which he knew was there, but absolutely refused to acknowledge. Then after a moment's uncertainty he picked himself up, stepped back out into the sidewalk and started down his patrol route one last time, making for the front of a small neighborhood bakery that had rolled down its binds nearly half a day ago now. He picked a spot by the shop window where the nearby lamppost's light shone the weakest and came to stop, taking a second to observe the messy scene across the road with a sinking feeling in his chest.
The words "Little Daisy Café" were written in elegant cursive on the small wooden sign hanging over the pavement, looping around a cute picture of the namesake blossom; but while the sign itself looked clean and inviting, the actual shop below it was an ugly wreck of shattered glass and ruined fitments. The ornate counter was deeply chipped all along its surface, most of the stools arrayed before it where knocked over with their padding torn and the kitchen on its other side was littered with dozens of hole-ridden kitchenware, broken tumblers and bullet-shredded drawer panels. The booths across the room were similarly devastated, their backrests rendered almost transparent from the massive loss of timber, and the few photos lining the far wall were either hanging askew or lying face-down on the checkered floor amid bits of broken glass, their frames all dented and bent out of shape.
Freckle heaved a long, weary sigh. Gangsters, it would seem, just could not catch a break.
He had no idea who could be behind this. Marigold had been a constant threat looming over the speakeasy for as long as he'd been around, but strangely enough, there hadn't been any open clashes with them since that seminal Defiance job. Rumor went that Marigold had its own problems to contend with these days, whatever those might be, and was apparently too busy to pursue proper retribution. So, perhaps this hit was the work of some other rival Freckle had yet to encounter, the return of an old feud from the days of Lackadaisy's prime, or else just a bold, well-timed sabotage by one of the many other smaller groups they had offended in the short time he had worked there; but he truly couldn't guess, and didn't try too hard to piece together this particular puzzle. His mind, he knew, was not geared towards the cutthroat intrigue of the bootlegging world. That task fell upon others.
Freckle's eyes dragged from the ravaged bistro to the far left window of the floor above, the only one still alight in the entire neighborhood, which he knew to be their boss lady's office. Miss M was in there, probably still inconsolable; and so was his cousin, no doubt still donning that crescent knife of a grin that did, at times, manage to make her crack a smile when all seemed bleak and hopeless. It was the one thing she and Calvin had in common.
… At least nobody got hurt.
With that thought and yet another quiet sigh, the young tom once again lowered his head and swiftly crossed to the other side. He cast a final glance into the café, then walked past it and cut into an adjacent alleyway, making for the garage situated further down the parallel at its other end. Rocky had given him the clear after he was done, and with the city aboveground this quiet and unmoving, Freckle decided there was no utility in making the rounds of it any further. It was time to turn his attention to other matters that required it.
Which is to say, he had some consoling of his own to do.
Of course, he could have gone straight through the Daisy's secret entrance instead; but the prying eyes, be they real or imagined, were still tirelessly sweeping the lamp-lit street it was looking into, and he dared not take that chance. Besides, the utterly devastated sight of the once so welcoming shop struck him as unbearably depressing, and he was only too glad to avoid having to step into it. By contrast, the garage he had been busying himself in for the past couple of months felt like a safe, pleasantly familiar alternative after the nerve-racking watch he had just come out of, and his feet seemed to carry him there almost on their own.
Pleasantly…? The thought gave him pause as he unlocked the iron door and flicked open a light switch, illuminating the cozy mess of spare parts, misplaced tools and pooling grime that served as the gang's private garage. There were traces of soot in wide dark stains on the ceiling where the plaster had soaked up years' worth of exhaust fumes from rattletrap vehicles, and a thick, musty scent of oily rust hung permanently in the air as if to drive away any who could not appreciate it. The whole place gave off that distinct impression of raw menial labor, of ordinary roustabouts working a simple yet demanding task with hand and wrench and of the unvoiced pride they might take in their blunt efficiency. It clashed quite strongly with the rest of Lackadaisy's facilities on that front, all of which made a point of presenting themselves as posh, snazzy and generally comfortable, and that was probably also the reason Freckle always found himself at ease there.
Yes, the boy concluded with no small amount of surprise. He supposed it was, against all odds- a somewhat pleasant place, wasn't it…? Glares and all.
That last thought got him wondering where Viktor might be. Shortly after the attack he had taken off in one of the cars they had appropriated from the riverside shanty a couple of weeks back, declaring that he was going to see if he could track down the assailants. It seemed to Calvin like a fool's errant, but he suspected the old Slovak only did it as an excuse to blow off some steam and not have to sit twiddling his thumbs down by the bar for the remainder of the night. That seemed just like him. The rest of the gang should all still be belowground save for poor Horatio, who was standing right by the entrance when all the shooting happened and got scared out of his wits. Freckle recalled him fleeing together with the patrons, right after miss M had dolefully agreed to give him the rest of the night off.
The Fordor was still parked in there, and Freckle took the opportunity to relieve himself of his coat, hat and, more reluctantly, the unused chopper before heading down. He placed the clothes on the passenger seat and tucked the gun neatly in the space beneath it, praying that he wouldn't have to run back up and fetch it again before the night was through. He then killed the lights and walked over to the far end of the room to blindly fumble at the chains on the cellar door he knew was there. Light flooded the garage anew as it swung open and Freckle slipped inside, letting the wooden panel clap shut after him.
Now he was making his way slowly through the labyrinthine underbelly of St. Louis, moving along a rough, uneven tunnel covered in countless tiny outcrops jutting out from the rocky walls and casting myriads still shadows in the sparse lamplight illuming his way to the club. His footfalls echoed unnaturally loud in the wide underpass, a lonely, unsettling sound that made him feel all the more self-conscious as he dragged his feet along the path, surrounded on all sides by ancient limestone and his own dark, dismal thoughts.
Ivy was waiting for him at the other end of that tunnel; and just what the hell was he going to say to her?
What would he do when he found her pacing up and down the empty club in a rage, lamenting the unmitigated disaster that was tonight's hit, the months of effort on everyone's part it had undone and, most importantly, their long-waited dance night that it had so abrasively ruined? How would Calvin, whose confidence in his lying skills rivaled that of his dancing chops, look her in the eye and not give away his true feelings on the matter: that the timing of the attack was actually impeccable, that it had spared him an embarrassing chore he had been dreading for the better part of the summer, and there was that petty, selfish side of him that was secretly thankful for what he viewed as a thin silver lining in this time of crisis.
He was ashamed to be feeling that way. Fresh guilt welled up in him at the memory of a downcast Mitzi limply ascending the stairs to her office, and it grew near excruciating as he recalled how happy and excited Ivy looked before those first shots had rang out, how keenly she had been anticipating their dance the days before, how patient she had been with his reluctance to indulge her in all the time they had been together. He thought of all that and wanted to run himself headfirst into a nearby wall, knock this treacherous relief right out of his brain and be rid of it before he could face her.
But another unruly part of him, a part he rarely ever visited without a gun in his hand, wanted him to fill his lungs with the stale underground air, throw his head back and scream out at the cold unfeeling stone that it wasn't his fault.
It just wasn't him- none of it. He couldn't take pride in the accomplishments of a triggerman; he couldn't bring himself to feel satisfied with the growth and prosperity of a criminal enterprise, not even one that he belonged to, and the sum of his investment in its success seemed to be the bitter disappointment he experienced in watching all of the dastardly work that ate away at his soul amount to absolutely nothing, time and time again. He had found some good things there in the Lackadaisy, more than he had ever expected or thought he deserved, but when it came down to it he just wasn't built for this life of bootlegging and skullduggery and unscrupulous power plays between rival gangs, or for fancy illegal jazz clubs with all their shiny dancefloors and their modish, upbeat music. Hell- he didn't even dance.
His mind went back to the grim realization he had looking into the defaced café from across the street: gangsters just cannot catch a break. At the time there was this hollow, demoralized sentiment clutching his heart, but the more he thought back to it the more his feelings turned to plain indignation. He couldn't wrap his head around the why of it; why miss M was so dead-set on preserving this failing operation that clearly was so much more trouble than it was worth; why Rocky and Viktor and so many others followed her in this ill-fated endeavor that rarely earned them anything over a standard wage, if that; or why someone as smart as Ivy would still choose to stick around despite it all, invoking this almost mystical allure of the speakeasy that three months later continued to elude him.
Calvin could not understand any of it. For the life of him, he just could not understand; but he would do his best to condole with her regardless. This was the one, single duty that did make perfect sense to him, and he had long resolved to see it through no matter what.
A distant echo of conversation and indolent movement pulled him abruptly out of his somber musings. He looked up from the ground to find himself walking down the final stretch of the tunnel, brightness pouring in through the arch at its far end where it connected to the main cavern of the speakeasy. He dithered a moment as he approached, mustering his resolve against a new wave of nervousness, then strode ahead the last few steps out of the shadows and into the clean light.
"Ah- there's our gunkid!"
Directly across of the arch was the club's stage and on that stage were the band members, seated in low piano stools and hunched over an upturned drum they had repurposed as a makeshift poker table. Sy, the trumpeter, was facing Freckle's way as he entered, and was the first to call out to him.
"So, Freckle, what's the prognosis?" he asked him wryly. "Are we finally kicking the bucket tonight, or…?"
Freckle shook his head. "Things are clear out. No police, either."
"Well, that's a shame. Ain't it, Zib?" Mozzie quipped, flipping one of the cards with a practiced snap.
"I've never been keen on our inevitable demise, you sap," came the unruffled response from the red-suited man slouching against the wall a few feet away from their game. "I dread it, as any sane person would."
"You're the sanest of us all."
Dorian "Zib" Zibowski, the band's appropriately lackadaisical saxophonist and de facto leader, had chosen not to partake in his crew's recreational activities, instead indulging in his own: a stubby cigarette was slowly smoking away in his fingers, and right next to him were a shot glass and near full bottle of some deep, brownish liquid which Freckle by this point recognized as "the good stuff". The paying customers it was meant for were nowhere to be seen, and a jazz musician's taxing job necessitated a drink every once in a while to help take the edge off a mite, if Zib himself was to be believed. His feathered hat was pulled low over his eyes and a leg hung idly off the edge of the stage where he was seated, completing his signature look of a man currently in the process of drifting off into a languid stupor.
Freckle liked Zib. He was temperamentally averse to the lifestyle of open decadence and vice that the older tom seemed to embody and had meant to keep his distance at first, but Zib had steadily won him over during the course of the summer. There was a calm, reassuring quality to his lax mannerisms that Freckle had grown to appreciate, a certain exotic charm to the laid-back confidence, the witty sarcasm and ready bits of Bohemian wisdom he dispensed with every breath. Alcohol had painted his voice in a mellow, husky hue that perfectly complemented his craft, there was a live cigarette constantly wedged between his lips that did not always smell of plain tobacco, and a look of macabre existential deliberation was permanently etched upon his sharp features. Freckle wasn't sure to which extent the occasional elegiac monologue and some questionable roll-ups made for "artist's mystique", but he knew for a fact that of all the things in the Lackadaisy that conflicted with his strict Catholic upbringing, Zib's share was by far the least damnatory; and if nothing else, the way he appeared almost impervious to the stress and uncertainty that surrounded them all seemed damn near admirable to the uptight youth.
For his part, Zib had also been wary of the kid in the beginning, mindful of his true aptitude which he had seen displayed in all its grisly intensity on their very first meeting, but quickly wised up to Freckle's condition. He was completely harmless ninety-nine percent of the time, which was in a lot of ways his plight, and his more vicious tendencies only ever came into play in service to the gang. With this concern safely allayed, all Zib had to work with was an endearingly unworldly neophyte in desperate need of some friendly guidance from one well-versed in the general sleaze of their industry. He was amused by the perpetual naivety of him, related more closely to his strong moral qualms than he'd ever let on, and at times even felt touched by this propensity for small kindnesses that set Calvin apart from the rest of their coworkers. It was like a glimpse into something approximating decency, however fickle Zib knew it to be, and he must have been missing that more than he realized.
"Someone's in a right tizzy," he teased as Freckle started towards him, wearing a troubled frown. "Long night, huh Frecks?"
Freckle just smiled absently and went back to glancing up and down the spacious cavern, visibly distracted. Zib sipped at his drink to cover a smirk.
"Yeah, figures. But I'm afraid you can't afford to be kicking back just yet, kiddo," he went on dourly.
The ominous statement managed to hold Calvin's attention. "What do you mean?"
"Well… tonight's fiasco was a grand one, see; even by our standards." Zib let his eyes drift off of Calvin as he spoke, pointing them with meaning at a spot over the latter's shoulder. "Left many a soul sorely disappointed."
Freckle followed his gaze vaguely to where Zib had indicated, unsure what he was meant to be focusing on. No one had bothered to clean up after the guests' mad scramble towards the exit; the extra tables and chairs they had brought out for tonight's event were all pushed aside or knocked over haphazardly, spilled drinks and broken rocks glasses littered the floor and even some miscellaneous chattel, hats, canes and at least one set of cracked myopic specs had been abandoned in the confusion, trampled over and soiled under the feet of the fleeing crowd. Freckle scanned the cluttered scene for a couple of seconds, raised himself on tiptoe and craned his neck for view behind stone pillars and misplaced furniture, until finally he spotted what he was looking for.
There, just a couple feet off the bar counter, seated on the edge of a deep cushioned armchair past one of the tall craps tables lining the length of the room was a small, girly figure dressed entirely in loud yellow, made even smaller by her slumped shoulders and stooping posture. Ivy was facing sideways towards the main entrance, probably expecting it to be where Freckle would eventually appear through, but she had not lifted her eyes or tried to call out to him after he'd walked in from the tunnels behind her; she just sat there silent and inert, a flashy speck of vividness blended completely into the background of a garish mess so that she impossible to make out at a glance.
A large, gaping pit took form instantly in Calvin's stomach. There was something profoundly wrong in what he was seeing.
"Seems to me you've got your work cut out for you, son." There was real sympathy in Zib's voice, and he would have placed a commiserating hand on the boy's shoulder if he didn't have to lift himself in order to do it. "You'd best be getting started."
Freckle gave no sign that he had heard him, but followed the advice nonetheless; he began in a straight line towards the bar, numbly at first then spurred by a mounting sense of urgency. He stumbled his way hastily through the clog of overturned movables, bumping against corners and step-kicking aside anything that couldn't be maneuvered around, eyes fixed squarely on the exanimate girl across the room as if her sunken form might fade away the instant he let her out of his sight. He circled around her chair and came to a stop directly in front of her.
A pair of large, sheeny eyes rose at last to meet his own. Ivy looked slowly up at the suited tabby standing before her, his clear, harried face flush with alarm, and pulled a weak smile for him.
"Hey," she greeted, squeezing the word out in between sniffles. "Some adventure again today, huh?"
Freckle just stared back at her for a second. Conspicuous black smudges of wet eyeshadow ran along the forearm of the opera gloves buried into her lap, the loose bead-thread necklace she was wearing earlier had left her neck and was hanging in loops from the arm of her seat to keep it off the ground, and even the truss of feathers adorning her headband appeared to have wilted and was drooping limply into the dark of her hair. Concern gave way to perplexity for a moment as his gaze dropped to her feet, noticing for the first time that one of them was without a shoe, the shape of its toes exposed through the fabric of her light stockings.
"What happened?" Freckle heard himself ask as he squatted down to face her properly. "Are you okay? What's with, uh, the…"
Another sniffle from Ivy, followed by a chuckle as she scooted over to make room for him on the cushion. "Oh… oh, nothing. Just-" Her shifting revealed the missing Gatsby shoe clutched between the palms on her lap, and she held it up to demonstrate its short heel snapped almost clean off at the base, hanging on precariously by little more than a single thread of intact material. "Everybody was shoving everybody down here, and… the darn thing just broke. Heh."
Freckle blinked at the ruined footwear, brows furrowing. "Oh," he said, and then, dumbly, "Was… was it expensive?"
Zib, whose musically-trained ears were nothing to scoff at, caught just enough to know when to wince quietly from his corner of the stage. The kid's denseness kicked in at all the worst times.
As for Ivy, her response was simply to stare at her boyfriend with a look of blank, hollow indignation that could best be described as pity. She let him soak in it for a good while before she hung her head anew, not gracing him with a response.
Right. I deserved that.
Next Freckle reached for her free hand and held it into his own, deciding that wordless gestures were his best bet of getting the sentiment across. She did not hesitate to squeeze right back, which seemed to him like a patient encouragement to give it another shot, but when he opened his mouth again nothing seemed to come out; so he cleared his throat, shuffled a little closer and tried once more, but still his efforts resulted in nothing but a protracted silence. It was at this moment that it suddenly dawned on Calvin just how hopelessly out of his depth he really was.
Ivy was the strong one. She was always the live-wire to his buzzkill, the bright smile teasing out his reluctant simpers every time she told him of this film showing she was sure he'd like, or asked him what he thought of this or that new hat, or challenged him playfully to a shooting contest in the back bushes of her college campus. He had seen her angry and he had seen her scared, but even at her lowest, at her most petulant moments when she would cuss and complain and bemoan the latest misfortune that had come their way she had never once lost the lighthearted sangfroid for which he admired her so, that peppy snark that softened each blow whenever she was around. This crestfallen, down-in-the-mouth Ivy Pepper was uncharted territory to him, a state that had never even occurred to him could exist on that same cheerful face handing him his lunch over the Daisy's counter every morning before he clocked in. But this time the misfortune was just too great, the café he had met her in lay in shambles and the girl herself felt sapped of the singular vivacity he had come to depend on; and to his great shame and frustration, he did not believe himself equal to it all. How could he ever?
Ivy was the strong one. If she was overwhelmed, just what were the likes of him to do?
"Look, I- I know tonight didn't go as planned," Calvin began, relieved beyond measure at the sound of his own voice, "but there'll be other nights. There always are, right?" He gave a reassuring smile as Ivy slowly faced him again. "And we will dance, okay? Soon as we open again, no matter what. I promise. We've still got the hooch left over, so I-"
"You hate it here."
Ivy's tone stopped him dead in his tracks. It was a statement, not a question, and the deep hurt behind it stung Freckle like the tearful accusation of a betrayal he was guilty of. It made him want to deny it outright, but what could he say? It was true.
"I… no. No, I, um…" He heard himself sputter, and immediately knew it was a lost cause. "I'm not… I mean, I don't hate it, I-"
"You hate it here," Ivy repeated, intoning the word with a chocked-back sob. "And- and who can even blame you?!" she exploded suddenly, cracking voice echoing bitterness into the empty club. "Just look at this place…!
"Everyone's beavering away round the clock just to keep it running, and still all we get each night is half a dozen winos too scared to order the drinks they came for, let alone dance…! Miss M's barely holding it together, the band hardly bothers anymore- even Wick's given up on us, and… and every time it looks like something good's about to happen, another lowlife crumb with a Tommy trots along to shoot the damn thing up!
"Oh, but it used to be amazing, Freckle…!" she went on, fresh tears spilling down her cheeks. "It used to be a full house every night. It used to be packed with people, all gussied up and on the make and smiling; everyone was always smiling here. Used to be you came down those stairs and suddenly everything was glitz and cheer, and lights and music and folks just swinging their knees off and kissing and laughing, and… and it was just so beautiful. It's how I caught the bug, y'know?" She aimed a dreamy smile at Calvin, who seemed to have given up on speaking and just held onto her hand in attentive silence.
"And all this… this gnarly gangster stuff never really made it here back then. It was always close, always right behind the curtain- but it never made it here…! Here, it was just-" Ivy paused for another sniffle, thin brows knit as she searched for the right word. "Fun," she said finally. "It was fun. It felt like the brightest, happiest place in the word, Freckle; and I had a special pass. There was nothing better.
"I get that now, it's- it sucks now, but… but I have so many good memories here, Freckle."
She shook her head miserably, gave a wan, humorless laugh and allowed the cavern to fall once again into silence. For a while there was no sound but the sharp snap of playing card against drumhead as the band went about their game with a heavy, almost grieving solemnity, no longer sharing a word between them. They'd been there too, lived through these old glory days themselves, and hearing the young girl lament them so much more viscerally than they would ever dare brought out a wistfulness that could not so easily be bantered away.
"And I know all that isn't really your thing anyhow," Ivy resumed, voice now low and private, "but you've never seen it, Freckle…! And tonight, I thought- I just hoped… I thought maybe, if you saw a bit of how it was back then- if I could just show you, then maybe… maybe you wouldn't hate it all that much. I dunno." She shrugged, let out a quivery sigh and focused back on the broken shoe in her lap. "Maybe this whole thing wouldn't be so hard on you anymore. Maybe it'd make all the rest worth it, just a little.
"Maybe then you'd wanna dance with me."
She was calmer now, more self-possessed, her sniffles coming out weaker and further apart. She withdrew her hand gently from Calvin's grip and wiped the corners of her eyes, adding another dark stain to the thumb of her glove, then pressed it lightly against her mouth to still a delicate tremor. He did not reach after it, or react in any way.
A minute passed. Ivy managed her breathing, wiped her face some more and blinked until the shoe she was staring at was no longer blurry. Then at last she drew in a deep breath and lifted her head, facing Calvin again with a bashful chuckle.
"Sorry- sorry for unloading on you like this. You're probably-" The words caught in her throat, and she squinted at him in puzzlement. "What are you doing?"
Calvin's face wasn't next to hers anymore. He had just bent over where he sat, all the way down to his feet- untying his laces, from the looks of it. For a moment she had the crazy thought that he meant to offer her his shoe in place of her own, but then he moved on to the other one and loosened it as well. He pushed each of them off, set the pair aside in an orderly fashion and promptly shot to his feet.
But Freckle was already walking away from the armchair like he didn't hear her, not once turning to meet her bewildered gaze. He strode resolutely through the clutter of chairs and tables on the path he had cleared himself only minutes ago, minding that he didn't step on any pieces of sharp glass as he did, and came to a stop upon the even, relatively clear surface directly in front of the stage. He then proceeded to, in a very practical and businesslike manner, drag his bare socks across the flat surface, shift his weight, tap, stomp and finally hop lightly in place, testing their fabric against the smooth flooring. When he was done he made a satisfied sound and spun towards Zib, letting his eyes gloss over all the other men on the stage who were now openly staring at him like he had lost his marbles. He made a beeline for the lolling musician with that same wide, steady gait that had just carried him into the dancefloor he so notoriously dreaded.
And Zib was the first to see clearly the quiet panic in the boy's eyes, the hands he had balled into fists to keep them steady, lips set tight in a transparent attempt at feigning a confidence that had fled him within a second of him kicking off his shoes. He could almost hear the self-conscious voice in Calvin's head screaming at him that whatever he had in mind was a horrible idea, that it could never end well, that he had already embarrassed himself plenty and was better off running up to the streets above and sprinting off into the night before he took it any further. The voice was most certainly there, but he suffered it in silence; and Zib, who had never before witnessed this particular brand of determination that could fit so perfectly on an expression of terrified diffidence, came to a better understanding of why he was always so inclined to root for this kid.
The man took care to measure his voice before responding. In times like these, it was paramount that he remained aloof. "Mm?"
"Say, uh- you remember that first night? With the moonshiners, I mean. When they stormed the club?"
"Sure do. Too much shootin' and hoppin' around in one night for a man to forget."
Calvin swallowed down something dry. "Right. Well, that time, I… I kinda saved your life, didn't I?"
Zib pretended to think on it a moment. "Why, yes. I suppose you kinda did."
"So… you kinda owe me."
Zib took a final drag from his cigarette (tobacco, this time) before stubbing it out on the stage floor. He stretched with a grunt, then arduously forced himself up and loosed a long, deliberate yawn. At the end of it he was wearing his usual smile, unconcerned and self-reliant and independent of the mood surrounding him, good or bad; but a different sort of smile reached his eyes, and Calvin thought he saw in them a glint of approval. That gave him courage.
"Alright, torpedo-boy," Zib sighed finally. "What'll it be?"
Calvin broke into a grateful smile of his own, this one void of pretenses. He'd just had another inspiration. "How about… something for the Lindy Hop?" he suggested, loud enough to be heard clearly all through the cavernous hall. "I hear that's the new one they're doing in New York."
The glint grew a little brighter. "That'll do," Zib nodded, and turned to the rest of his band who had long stopped paying attention to their cards. "Well, fellas! Looks like we're earning our bread tonight after all. Let's set up, pronto."
Calvin observed them for a few seconds, listened to them grumble and complain ("It was your life he saved, wasn't it?" "What bread; these two lovebirds aren't even paying!"), and once they were satisfied that they had adequately saved face they went about preparing their instruments and other stage paraphernalia with the same air of unspoken amusement as their leader. The boy watched it all transpire with a pleased grin, feeling extremely satisfied with himself.
Then he remembered there was one more person he now had to face, and immediately broke into a cold sweat.
Thankfully there was still glass lying around so he had to keep his eyes low on the way back to Ivy's armchair, moving significantly slower than before, because naturally one had to be careful with these things. There were yet more chairs to move out of the way too, puddles of alcohol to avoid; and of course, the band had to be allowed some time to warm up anyway, right? That's what he went with, in any case. In the end it was not until her thin, mismatched feet came into view, one of them shod and the other bare, that he was finally forced to lift his head and meet her gaze.
Ivy was not quite smiling. A numb quiver played at the corner of her lips, curving them up ever so slightly, but they were parted with surprise and uncertain, like the enormity of his gesture had yet to fully set in. Wetness continued to glisten on her cheeks, she hadn't moved an inch and was still clutching the broken shoe in her hands, but as she mirrored him now the sheen came from somewhere behind the gold of her eyes, making them almost unbearably bright. They stared too deeply into his own, as they so often did, and for a moment Calvin forgot what he had walked over there to do; then she blinked, and he realized he was expected to say something.
He unclenched his hand, praying desperately that she wouldn't notice just how clammy the damn thing was, and held it out to her in a way he thought was appropriately formal. "But, um… it's my first time with that one, so… you'll have to walk me through it," he said in the distinctly awkward stammer of a guy trying his absolute hardest to deliver a suave line; and Ivy read in it, clear as day, the wordless offer riding his palm as it extended sheepishly towards her.
He would give her a bad dance, and a new good memory.
The numbness washed off her face then, bit by bit, moving up from her chin to her mouth to her eyes until it was gone completely and a giddy, overflowing joy was all that remained. The giggle that bubbled up her throat this time had no bitterness left to it, and her attempt to stifle it turned into a snort so she averted her eyes and bit down on her lip to keep it in check, except she could never bite hard enough. Freckle watched the futile struggle with a hand still proffered and felt his chest swell with the sweet, heady apprehension that he had, in fact, done good.
When she looked at him next, Ivy was glowing.
She took his hand, discarded the shoe in her own and kicked the remaining one off in an airy motion. For the first time ever, she let him be the one to lead her off towards the dancefloor. "You ready?" she mouthed quietly once they had reached the center and Zib had given them the okay, and the condensed happiness in her voice sent vibrations rippling through his body.
"No," Calvin replied honestly with a nervous chuckle; then she beamed at him again, and all his countless inhibitions went up in a gush of sparkles.
"Just follow my lead."
Calvin McMurray is, without a doubt, the absolute worst dancing partner Ivy has ever had.
It's kind of impressive, actually. He somehow manages to bungle it at every single turn, tripping over himself and stumbling after her with all the grace of a newborn calf, back unbending and arms dangling stiffly at his side like he doesn't know what to do with them. She tries to ease him into it with the simplest moves she can think of, and even the band mercifully slows the rhythm to a crawl for the novice tom to catch up, but he still can't seem to string two steps together without botching them up in some way. By the end of the first song Freckle's face is the picture of embarrassment, and his heartfelt wish for the ground to split open and swallow him whole is written all over it.
Ivy can't stop smiling.
The second the final note is in the air, just as he is about to mumble a mortified apology and ask if she still wants to continue, she grabs him by the shirt and shuts his mouth with her own before he can get a word out. It is their deepest kiss to date, and Freckle is still in a daze by the time the band moves on to their second piece and their dancing commences anew.
The second song goes about the same, as does the third. It's not until the fourth song of the night that Calvin, to his own surprise more than anyone's, suddenly manages to get through an entire basic sequence without stepping on either of their toes. His reaction is to look down at his unshod feet like they've just sprouted wings at the ankles, then up at Ivy with a shaky, tentative smile of utter disbelief, and the girl can no longer hold it in; she laughs delightedly at the sight of him, so shocked and unsure and entirely too thrilled at the meager accomplishment.
She finds it hilarious. She finds it adorable. She finds she can hardly wait for the song to be over before pulling him in for another kiss, then quickly push him back into position in time for the next one.
His enthusiasm carries over to the fifth song. On the sixth the band picks up the pace a hair at Ivy's signal, and Freckle finds that he can sort-of-almost keep up with it still. He bursts out laughing, and Ivy readily joins in, and the men on the stage content themselves with pouring their share of the excitement into the whole wide repertoire they are to perform for the young couple to kick their feet to, on and on and well into the night.
Musicians and dancers alike are gasping for breath by the time it's all over, and the latter need to hurry off all of a sudden because sunrise is closer than any of them realized and they are both on a tight curfew. They rush to the garage on wobbly feet, cracking jokes as they lean on each other for support ("Oh, your first time with that one, was it?") and Calvin drives her down to her dorm in one of the new cars.
He escorts her to the door in hopes of a final kiss goodnight, and she does not disappoint. The kiss is final, but the goodnight very much isn't; they wish it back and forth a dozen more times while he backs away slowly, wearing the widest, goofiest smile Ivy has ever seen on his face, and she too lingers half through the threshold because she must see all of it, and return it in kind, and giggle to herself in delight every single time like it was the first, because it may as well have been.
It is with great effort that she finally shuts the door when the risk of being discovered by one of the chaperones becomes too real, and still then she spends a full minute staring through the opaque glass as he turns around and zig-zags tipsily back to the car and hops in the air and claps his heels, and by the time he's out of sight there is not a single muscle on Ivy's face that isn't sore.
She sneaks up to her room, drops her shoes and dives headfirst into the bed with no regard for her dirty gloves, her hosiery stained green from the grass in the yard, the nice dress she's rumpling up or the perfectly good pillowcase she's destroying with lipstick and maquillage as she buries her face into it and rubs hard, back and forth, again and again until the first silt of the morning sun creeps in to warm the back of her head. The roommate she's startled awake is actually worried for a second when she can get no response from her, but recognizes the signs soon enough and resolves to press her for details first thing tomorrow.
As for Freckle, he catches himself tapping his fingers against the wheel on his way home, and it prompts a moment of reflection. He thinks back on all the unlikely things that have happened to him this past summer, the good and the bad, and all the terrible, unimaginable, fantastical ways in which the Lackadaisy has made a mess of him and brought his life upside down in this short span of time. The list is long indeed, and it takes him almost until he's parked and stealthily tiptoed into his room, changed out of his clothes and lying bone-tired and wide awake on his bed to go through them all. Reality has become this far-fetched, preposterous anecdote for him, and really, no development ought to seem too tall for it at this point.
So he will give dancing a shot.
I generally struggle with romance, which as a genre I find lends itself very easily to over-writting; and I do very much over-write, to my intense editing frustration. Huge chunks of this had to be thinned down or outright removed before I was comfortable enough to call it finished. Now that it is, however, I feel unexpectedly satisfied with how it turned out, excessive mawkishness be damned.
Of course, that could just be the unapologetic shipper in me speaking; but it's about time that sap had his moment in the sun anyway.
Thank you very much for reading!