We’re devoting this latest eBook column to Eric J. Guignard’s story collection, That Which Grows Wild.
In May of this year, the book won a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection. Instead of an interview, this time we asked the author to provide a story that’s not in the book, as a kind of bonus/addendum, but also to give a sample of the kind of eclectic fiction you’ll find in the full collection. Without further ado, please enjoy the melancholy, romantic apocalypse of “Carmine Lips and a Fade into Oblivion.”
“Carmine Lips and a Fade into Oblivion”
by Eric J. Guignard
At sunset Jack Queen opened the balcony’s glass door, and a spray of fine sand came in with the breeze, sprinkling across his black derby shoes and over the carpeted floor. Once there’d been housekeeping here, but no more.
Outside, the blue waves were peaceful, gentle things rolling over the beach, and in the distance the turn of the cove rose high, up into cliffs that were rocky and mysterious and dotted with tall pines. All of it—the scenery anyway—was just as he remembered when coming here in his youth.
“Melancholy much?” Ava asked, joining him.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a line of square white buildings wrapping around the shore, “I stayed for a week with friends. We rented a room that was much too small, but it was all we could afford. There was a festival, this car show and rock bands and swing dancing, all the retro nods. I could really rattle a dance hall back then.”
“Well, Daddy-O, you sound like one cool cat.”
He hadn’t smiled in a long time, not until meeting her. Now it felt normal again. “Nothing like you, kitten.”
She trailed one long finger along her bottom lip, taking a smear of carmine lipstick with it. She touched it to the tip of his nose, leaving a mark. “For you.”
She was quick. But so was he. Jack moved in for a kiss, just a peck. “For you.”
A daub of her carmine stayed on his lips. It tasted vaguely like the cherry on an old-fashioned sundae.
Ava’s giggle belonged on stage. “At this rate, you’ll be wearing more cover-up than me.”
“Who have I to impress, but you?”
“Lucky fella, you’re a mile ahead.”
He closed the glass door, drew the gold pleated drapes like the ending of a show. The room darkened.
“I feel so covert in the shadows,” she said.
“I always liked my privacy.”
“For later, then.”
“Yes.” She took his hand. She wore a ring on every other finger, each with a different gemstone: pink diamond, purple topaz, green emerald, there were more. Under the sun, her hands sparkled. “Ready?”
They left the hotel room together, went out the long cement landing to a flight of stairs, her five-inch heels clacking with each step. Besides the soft din of the sea, and the screech of a toppling metal signpost, there were no other sounds.
At the bottom of the stairs, through a cobblestoned path lined by overgrown lavender and wild sage, past the fountain of a dolphin that no longer worked, was a narrow turnabout in front of the lobby entrance. There were two cars on long-flattened tires, and Jack pointed to the first, a silver Jaguar Roadster with top down and the inside leather a pale cream, all of it speckled by the glittering of sand.
Ava nodded, approving. “It suits you.”
Jack escorted her to the passenger side, and said to the empty valet counter, “No need, Jeeves, I’ll get the door.”
Once in, she brushed back a lock of raven hair and opened a vintage Chanel clutch. Took out a compact. Looked at her reflection and flicked away a stray lash.
When Jack got in, he saw her watching through the reflection. She winked. He winked back. The clutch was still open, in her lap. It took only a passing glance to know what else it held.
“A girl can’t be too careful,” she said, returning the compact inside.
“Better to have and not need than to feed the worms. I think Tennyson said that.”
She cocked a perfect eyebrow. “Hm?”
She slapped his shoulder. Her fingers lingered there, then trailed down his arm like falling tears.
He put an old key in the ignition that didn’t fit. It didn’t matter. He forced it in as far as it would go, then he sank back into the seat, dreaming of a road.
Her hand moved to the AM radio and spun the loose chrome knob, watching the little red needle fly back and forth silently across its glass face.
Jack began to sing. “Don’t let the stars get in your eyes…”
“That ain’t half bad,” she said.
“Thanks. Choir as a kid.”
“And look where it got you now.”
“Serenading a doll.”
“You got a way, Jackie boy.”
He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a metal case. “Mind a smoke?”
She already had a lighter in hand, and lit one for them both. She leaned over, laid her head on his chest, and they were silent, sharing that last cigarette, gazing up at the sky that closed in around them in indigos and mauves while a moon slowly appeared as something between a shimmering pearl and a pool of champagne.
After some time, he sighed and flicked the glowing stub out the car, and it sailed end over end into eternity. “What do you know, we’ve arrived.”
“And not a red light on the way.”
He got out, went around, opened the passenger door for her. She took his arm, and they took their time moving past the same empty valet counter and into the lobby where sand skittered across the floor, and a cobweb draped away into shadows.
“The lounge here,” Ava said, “I heard Dean Martin once played.”
“No kidding,” Jack said
“The things a girl knows. Allow me to order?”
“Surprises are the spice of life.”
“More than ever.”
The doors to the lounge had been fastened open, and they went inside. It was empty, but for them, with a dance floor that was intimate and painted to show the silhouette of a jazz ensemble. Tables-for-two circled around, and Jack chose one in the center, where a glass skylight arched over, and a line of chandeliers cut across.
Ava went behind the bar, mixed them each a Whiskey Smash from bottles that still lined the dusty shelves.
“We’re the last two people in the world, kiddo. Make ’em strong,” he said.
“We don’t know that.”
“The last two people around here, at least. It’s too late to find anyone else.”
She met him at the table and set down matching highballs. “Button those lips, baby. The subject’s sore, after all.”
He looked her in the eyes. “You’re right. And you’re beautiful.”
She touched the lipstick smear on the tip of his nose. “You’ve still got my color.”
“I’m keeping it. For luck.”
“It’s all coming your way then.” She opened her clutch and pulled out a small plastic bottle. It was filled with colorless pills. She set it on the table inbetween their drinks. The end of the world, or a little sooner, otherwise…
He eyed it, then looked away. That smile, he couldn’t help it—it came back.
She said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
His hand reached out to touch the plastic bottle, then changed course. He instead lifted a glass, and she did too. “Cheers to the years.”
“Wish there’d be more,” she said quietly.
They drank, and he took her hand, swirling one finger around her smooth palm. “A dance?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
They stood and moved to each other, and his arms went around the small of her back, and her arms draped around his neck. He nodded at the bottle on the table. “How long? I mean, once—”
“An hour, maybe two, if we’re lucky. After that there’ll be nothing left of us to find.”
“Good thing I feel lucky tonight,” and he tapped the tip of his nose.
He gave her a little twirl, and then half-stepped to the side, and she came back and stepped with him, their legs intertwining, and he nuzzled under her ear, and she held him tighter.
“All this sand,” Jack said. “The dust that remains of a mountain. The Earth, our lives, everything comes to an end.”
“Sing me a song, and make it sweet,” she whispered.
“Don’t let the stars get in your eyes—”
In the distance came the terrible roar, searching, nearing… Even as far as they were, the room trembled. The chandeliers swayed. They might have been on a ship cresting a wave.
“It’s a ways off, yet,” Jack said.
“An hour, maybe two,” Ava replied. “If we’re lucky.”
“Timing, ain’t it?”
“Serendipitous, at the least.” She pulled him back to the table. “Better for us than the others.”
She returned to the bar and poured another round, then they took the drinks and the pills, and he took her hand, and they left the lounge, the lobby, the dead silver Jaguar behind, and went back up the stairs to the room where the drapes were already pulled closed.
“I heard it’s a thing to see,” Jack said, “when it reaches us in the end.”
“Shh, the subject is sore.”
So Jack instead vowed to take off the rest of her lipstick without using his hands, and Ava giggled, and another roar came, louder and nearer, and they rode it out in each others’ arms for that last hour or two, until it was all done.
We hope you enjoyed the free story. Check out the full collection at Cemetery Dance, or visit your favorite online retailer.
Norman Prentiss is Editor, Electronic Books Division with Cemetery Dance Publications. He won a Bram Stoker Award for his first book, Invisible Fences. Recent books include Odd Adventures with your Other Father, Life in a Haunted House, and The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar.