Alex stops at the first motel he comes across, a shabby building complex seven blocks from the bus station. The clerk behind the front desk says not a single word to him as he checks in; takes long drags of a thick cigar and thrusts a list of room prices under Alex’s nose. It’s dirt cheap and Alex is not required to present ID. He hands the clerk enough money to keep the cheapest room for a week and is gifted an old, rusting key in return.
The room houses a rickety bed with stained sheets and mismatched furniture, the bathroom black with mold. Alex doesn’t bother unpacking his things—they are too few for there to be any point. Instead, he withdraws a handful of money from his duffel bag, pockets it along with his room key and exits the motel.
Alex knows how it works by now, getting by in the big cities, and the first thing he does is find a bar. A dive bar, ill-reputed like the motel, so they won’t ask any questions. Places like that are always run by the same kind of guy—fat, balding, angry at the world for their misfortune. Alex works them with an expertise he isn’t proud of, gambles on the fact that someone else has blown off their shift and pretends he’s their replacement. It works, inevitably, and if he’s lucky he can play it several days in a row and pay off his motel bills night by night.
Searching all the while for something to tether him somewhere, finally.
The person behind the first bar he tries is a woman.
She has dark hair and darker eyes, her lips the colour of sweetheart cherries. Caramel-skinned and slender, she draws the attention of every patron slumped in their stools at the bar. Her gaze, when it falls on him, is razor sharp. It makes speaking difficult and he takes ten seconds to order a soda.
The woman smirks, mocking, but nods. She drops a cluster of ice cubes into a tall glass. “If you didn’t come for the booze,” she remarks, raising an eyebrow in his direction, “why did you come?”
Alex shrugs, nervously. “Company, I guess.”
In truth, it’s only half a lie. He’s been lonely for far too long.
She tilts her head towards the line of leering men. “This lot aren’t great for that unless you’re sporting two x chromosomes.”
“Most definitely are.”
Alex blushes and sips at his drink to cool the redness from his skin as the woman laughs; a rich, warm sound that slips down his spine like an ember to an oil slick. He cannot help but stare at the way that mirth curves her mouth into a crescent moon stained scarlet.
“You know what I mean,” Alex mumbles, smiling himself. It exercises muscles stiff from lack of use.
“I do,” she concedes. The corners of her eyes crinkle as her lips quirk, her expression playful. “I’d be happy to keep you company.”
Alex knows that he should leave—find a different bar and make enough money to cover the cost of his motel room for the night. It would be the smart thing to do. The logical thing.
“So,” he grins, leaning closer, “what’s your name?”
She makes him guess.
An hour passes with Alex trying to wheedle it out of her between wild shots in the dark—Emma, Lori, Katya, Iris?—but she won’t let up, gifts him free beer in place of clues. His every guess is met with a twist of those dark cherry lips and a headshake until it gets to a point where Alex is sure that she must be lying, that he must have had it right long ago and she’s playing with him for her own amusement. His guesses become increasingly ludicrous; the names of Greek goddesses, Biblical figures, characters from children’s novels.
“Nobody in the real world is called Hermione,” she laughs, popping the cap from a new bottle and pressing it into his hand. The bar is empty now, the other men long gone. Alex had been subject to the angry furrow of their brows upon their exit; green-eyed and bitter with it, they had shuffled out the door like surly children.
Alex considers her over a sip of beer. “Nymphadora, then.”
She shakes her head, grinning. “You’re never going to get it. It’s hopeless.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
There is a weight to Alex’s words that the woman does not miss. Their gazes hook into each other. Alex can feel every part of his body with vivid precision: the shutter-snap beat of his heart, the wet coldness of his palms around the bottle. He longs to reach out and fill his hands with her warmth, to line his lips with it. To touch the scarlet shimmer of her own.
“I’ll make you a deal.” Her voice is a low husk, a bass note that makes the air quiver. “You beat the shot challenge and I’ll tell you.”
“It’s an old tradition. I mix a measure of every liqueur behind the bar into a pint glass and if you can drink it in less than ten seconds, you win.”
“The admiration of your fellow patrons?”
Alex rolls his eyes. “Nobody seriously tries that.”
She gestures to a mural of polaroid photographs pinned up behind the bar, in which people in varying stages of collapse clutch a small, golden cup. Alex blinks.
“How bad do you want to know my name?”
Alex manages three swallows before the fire that ignites in his belly threatens to empty its contents on his shoes. She cheers him on, bangs her fists on the bar and chants her encouragement. She has the polaroid camera ready in the event of his victory but Alex slams the glass down and shakes his head, taking in great gulps of air.
“That,” she remarks, “was terrible.”
Alex coughs. “You’re telling me.”
“Don’t be such a baby.”
“It tastes awful.”
“Is that so?”
She hops onto the bar top; slithers over it to stand by Alex’s side. Her hand rises to cup his jaw. Alex can feel her breath on his neck. She kisses him. Alex’s first thought is warm, so fucking warm, and he pulls her body closer. She tastes like cherries, sweet and sharp on his tongue, and Alex’s second thought is fractured into fragments he finds hard to follow; yes and home and this and finally.
A camera flash startles him into pulling away. She presses the polaroid into his hands and then wipes at the smudged line of her mouth. “You were right,” she laughs, “that did taste pretty bad.”
Alex stays awake to watch her sleep until dawn breaks and bleeds red ribbons across the sky. She is curled into herself on her side, facing him, their legs tangled beneath the sheets. When she wakes she will smile at him and tell him her name. He will kiss her again just because he can. This city will cease to be temporary; he will be able to leave his mark. He will be able to stop searching.
Alex falls asleep to the sound of her breathing and the even beat of his heart; he wakes to a bed empty save for a polaroid picture of fresh memory and cherry lipstick stains.
Written by Shannon Eden