Lula grinned as she approached Tyler. “Well, I’ll be,” she exclaimed, a hand to his arm.
“I found her,” answered Tyler, surprised that Lula would be pleased to see him.
Lula turned to Laurel.
“Well isn’t that swell. Seems your damsel in distress was real,” she noted with a smirk. Laurel narrowed her eyes, perhaps unsure whether to think well of Lula or not.
“You’re still here?” noted Lula, her contempt for Faye undisguised. “Hope you’re not getting’ pally with her,” said Lula to Tyler. “She doesn’t mean a thing she says.”
Tyler was beginning to suspect it was true, that Faye was too evasive in her answers to be believed.
“I promised you nothing,” said Faye, her back turned to Lula.
“Then why are you still here?” demanded Lula.
“Because I’m waiting for someone,” explained Faye.
“Rex assigned me here.”
“Like I was sayin’,” answered Faye, turning to face Lula. “I’m waiting for someone.” Faye inhaled cigarette fumes before blowing a smoke ring in Lula’s face.
“Who?” asked Lula.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” asked Faye with a chuckle.
“I’m askin’ for Rex ‘cause if you’re here when you’re supposed to be somewhere else, he’d like to know.”
“I don’t belong to him,” explained Lula with a smile, turning her back. “Maybe you’re not so well-informed after all.”
“You think you’re better than Rex,” demanded Lula. “You think even he’s not good enough with you and the high-falutin’ way you carry yourself ‘round town when you’re just as much a whore as anyone out here showing a little too much leg and enough lipstick to make you look more like a clown than a lady who thinks she can do better than Rex, though we’ll see what Rex has to say about that.”
“You’re embarrassing yourself again, Lula,” said Faye, rolling her eyes for the benefit of the bartender. But the bartender shrugged off the argument as if it were nothing new. No one in the room paid much attention, backs turned and heads bowed over drinks.
“Look,” interjected Tyler, as the bartender served him a Scotch, neat. “We’re leaving, Laurel and I.” Tyler turned to Laurel as if for confirmation, but she was gazing at her hands in her lap.
“We should be going,” he added.
Faye neglected to acknowledge the news. Only Lula appeared to be listening.
“Get a load of her. Is it any surprise she can’t get clients anymore? Now you and me, we know what’s as fake as the smile on a dead man and we know that when you and I say somethin’ we mean it, don’t we?”
“Thanks for your help the other day,” he answered, not sure what else to say.
“I’d be lyin’ if I said I was helpin’ you, but thanks for seein’ it that way, all the same. I’m glad you got away, but don’t tell Rex I said that ‘cause I’ll deny it and call you a liar, but you’re not a liar, are you? Everything you said was true, which takes guts, speaking true when the lies are what keep you alive.”
Tyler curled his hand over Laurel’s shoulder, hoping to trigger a response; but Laurel had once again fixed her gaze on Faye.
“Is she your girl?” asked Tyler. “The flatworlder?”
“Yeah,” he answered, for the purpose of terminating a conversation which had no conceivable purpose.
Lula removed her hand from Tyler’s arm before facing the back of Faye’s head.
“You know Rex is over you?” she told Faye with a triumphant smile. “He told me there’s no need for you to go back. He’s had his fill of you and you’re on your own.”
Something cast a shadow across the room. It was a man sitting at the bar on the other side of Faye. The mustachioed man was square-shouldered and ruggedly handsome, his black hair caked in place, a red shirt under a linen suit jacket.
Retrieving a cigarette from a case, he held it to Faye’s cigarette before returning it to his mouth and exhaling.
“She was just leaving,” announced Lula.
“Rodolfo’s not here for you,” announced Faye. Rodolfo grinned as he stood, offering Faye his arm. She stood as she curled her hand over his arm.
“Faye?” asked Laurel, awaking from her stupor.
Faye turned to Laurel.
“Tell me honestly,” said Laurel. “Do I need you to leave this place?”
“You don’t need my permission,” answered Faye.
“Then I can leave this world without you at my side?” asked Laurel.
“Why leave this world when all you have to do is find a better way to pass the time?”
Faye surprised Laurel by cradling Laurel’s chin in her hand. “If it’s a dream you want, I’ll show you the best dream of all.”
Laurel stood up.
“We need to go,” he whispered to Laurel, but she ignored him as if under a spell.
“No,” answered Laurel.
“We need to go home.”
“I never said I wanted to leave,” answered Laurel with a decisiveness that put the matter to rest.
Rodolfo eyed Laurel as Faye took Laurel by the hand. “Freedom is your birthright,” announced Faye. It was enough to convince Laurel that whatever Faye wanted, so did she.
“I can’t say I’m too surprised,” said Lula as Faye walked Laurel out the door, Rodolfo bowing graciously to Lula before making his exit.
“Though if she’s your girl, I say good riddance,” declared Lula.
“She and I don’t belong here but she thinks she needs Faye to leave this place.”
“And this other world?” asked Lula, her hand once again held to his arm. “Is it much like this one? I’ve always wondered.”
“I’m still tryin’ to figure that out, but to be honest I’ve gotta go,” he answered, walking to the door to observe Laurel, Faye and Rodolfo crossing the lobby. Tyler followed them outside as Faye guided the others around the front house in the direction of the other villas.
Trees obscured his view of the others until he crossed them, the echo of giggles alerting him to their presence. Rodolfo was opening a door to one of the smaller bungalows, Faye and Laurel, hand-in-hand, stepping inside.
Tyler barely knew Laurel and yet he felt a twinge of jealousy, as if she preferred Rodolfo’s company to his. Why had he gone to so much trouble to lose her like this?
He approached the villa door, prepared to knock, but he hesitated. How well did he know Laurel anyway? If she wanted to stay, so be it. He trusted she was in her right mind.
Stepping to the window, he peered inside. Rodolfo produced a few boxes from his jacket pocket, setting them on the dining table. He opened one to produce what appeared to be a hypodermic needle. Faye seated herself nearby, removing her jacket and rolling up her shirt sleeve.
Laurel sat nearby, rolling up her sleeves as well. This couldn’t possibly be what Laurel wanted. What could she believe she had to gain by what appeared to be a morphine injection? Had she been deceived by polished words?
He turned to find Lula standing behind him.
“You want to join them?” she asked with a smile. “I won’t judge you.”
“We need to leave,” he insisted.
“And where do you want to go?” she asked, pressing her body against his.
“Laurel and I,” he said, correcting her.
Lula shook her head, her hand to his face. “You know, I could still be persuaded to keep your little secret.”
“What’s my secret?” he asked, remembering he was still what they called a flatworlder.
“You think she’s gonna be much use to you?” asked Lula, her hand to his chest. “Now I can help you. You just tell me what you want and I’ll help you get it. You want some fun, I’ll give you some fun. You got questions about this world, I’ll answer them.”
Tyler was too distracted to pay attention.
“Or if you want to forget everything,” she added, stepping away and walking to the door, “you can join them inside.”
She banged on the door, grinning at Tyler’s discomfort. It took only a few seconds for Rudolfo to open the door.
“Did you leave us out on purpose?” asked Lula, a hand to her hip to accentuate her curves.
Rodolfo admired Lula’s cleavage before opening the door for her, reluctantly waiting for Tyler to follow.
Inside, the furnishings were spare yet tasteful, just enough furniture to provide a semblance of home, without all the clutter.
“Do we trust these two?” asked Rodolfo.
“A tad late to ask that,” replied Faye, retrieving a needle from the table before claiming a spot on a sofa.
“I’m with her,” explained Tyler, gesturing toward Laurel.
Needle in hand, Faye carefully held it to her forearm before slowly plunging it deep in her flesh. Leaning back, she closed her eyes.
“Morphine?” observed Lula as she examined the contents of the box.
“If you’re not interested,” said Faye, her eyes closed, “there’s the door.”
“Supplies are limited,” said Rodolfo, stooping to close the box, but not before retrieving two more disposable needles from the box. Pocketing one, Rodolfo turned to Laurel, taking a seat next to her on the sofa, a hand to her arm.
“Laurel,” exclaimed Tyler. “We don’t have much time.”
“You have all the time in the world,” answered Faye lazily, a hand to her head.
“Laurel?” he asked, feeling helpless short of grabbing her and pulling her from the room.
“I’m staying with Faye,” answered Faye without facing Tyler.
“You didn’t answer her question,” asked Tyler of Faye. “Does she need you to leave this world?”
“This is getting boring,” said Faye, a hand to Rodolfo’s sinewy forearm. Laurel closed her eyes as Rodolfo cradled her arm in his hand, his fingers grazing her skin and his lips to her neck.
Faye smacked the back of Rodolfo’s head. “He’d be within his rights to sock you,” said Faye with a smirk.
Tyler bristled. He wished it were his lips on Laurel’s neck, but he suspected she had no interest in him, much less going home. Faye appeared to notice his frustration as it coursed through his arm like a serum inflaming a primordial response.
Rodolfo turned, guilt forming a smile.
“Laurel, we need to go,” insisted Tyler angrily.
“I don’t like your tone,” said Rodolfo, standing, his muscular physique exceeding Tyler’s by a few inches; but Tyler didn’t care. He just wanted to go home, and take Laurel with him. He wanted to wake up with her tomorrow, laughing about the dangers they’d faced and how they’d come through unscathed and how danger brought them close together. He wanted to find love and meaning, not skulk off like a whipped cur.
“We were just leaving,” said Lula, reminding Tyler she still had a role to play, refusing irrelevance and insisting on standing front and center, her eyes on Rodolfo as if hoping to provoke his interest in the event Tyler wasn’t interested; though handsome Rodolfo paid her no heed.
“You ready to surrender to the dream?” asked Faye of Laurel, turning her back on Lula.
Laurel nodded as Rodolfo grabbed her arm and inserted the hypodermic needle. Laurel gasped as if the pain of penetration had been a pleasure.
Faye turned, caressing Laurel’s face.
“I’ll take you home, baby,” whispered Lula, a hand to his arm as she pulled him toward the door. But Tyler’s eyes were fixed on Laurel, sinking back in the sofa, a faint smile on her face. Faye had turned, her lips to Laurel’s cheek and a hand to Laurel’s stomach.
“I’m not leaving without her,” he decided, much to Lula’s undisguised disappointment.
“Does she need you?” demanded Tyler of Faye.
“Do you need me?” Faye asked Laurel. Laurel, still smiling, nodded.
“And what do you see?” asked Faye. Rodolfo took a seat on the other side of Laurel, his mouth to her ear.
“I see a world of love,” answered Laurel. “And love makes everything so beautiful.”
Faye turned to Tyler, offering him her hand.
“You want to share our dream?” she asked.
“He’s got better things to do,” Lula answered for him.
“What if I said you’d find what you seek?” asked Faye, a cryptic smile doing little to reassure Tyler that her intentions were true.
“What’s that?” he asked her, not to test her but because he didn’t know.
“Don’t you want to know why you’re here?”
Tyler was tempted by the offer of knowledge, but he feared that sleep would only muddle his thoughts.
“I don’t want to sleep,” he replied. He wanted to understand, just as Laurel once claimed. How quickly she forgot that knowing was better to forgetting.
“He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do,” said Lula, a hand to his arm.
“That’s right. He doesn’t. But he can choose where to give his love.”
Faye pulled away from Laurel, inviting Tyler to take her place at Laurel’s side. He was losing the will to resist, the promise of returning home fading in importance to the ecstasy of loving.
Taking a seat, he took Laurel’s arm in his, her skin smooth and warm, and her breath smelling of honey as she turned her head, her eyes closed as she anticipated his mouth.
Tyler kissed Laurel’s lips, and as her lips parted, their tongues touched and teased. He could feel his heart racing, even as Faye’s lips found his ear, her graceful fingers caressing the nape of his neck.
“And it was said that Ozymandias would never die,” intoned Faye, “that he would claim time to suit his ends, although there would be no end, only one beginning and then another until the cage of time became an eternity.”
Tyler knew there was significance to the word Ozymandias, but he no longer cared. He thought only of Laurel, whose hands replaced Fay’s on the back of his head, pulling him close as her hunger for him exceed his hunger for her. She never once opened her eyes, but it didn’t matter.
“And it is said that Ozymandias will return,” continued Faye, “and that when he does, all will be love, in defiance of age and of death.”
As Laurel threw a leg over Tyler’s lap, she took his face in hers, refusing to release it as they fed on each other’s mouths.
“And as he becomes everything, he disappears, as if he were nothing at all. But Ozymandias has claimed us, his power to elude time now our own, and his boundless future ours to share in the fullness of love’s embrace.”
And as Laurel and Tyler kissed, Tyler imagined a screen of light shielding them from the deception of a world without foundation, and from Murdoch who peered inside as if from between the bars of a cage. But the cage wasn’t keeping Murdoch outside, it was trapping Laurel and Tyler within, Murdoch’s anxiety fading to reveal a broad grin.
“Checkmate,” whispered a rush of air that resembled Murdoch’s voice.