Content Warning for: Smoking. Talk of prostitution/sex trafficking.
Over those previous eight days, Franco got occasional updates on Seng’s vacation. He was chilling in northern Thailand, last he heard. His Thai and Hmong were much rustier than he thought. And he swore that his parents promised that Uncle Teeb knew English.
In spite of the hiccups, he was having fun. Sure, it was hot-as-balls and he walked in on Youa trying to send nude pics halfway across the world. But he also had half of the best papaya in the world.
And Franco ruined that for him.
“What is this supernatural bullshit?” Franco wished he could even have one simple answer. But he didn’t even have that.
“Seng! I…well, they sure sped up your return trip.”
“I was on a bus to Guiyang! And I am not redoing the first three hours of Aunt Paj and Youa bickering over her dating some American mutt.” Seng exhaled in loud gasps. “I am not redoing it for…this.”
Franco took a seat on the cool grass next to him. “Look, I want to do right by you with this too,” he said. It was the least he could do before not renewing his lease. “I’m gonna get to the bottom of this.”
“Says the man who can’t explain his own fangs,” Seng mumbled.
“I’ll try my best to get to the bottom of this. That’s a promise.”
“Yeah. Whatever you say.”
“What do you know about this place that I don’t?” It was the man in the camouflage tunic. “You are involved in this, aren’t you?”
“No more than CLIT is, okay?” said Franco. “I never asked for this to happen…anywhere, really.”
“But I never saw a sign so clear until tonight. With you,” he said. “You must be one of the universe’s Ancient Ones! Maybe…maybe they don’t raise them with that knowledge anymore, but I have a lot of findings to share-”
“I’m not even twenty, and I’m not buying it.” All the tension and anger of the situation reached Franco too. With a tight scowl, he bunched up the grass underneath his big hands. “There’s just too much nonsense going on today.”
“You’re telling me,” said Seng.
“You know what? I’m going to make a very important call.”
It was one of the first numbers in Franco’s phone. Right below Hannah, of course. And for once, the three or so texts she sent that day just had to wait.
“So you don’t know enough to tell me anything, but someone knows enough for you to call them?” asked the man. His booming, accusatory voice washed over Franco. He sounded just like his professor for Issues and Ideas in Painting at times, though the similarities ended there. Some wacky heathen had little else in common with a man who kept berating Franco about his beautiful and empty style.
“She might. I dunno.” Annette picked up the phone within two rings. “Hey, you there?”
“Just finished rubbing one out and it was FANTASTIC,” she said. “Who’s this?”
Franco pinched his nose bridge. “Your son! And gross, why-”
“Everyone else is busy. Is it cinnamon roll time again? Because believe it or not, I’m gonna need to prep some new dough for that.”
“It’s something supernatural or extraterrestrial or whatever and I need your help.”
“Yes! That’s why I’m calling at god-knows-when at night. Please beam yourself over to…it’s a weird tower in the hills, and it’s up on Thurston Street-”
“Yeah, I know the one.”
Franco’s eyes went wide. “Wait, what?”
“Kid, it sticks out like a sore thumb in the skyline…yeah, I’ll beam myself over. See ya soon.”
Annette’s arrival was fast. It was so fast, that she didn’t even dress for the event. Franco winced at the sight of her in her bra and track-pants. He went across the country for college to escape her semi-naked form.
“You do know it’s late-o-clock back in the swamp, right boys?” she asked, in a sneering tone. Annette then relaxed her elegant stance. “What’s the emergency?”
“Turn around,” said Franco. He pointed to Seng, who had since stood up and tried to make a phone call.
“Ugh, is everyone in on this drama with Youa?”
Annette tried to cover her confused, pained expression. “Oh…Christ, uh…this is something I could’ve prevented.” She gave a look to Franco and the heathen man. “So, as much as I’d love to reveal the fundamental answers of the universe here, we gotta go back to your place, kiddo. It’s gonna be less awkward there.”
The man just laughed. “Can’t a guy at least get some revelations? Did your kind build this?”
Annette gave the towers one longing look. Franco observed one heavy sigh as her eyes went up the form of one of the white statues. “You know…I must have been mistaken. Never knew what this thing was.”
She dragged both Franco and Seng by the arms. Franco couldn’t even fight it, even if his mum was less than half his weight. She called a taxi and didn’t say a word for the entire ride. And the ride back to downtown Bridgeport took the better part of an hour, and felt like even longer. For everyone. The amount of averted gazes and awkward silences told Franco about all those bitter, mutual feelings.
Of course, neither Annette nor Seng could keep it quiet back at the flat. Franco leaned forwards in his seat on the couch, pretending to watch Bridgeport’s 10 O’Clock News.
“Maybe you can give me some answers.” Seng’s temper had not quieted during the ride back home. “This is one of your faults, and I’m this close to-”
“Save your threats for a species your size,” said Annette. “But yeah, I know, this is kind of a…a shit pickle. You might have signed a deal with us that none of us even knew about.”
“So I guess this is a load of your supernatural bullshit.”
“Nuh-uh! It might be a load of extraterrestrial bullshit instead!”
“Stop it! You…you made me a prisoner.” Seng’s face sunk at the last word. His face was drained, and lost its amber, warm glow. “I’m your prisoner,” he said, in a near-whisper.
“I mean, if I’m gonna be honest, you’re probably Franco’s prisoner first. And it’s only something that’ll happen every eight days.”
He couldn’t even pretend to watch the news after that. Franco’s face went cold and pallid at the same word. Prisoner. The man he saved from homelessness? Prisoner. Franco trapped him in a luxurious flat, and custom-ordered a mattress for Seng that accommodated his mild lumbar issues. Still a prisoner.
“You know, me being his fucking plaything every eight days wasn’t in the lease.”
“Doesn’t matter what was in the lease. Pretty sure it’s tied to that…look, this ain’t Franco’s fault and it ain’t mine either. But I’m gonna get to work on a way to…void this agreement,” said Annette. “Yeah.”
“Great. Now try to stop the giant international incident that I’ve probably caused.” He crossed his arms in a huff. “I just wanted to go to Guiyang.”
“You heard me.”
“Oh yeah, it’s full of Miao,” she said. “Cousins, or something?”
Seng’s face warmed up a bit, and the corners of his mouth curled up into an honest grin. “A whole bunch of them. It’s a shame we’re kind of all over now, but we’re gonna hit as many relatives as we can.”
“Looks like you’ll beat the rest of them there.” Annette held up her amethyst ring, as it started to glow its indigo glow. “Also, I’ve always really wanted to try out some Qian cuisine. If you come back, bring recipes.”
Seng gave her one confident nod, before Annette threw open a portal for him.
Annette shook off the event, or seemed to as she walked towards the fridge. “You guys still have some beers left in there, right? I’m gonna need…let’s start with three-”
“We made a horrible mistake!” Franco buried his face in his hands. “I made a horrible mistake.”
“You mean with this prisoner thing? I mean, maybe I should have been more clear with how the ‘housemates for life’ thing works. But…yeah. It’s activated when you sign a lease or share a utility bill. Pretty wild, right?”
“I…I thought it was when you fell in love,” he said, in a quivering voice.
“Like Shark and I really had much love between us.” Annette let out a hoarse, coarse chuckle. “No, it’s in your bills, kid! That’s a lot more cut-and-dry than love. Especially once you buck that whole ‘true love’ sham and become a poly slut like I am!”
He pulled a disgusted grimace. “I’ll…pass.”
“You know what, no. Stop distracting me about this!” While the flat didn’t have a coffee table for Franco to swipe the clutter off of in a rage, he had a pile of Seng’s textbooks close-by. He wanted to destroy that stack and dishevel all his roommate’s notes. But all Franco did was clench a fist. “I know you can’t fix this, because our fucked up life would be a lot better if you could.”
“Shit, sorry I made you think I’m a goddess or something. Sorry you think I have the genius to kill three grown men, and maybe a troubled teen and not-your-baby.”
“We’re just…doomed with this.”
“Seng’s gonna be fine. Worst case is that he comes back as a pathetic little man with his tail between his legs, like your uncle Harwood!” she said.
“And then, what? He overdoses a decade later?”
“Hey, at least I know the warning signs now. And he might not be a Harwood to me, or to you, but I have a lot of reasons to want a lawyer in our circle.”
She gave Franco an unsure look. “Let’s face it, I can’t fix this. But…I have two stories that can help.”
“So you’re a wreck in ways I don’t even know yet,” said Franco.
“It’d take years to unpack all that, but at least I can vague about something in the past. Wanna hear about Harwood, or Eileen?”
“Well, you’re gonna have to fill in whatever details I won’t tell you,” Annette said. “Got your sharp little mind primed?”
“Visuals? You’re talking to the best painter you know.”
“Don’t forget about aunt Amy like that. But yeah, this whole thing happened when I still smoked, but was also an adult living on my own in a big city. So, imagine your haggard old mum as…as…fuck, someone your age!”
On cue, Franco’s mind was able to drift off. All he could imagine was Angel City, and the rotten image of his mum in a corset and booty shorts.
“I loved to smoke, because it helped me forget a little that I made money thanks to Johnny-pimp-me-lightly. I had some pretty grotty fangs from it, totally ruined my voice after…yeah, just four years…” Franco hadn’t noticed the rough quality to his mother’s voice before that. It wasn’t what his dad’s once was. He’d compare it to the audio equivalent of steel wool. Annette, meanwhile, was fine sandpaper. “…so that’s the run-down of the local prostitution laws. Pretty much the same anywhere here in America. I wanted to keep my fucked-raw ass out of jail, so I smoked in front of strip clubs and always claimed to be one of them.”
“And that is where I met…changing this name to protect an innocent. We’ll call her Unique. Actually kind of a run-of-the-mill brown-skinned girl. Her getup was always sequins or leopard-print, which I saw at least five times a day elsewhere. Lemme just tell you about tacky things…so she wanted to bum ciggies off me. I almost told the young lady to fuck off, but I then opened my box up.”
“Bitch took five of them, what a mooch.”
“I kept seeing her, in this fucking huge city! So I gathered she was a streetwalker, and she stopped being such a smoke hog. We sorta hit it off, in the way that saying ‘hi’ on a street corner night after night can be considered hitting it off…I just didn’t get to know much about Unique, from Unique. She dodged the question of why she would sell herself. At least I was pretty open about being a teenage addict trainwreck-turned-adult addict trainwreck.”
“So that continued until one cloudy night. I guess this is where I have to explain where I lived: okay place for that city, and given a little more slack on my leash by Johnny-Takes-the-extra-I-make-for-anal right before that. So I got to take the long way home if I felt like it. But I still had to live with that creep.”
“It was then that I learned that I actually lived in the same tower Unique did. Wild! She was standing outside the door, waving to me and putting an arm around a preppy, dark-skinned black girl her age. Unique actually explained herself for once. She lived on Floor 14, and had a girlfriend named…okay, I liked her too. We’re calling her Bright. Considering that Unique was still in her hooker gear from that night, I immediately assumed that Bright was okay with that. And why not? We were all just surviving in the worst way possible.”
“They went inside, and I almost did until I remembered that black eye I got once because I smoked inside. So I leaned against the stone and pulled out what I loved the most.”
“Time flew, smoking and watching the nighttime smog. Loved that shit. What I didn’t love was fucking Rob from Floor 8 giving me a friendly jab in the side.”
“I told him to piss off, unless he had an angry john pull a knife on him that night too. But he said that there was something wild happening on the 14th floor, and I better take a look.”
“I asked him if it involved Unique, and he had no idea.”
“The old elevators there took forever, so maybe I could have stopped it. I could have done anything but cower and hide, but being young and stupid then, I did that. I hid along the elevator door, which did the trick in the heat of a fight. And I still had a full view of what was going on. There was Unique all right, and Bright too, but they were being held up by the necks. What I wanted to chalk up to ‘pimp troubles gone wrong’ was…well, I had no idea what to make of it. A rather strong woman had one neck in each hand.”
“I half-listened and half-covered my own ass. This was not a fight worth getting hurt for. So I heard a lot of using pay-per-view once and there’s no taste with dating dark-skinned girls and you’re a nasty slut, of course you deserve this life.”
“…I still don’t know who pulled out a gun first.”
“One quick look showed me who was dead. Bright was trying to get away from the scene on all fours, but Unique and the other one were dead. Blood on the floor, no one moving a hair…dead!”
“Only thing left to do was leave that mess to the coroner and go to bed on Floor 20. But I had trouble sleeping that night, especially since the whole thing felt unprovoked. At least, it did from the pee-oh-vee of outsider me. I shook it off, though, ‘cause I didn’t think I was gonna get much closure about it. And it really killed the mood at ‘work’ if I was still mourning for Unique-that-I-barely-knew.”
“Fast-forward to a nice morning, where I was enjoying a smoke and a much-begged-for day off. I had an STD test scheduled, but no matter what they told me, I was gonna spend the rest of the day being a beach bum. Since this was a coastal city. Make your guesses now!” Franco was thinking Angel City the whole time, so at least he didn’t have to change.
“…And then, something Bright was about to make me late.”
“It was only about a week since that disaster, so she was crying and slumped against the fence. So I stumbled down the hill and asked if she was holding up okay. I said I’m sorry. That Unique was a pretty cool person. That she looked young enough to still deserve some more years here.”
“Bright sighed. She said…she said: It was Eileen. Her half-sister. I don’t think they were ever friendly. I tried to make a joke about being an only child, but Bright wasn’t taking it.”
“She was livid. If her dark face could go red with anger, it would have right there. You don’t get it, she said, Unique risked her life just to try and escape that bitch!”
Annette got out of her storytelling trance, and Franco got out of imagination. “So once I realized that I’m basically a free-range prison warden, I told myself don’t make a Unique and don’t be Eileen. And I think that’s pretty nice stuff to live by.”
“You could have said that in way fewer words. How much of what was even true?”
“Eh, not important. Can I crash on your couch tonight? You and Hannah are the only couple I don’t wanna be a Peeping Tom to.”
Franco got a blanket out from under his bed. Clallam’s summer nights were still cold.
The whole night left him unable to sleep. Once he mixed his acrylic paints, there was no changing his mind and wasting them. Plus, the center canvas was a commission, and Franco’s customer was already lodging complaints.
“No more Pradchaphets, please.”
Hannah ran into Franco’s arms for a hug. He gaved her a squeeze and whispered in a morose voice. “Bad afternoon?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if I could connect with someone, for once?” Hannah responded. “Went as well as I should have expected.” She loosened, and her face warmed up after a moment of thought. “But at least I connected with you.”
If anyone tries to argue that either Annette’s story is canon, or that Franco’s imagination is canon, I’d like to remind everyone about how unreliable the former is. Lying is Annette’s coping mechanism! She uses it all the time to dissociate from whatever bad past she actually went through.
So is it a true-to-life account of being a streetwalker? Probably not. Annette couldn’t get that 100% right too.
Guiyang is the capital of the Guizhou province, which is notable for having the highest concentration of Miao people in China. And Miao is the ethnic group that Hmong falls under, as well as with other related groups.