Once situated, she lit a cigarette and took a deep drag. The nicotine was a warm and welcome relief, and as she exhaled, she watched the smoke mix with the cloud that was lingering in the air. "Libidinous Libations," her bar, was one of only two bars left in the city to have an indoor smoking permit. It cost her an arm and a leg to maintain the license, but her clientele was both loyal and protective of their last refuge. Three-quarters of her clientele knew her by name, and all night she had responded to cries of "Rylee. How you doing?" or "Rylee, can I get a double?" or "Rylee, you're looking fantastic, as always." Always she responded with a smile and an answer. But more importantly, she always responded with just the right tone. If a customer was having a down day, she was uplifting. If they were in a boisterous mood, she would reflect that back. A reflective mood was handled with a light touch, but always with a smile.
Looking in the mirror above the bar, Rylee saw the smile fall off her face like a weight sliding off the bar at the bench-press station. If it has been a physical thing, it would have splintered the long mahogany bar. The tiredness that was always lurking in the corner of her mind reared up and began snapping at her consciousness, and she felt herself lean on the wood for support.
It was always the same. The faces would come and go. Night after night the same men (and a few of the women) would proposition her: some were blatant in the advances, some were subtle, but all were unwelcome. It was not that she did not like men (or women for that matter); nor was it that she had someone special at the moment. It was more that there was no connection with anyone. She took another drag on her cigarette and then, as she did most nights, she tried to think of a friend--just one--that she thought she could call if she could not hold it together anymore. Nobody came to mind.
She took another drag and reached for her water. As she moved, she felt the array of bracelets and bangles that she had stacked on her arm shift and flex as she reached for the water glass. Most of the cheap jewelry had no meaning to her, but one, a thin golden arm bracelet she wore at the top of the all the rest, belonged to her mother. She exhaled the smoke and then took a sip of water, wincing as she always did as it washed the taste of the cigarette further back into her throat. "I've got to give these things up," she muttered to herself as she snubbed out the embers of her smoke and then took another drink.
Walking back to the door to her bar, she unlocked it and cracked it a bit so the gray cloud of smoke would clear out a little faster. She had been forced to install a major air filtration and circulation system a few years back as part of her efforts to keep her bar a smoking establishment. It actually cleared the whole space of smoke in less than twenty minutes, but Rylee could remember being a girl, no taller than her father's thigh, and seeing him crack the door to air out the place. In those days, after her mother had passed on, her father had installed a bedroom with a little desk over the bar. "That way I can always keep an eye on you, even when I have to work," he said in his gravelly voice. Rylee smiled at the memory; she still slept in that room he built so long ago. Mainly because it was convenient, but also because she simply had no place else to go. In fact, she could not really recall the last time she had been outside "Libidinous Libations."
She had been out of college for just over three weeks when her father died. He had been tending bar, not three feet from where she had just been sitting, when WHAM. The doctors had told her that the heart attack was so massive that he died instantaneously. That always reminded her of Pa Kent in the original Superman movie. But, she told herself, at least he died doing what he loved.
She was just about to close the door when a huge white cat darted through the crack. "Hey. Get out of here!" Rylee said, as she kicked out, trying to keep the cat from going deeper into the bar. But the cat paid her no mind and darted between the bar-stool's legs all the way to the back of Libidinous Libations's bar. Then before Rylee could do anything, she saw its white tail round the bar. "You're trapped now!" she said in triumph as she started jogging after the interloper, but suddenly the swinging door behind the bar, the one that lead to her room upstairs, moved. Furious, Rylee rounded the bar just in time to see the tip of its tail whip through the door.
She blasted through the door, hot on the paws of the cat in front of her. It scampered up the stairs and rounded the corner that led to the bedroom, but it was forced to skid to a halt as it found the door in front of it closed. "Got you now." Rylee said triumphantly, and reached for the cat. It hissed and batted at her hand, claws out.
Rylee snagged the cat by the scruff of the neck. It hissed and kicked out, but she had already rotated her hand so that it was facing away from her body. The cat struggled in her grip for a few seconds more and then let out a yowl of defeat.
"I don't want to hear it," Rylee said as she turned to take the cat back to the entrance. But as she walked down the steps and around the bar the cat kept making the most pathetic noises until Rylee stopped. She turned the cat around. It looked pathetic and hungry, and suddenly Rylee thought, "It doesn't have a friend either. Kind of like you."
Keeping a hold of the cat's scruff, she quickly went and closed the door and then walked to the sink behind the bar. She put the cat in the large, stainless steel basin and said, "You are really not going to like this." Then she turned the water on, soaked the cat, who screamed in anger. Rylee didn't let up. With her free hand, she got a little liquid soap and began rubbing it into the cat's fur. It hissed and struggled, but soon it was covered in soapy bubbles. Rylee left the water on until all the suds had run out of the cat’s fur. Then, picking up the soggy cat, she walked to the back and got a clean dish towel. She wrapped the cat in the towel and felt it shiver. "Come on now. The worst is over." Rylee said, as she rubbed the towel over the cat.
The cat, feeling that it had been thoroughly abused, growled from the depths of the towel. "Sorry," Rylee said. But there is no way I'm letting you in here without washing you. You might have fleas, and a fine mess I'd be in if the Health Inspector came and I had an infestation." Rylee took the cat up to the bedroom, and opening the door a crack, she tossed the cat through and then quickly closed the door again.
After making sure that the door was shut tightly, Rylee walked down to the kitchen and began rummaging in the pantry. It took a little looking, but eventually she found a dusty can of tuna. Wiping it off, she checked the date on the can, and was shocked to see that it was still good for more than another year. "Not bad considering it's over three years old," she muttered to herself as she quickly opened the can and put the tuna on a plate. This she brought up to the bedroom, and after cracking the door to make sure the cat was not going to escape, Rylee slipped through the gap. The cat eyed her warily from the bed, but Rylee ignored it. She set the plate on the floor and then took off her shoes. She laid down on the bed, and as soon as she did, the cat jumped off. It wandered around for a bit until, eventually, it found the plate. It didn't take long until the tuna had vanished, and the cat began to purr. It hopped back up on the bed and looked at Rylee, but she had already gone to sleep.
She slept fitfully. The white cat weaved in and out of her dreams. Sometimes it was there, talking to her in her father's voice but she could never make out the words. At other times the golden band that Rylee wore on her arm would vanish and become the cat's collar. She would chase after it, trying to retrieve her heirloom, but the world was too off kilter for her to succeed. Sometimes the stairs she was on would turn into a slide like in old episodes of the Loony Toons; at other times huge pillars of earth would erupt out of the ground, blocking her path and ensuring the cat's escape. Then the world lurched, and she found herself in a place that appeared to be cobbled together from a bunch of desperate places.
The first thing she noticed was the smell of tangerines. Looking around she found herself in a room that looked like a cross between a green house, a roman bath, and some grand parlor in an old house. The walls were made of bricks that had been expertly set into perfectly laid mortar. In the middle of the room was a large pool that at first glance looked scummed over, but then Rylee's vision shifted and she saw that the green on the water's surface was the reflection of the leaves from the tangerine trees. The trees were set around the outside wall and surrounded the pool, which had a bricked edge. Between the trees stood pale, pink columns of marble that were holding up a concrete slab which, in turn, supported a great domed, glass roof. Along the far back walls there were large bay windows that let in soft, golden light, and above these, the white cat crouched in the frame of a window that was missing from the great dome overhead.
Normally Rylee would have been frustrated trying to figure out how to get the cat out of the window, but that would have required her to notice where it was. Instead she focused on the fountain that was feeding the pool. Coming out of the floor of the basin was either some kind of gnarled tree trunk or a vine like the one that carried Jack up the beanstalk. The plant rose out of the water thick at the base, while tapering off over its length. It was bent in the rough shape of a question mark turned the wrong way. In the space created by the bow of the crook was a woman, who was not so much standing as holding her body as close to horizontal as possible, with her feet resting on the inside curve of the tree-thing, one hand gripping the top of it, and her other hand hanging down while holding a large amphora. Like the tree-thing, the woman and her container were made of pure gold, and from the black depths of that huge jar came the clearest water that Rylee had ever seen. It cascaded carelessly over the lip of the amphora, splashing gently into the pool below.
"You know," said the white cat from its perch, "Not too many people make it here."
"What is this place?" Rylee asked.
"How should I know? You are the one that made it up," the cat said with a grin.
"Then how do you know that nobody comes here?" Rylee asked, her eyes still locked on the fountain.
"Because this is the place that people come when they are alone. It looks different for everyone, and I must say that your taste is much better than most. Usually it is boring gray mist and fog. Dreadfully damp, and definitely not nearly as nice to smell," the cat said.
"Well what's that tell you?" Rylee asked rhetorically. "That I'm not lonely."
"Oh no my dear, we must get this straight from the start. You are. And I can prove it to you by offering you a seat," said the cat as he pointed with his tail.
For the first time since she had arrived in this place, Rylee tore her eyes away from the fountain and looked around. She quickly spotted an old, white, wooden chair like you might see at the beach or on someone's porch. But other than that, there was nowhere else to sit.
"That does not prove anything."
"You're dreaming, so it must mean something. Isn't that what you humans say?"
"Maybe some do," Rylee said, "but sometimes things just are."
The cat sighed. "I suppose you are right, but at least consider my position, will you?"
"Yes," said the cat, and suddenly it was on top of the amphora. "For you see dear girl, position matters a great deal. Up in that window I could barely see myself, but here," and the cat peered over the lip of the jar, "not only does this statue make me gold, but it makes it also makes it much easier to get water."
"Mind blowing," Rylee said.
"It is, actually." the cat said. "Just image I'm one way until I look at myself in the mirror, and then I'm completely different. Makes you wonder what you might see if you looked at yourself a little closer."
"Two things, Rylee said as she took a few steps closer to the edge of the pool. “First, am I going to have to listen to your mumbo-jumbo all night? If so, maybe you can scamper off now. Second, your image might look different, but you are still the same as you were."
"Really," said the cat as it bounded from the statue down to the bricks on the edge of the pool. But as soon as it left its place, Rylee could see that it no longer had white fur, but was now the same golden color as the statue. "What?" asked the cat as soon as it noticed Rylee looking at it.
"Are you trying to show off?" Rylee said.
"My dear, all cats show off whenever we can. It's a moral imperative and," the cat added with a sly grin, "it is quite fun."
Rylee rolled her eyes and turned away from the pool. She settled herself in the chair and waited for whatever was to come next. She liked the room, and if a snarky cat was the price she had to pay to enjoy it, she supposed she could deal. Yet no sooner had she settled down then a voice rang out. "Rylee, can I get a double?" Rylee shot up and looked around for the source. The cat, who had not spoken, watched her.
"Who's that?" Rylee called back.
"Rylee, you know me," said the voice. "You always pour my Talisker just the way I like: with just one bit of shaved ice in it, please and thank you," the voice said from the tangerine trees near her. Rylee looked harder and noticed that while the trees did have tangerines hanging off the branches, each one of the small oranges was shaped like one of her regulars. The one that was talking to her looked like Gus, a fixture at the bar since before she was born. "Now don't make me wait," tangerine-Gus said. "I've had a helluva day at work, and I just want one before I get home to Vivian."
"You only ever have one," Rylee said, as her body got up and went to fix the drink out of pure habit.
"Well, you know that she doesn't like when I drink. But that's what comes of marrying a Baptist woman. Still, life's good. It was a hard day at work, but I've got a job and a wife that love me. I just want a quick nip. Then I'm off."
But Rylee didn't have any Talisker to pour, and suddenly from the other side of the pool came a voice she recognized. It was Ms. Tyler. In real life she was a tiny black woman who had a bent back and looked like she had been beaten down by life. The only thing she ever said in her quavery voice was, "Martini. Dirty." and then she would do the cross-word. The words were still ringing in Rylee's ear, when all of her regulars and a lot of people she did not recognize started shouting drink orders at her.
"Jack and Coke!"
"Beer for me, and my friend will take a stout."
As the cacophony grew, the now golden cat watched Rylee's head swivel around as she frantically tried to block out the noise. She was turning this way and that, and then she turned her back to the cat, who moved faster than the twinkling of an eye. Suddenly he was in a tree, and no sooner had he appeared, then he leaped at Rylee, only he was white again. The cat landed on all four paws, right on the scruff of Rylee's neck. She fell over the brick and went headfirst into the pool of water.
The water was not deep and Rylee knew that when she hit bottom, it would hurt a lot. But suddenly she was watching herself fall as she clung to the tree-thing and an amphora. Her skin was golden but that was not important. What was important was the weight of the jar. It felt empty, and sure enough, just as she saw herself fall into the water, the pool's side crumbled and water gushed out. She hit her face, but it didn't hurt any worse than falling on a bed; meanwhile, the water that had been in the pool was rapidly being absorbed by the trees. The tangerine-patrons were all making sounds of delight and contentment as they ripened and fell off the trees.
For a moment Rylee didn't know what happened, and then she simply let go. She heard the large jar hit the tile below it with a crunch of porcelain. At the same time, she felt her feet land shakily in a small puddle. She looked down, and it was as if she was looking through the floor into the little room where she was sleeping. She saw herself on the bed, what she saw was skewed.
One of the few distinct memories Rylee had of her mother was when she had been six and held her mother's compact. They had been in her mother's bathroom, and she remembered turning the compact so that it faced the larger makeup mirror. It created the illusion of a layered tunnel that stretched off into infinity, but her face had grinned back at her from every level. She could even remember the glint of the golden bracelet in that tunnel as her mother took the compact from her. "Be careful, Rylee," she had said.
Now years later, she was looking at the same thing, only she was golden, and she knew without knowing that each one of the women she was looking at was not just her reflection. They were a projection of herself in the future. One endless descent until she couldn't even see where or what she was, other than alone. Then her mother's voice, which seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere echoed through her saying "be bold."
Light poured in through the window in the little bedroom, and Rylee woke with a start. The white cat was there, perched on the end of her bed like a sentinel. "Still here?" she asked. The cat gave her a wary look and then jumped from the bed down to the empty plate and let out a yowl.
"Alright. Alright. I'm coming," Rylee said, dismayed to see that she had fallen asleep in her clothing. She got up, and went to find both herself and the cat breakfast. As she poured milk into a bowl she decided to keep the cat. Later that day she went to get a litter box and all the things she would need to keep him. Driving back to the bar and lost in thought, Rylee couldn't escape the feeling that something important was slipping away. Yet she could not think of what it could be.
The light turned red and Rylee stopped her car. Suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, something caught her attention. Turning her head, she saw a battered pickup truck that had two tangerine trees in the bed. On the side of the truck was a decal of a roman goddess wearing a golden bracelet on her arm and watering plants out of an amphora. The truck itself was parked under an old billboard that looked like it had not been changed in years and was advertising Blackberry phones with the slogan "Be Bold." Her brain instantly jumped at the phrase, but before the idea could catch, the light turn green and she rolled away.
Rylee went back to the bar, and found all of her regulars. She saw both Gus and Ms. Tyler, but she didn't stop to talk. For some reason they both looked orange to her, and she had no desire to be near them; however, she suddenly wanted to be around other people. Mulling that over, she ran to the back, collected the cat, and without so much as a word she left again. The cat looked distinctly disgruntled as she forced it into a carrier, and it hissed at her when she put the carrier in her car. She hurried around to the driver side and got in, and then looked down to make sure the cat was ok. Its golden eyes looked back at her balefully, but Rylee smiled back and said, "Don’t worry. We're going to have an adventure."