Madhur hesitated in the doorway of the bar. No sign on the outside other than a weathered metal plaque set at eye level to the right of the door. It showed a complicated red knot on a chipped white background.
This was dangerous territory but it was also anonymity, a place where no one would be looking at her flags. The privacy field inside kept all such information unavailable.
Someone was coming up behind her and there was nothing to prevent them reading her right now, so she gave the metal knob a twist and pulled it toward her to slip inside.
First impressions: booze-scented brown darkness broken by a single strand of red and green Christmas lights, tables centered in pools of yellow light from overhead lamps, constructions of spiderwire and sickly glow crystals. Along the back wall, a photo mural tried to provide the illusion of looking out onto a great deal seascape from a high cliff, but stains and a few tears made the illusion ineffectual. Underfoot, plas-crete, worn and a little slippery. A dim jukebox pulsing out a watery rendition of â€œIâ€™ll be Home for the Holidays.â€
The air smelled of sweat and alcohol and here and there a whiff of cologne or perfume. The inhabitants were varied â€“ even a few nonhumans and mechanicals, but most shared a uniform dispirited look, a slump to their shoulders that made them seem aged and discouraged. Many nursed drinks, but three teenagers lounged at a back pool table, talking trash talk to each other as the balls clacked defiantly against each other.
This morning on the train into the city, sheâ€™d looked out the window and seen three young deer, springborn, now nearing fall adolescence, playing with each other by the side of highway running parallel to the track. They darted back and forth; one reared, sharp little hooves flicking out in play, catch me if you can, full of fearless stupidity and no thought for the cars rushing past so close to their play.
Then they were gone, and the landscape kept flickering as she tried to ignore the porterâ€™s stare.
She chose one of the few empty tables, close to the wall, sliding into a wobbly seat, touching a faded video display, freckled with dissipated pixels, alight, tabbing through the choices, contemplating beer and onion rings. Her mouth watered at the thought not just of the greasy food, but the sensation of being unlooked at â€“
— then someone sliding into the seat across from her, a woman perhaps two or three decades senior, face unfrozen by the conventional anti-aging techniques, but instead wearing tattoos across forearms and cheeks, purple streaks almost as faded as the menu.
Alarm blared against her nerves, but she refused to let her breath quicken or her tone be anything but bland. â€œThanks, but Iâ€™m not looking for company.â€
â€œNeither am I if bedplayâ€™s what you mean,â€ the woman said sharply. Her hair was a silver Mohawk, tipped with blue along the six-inch strands that stood up like a parrotâ€™s crest. She looked strong, was Madhurâ€™s first thought, like some sort of warrior goddess cum blacksmith or stevedore.
â€œI just want conversation,â€ the woman said, â€œand any man I talk to is going to think Iâ€™m trying to pick him up, even if I lead with a denial of that. Humor an old broad and entertain me this evening. Unless you really do want to be by yourself, in which case Iâ€™ll slide off and leave you alone.â€
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