She was going to kill it tomorrow. The Dalbavie flute concerto was impossible for everyone but her. She was going to kill it, and take home the woodwind scholarship, and come back next semester. Because three years into her degree, bam, her mom lost the lease on her café to a developer and declared bankruptcy and there went Tress’s tuition.
Goodbye, orchestra career. Hello, customer service career.
Side of avocado toast with that?
Well, not after tomorrow.
She rested her bucket of wet towels where she could reach it later and watched the dance floor fill. They were going to set something on fire, so they needed a safety monitor. Alight popped up in places where the last tenants had been evicted, and there was nothing like an abandoned warehouse in the industrial district for hosting an avant garde guerilla rave, but the utilities here were shut off and places like this weren’t exactly up to fire code. Plus, she wasn’t convinced Two Olives was on his game. He’d been fighting with himself in the storeroom they were using for a backstage as he filled a pie plate with twists of flash paper. He’d muttered “I said okay!” a few times, and then jumped up on the giant spool of wire the last tenant left behind so he could disable the smoke detector and light a cigarette. Tress was steering clear.
She felt the clutch of bruising fingers on her bare shoulder, followed by the hallmark of all third sets: beer spilled down her dress. “Oh, doll, did I get you?” a WWII nurse exclaimed. Her cap was coming loose from her slick curls. A pirate wench in a vinyl corset seized the nurse by the stethoscope and tugged her toward the bar.
Right. Special Night.
On a normal third Thursday, the Alight pop-up party drew a tough crowd, burners who never got caught dancing outside the playa and influencers drinking LaCroix, but tonight the house was full of tech millionaires out to prove how hard you could party in San Francisco on Halloween.
A bearded nun in Chinese opera makeup blinked pink lashes at Tress in sympathy. Tress thought she remembered tonight’s warehouse storing costume supplies before, or possibly a puppet company. Not anymore.
Two Olives was trying to start a chainsaw behind her. He kept revving it, but the engine wouldn’t tick over. The cellist vamped and chanted “Getitworkinggetitworking” while Tress set wet towels around the Styrofoam slab where they were going to sacrifice the giant papier-mâché pie. Don’t be too drunk, she begged whoever was going to be closest to the fire extinguisher on the far side of the stage. Have wits. It’s low and blow.
Then the violinist stepped out of the way, flowers jiggling in her headpiece, and there was Two Olives with those spiral contact lenses that made it impossible to tell if he was high or not, swinging the chainsaw over his head like a pole dancer and shouting “Brew! Ha! Ha!”
He stopped at the downstage center mic. Fire plumed out from somewhere. Hair spray plus a lighter made a cheap flame thrower. The trombone player gave the signal. Tress lifted her piccolo into position, inhaled across the nickel mouthpiece, and was twelve again. Knees loose, gut dropped open, cat-butt embouchure. You played the piccolo by grimacing through your teeth.
She rippled up her range until she could only hear baby notes. The loudest sound was the drums, but between beats she could still hear the clatter of bugle beads on her dress as she danced in place. Eight measures and then the spotlight lit the oversized pie on the Styrofoam slab and Two Olives sawed into it. Rockette boys catwalked through the crowd with trays of pre-cut slices and the vibraphone rolled out a fast minor melody like hail on a windshield.
The warehouse went up during the next song.
The showy part of the show was over. The band dropped into their sweet spot, bass kicking off a slow, weird When the Saints Go Marching In. Tress heard a shout when she handed off her break to the trombone with a twist of notes. Two halves of a glowworm clapped with all four hands and Tress ducked her head in a bow.
When she looked up again, Two Olives was prancing around downstage with the chainsaw. There was no chain on it, but she still didn’t like being so close when he was holding a weaponable tool. He was cute in a delinquent kind of way, but he was unpredictable and she’d hardly ever seen him sober.
As she looked he twirled on one pointy boot and something flashed on his purple zoot suit, near the jacket pocket: a writhing streak of flame, crawling toward his lapel.
She darted forward to put it out—he must not be able to feel it yet—bending down to snatch a wet towel, still looking at him, and for one startled second she was close enough to get a good look.
It was some kind of animal. A lizard.
And it was on fire.
It was about three inches long with a knobby spine made of individual white flames.It’s a projection, she thought, a laser. And she slowed, second guessing.
It snaked up Two Olives’ collar while she stood watching the pulse under its red-blue sequined scales. Its glowing eyes flickered. Its long feathered tail moved in tandem with its beaded legs. It looked like an artist’s idea of a salamander. A tiny, elaborate toy.
No, it looked like a puppet. The puppets they used to make right here.
But it was alive.
The salamander slinkied into Two Olives’ open mouth, and Tress’s stomach twisted. It’s on fire. And he’s eating it.
Two Olives reared up like a startled horse. She couldn’t see his eyes behind the party lenses, but he revved the chainsaw, whipping it around like he didn’t care what he hit, and jumped off the stage.
A cymbal crash rang out behind them. The drummer must think it was all part of the show. The cellist sawed away, jeweled lashes brushing her white and black cheeks.
The chainsaw blade was on fire now. Two Olives must have replaced the chain with something flammable. He choked the little machine down to an ominous purr and swiped the blade along the curtains under the stage as he danced into the crowd.
Dirty smoke was leaking from backstage, not dry ice fog, not any kind of smoke that belonged at a party. The stage lights turned it yellow and pink. Tress looked out at the floor. The colors were echoed in rave sticks around people’s necks and arms. Didn’t anybody realize this wasn’t stage fire anymore, it was fire fire?
The dancers looked like they were under a spell, stepping and bouncing to the beat. Oh when the saints. Go marching in.
Two Olives was at a table now. He lit a row of shot glasses on fire with one long swoop. A schoolgirl in fishnets stared openmouthed at the flames, the jewel in her tongue flashing.
I have to do something. Or we’re all going to die.
Tress’s phone was backstage. She couldn’t get to it, not with all the smoke back there. The smell added to the sweat and beer and the burning gasoline from the chainsaw. She knelt down and felt for the fire extinguisher under the stage, just in time to see it in Two Olives’ hands. He whooped and sprayed foam all over the schoolgirl’s boots until the last few wispy puffs drooped out.
If he had the fire extinguisher, then the chainsaw was unattended.
They were still on the first verse of When the Saints. Tress worked her way upstage and slapped her forearms down on the snare to get the drummer’s attention. He would know what to do. He looked dazed, then irritated, then his black-ringed eyes went huge and he scooped up all the equipment he could carry and scrambled off the stage, heaving dancers out of his way.
The chainsaw revved up again, out of sight but unmistakable.
The violinist stirred at the drummer’s escape noise, looked at Tress, and bundled herself off the stage too. Tress watched her go, feeling helpless. The trombone player had long since gone out to play on the dance floor. She couldn’t hear him. She hoped he was close to an exit. The cellist was gone too, and her cello.
Now that the band wasn’t playing anymore, the house music came back on. That was jarring. Couldn’t the sound guy see what was happening? It’s an emergency. Call the fire department, she begged silently, but sirens outside would be bad. There’d be a riot. She had no way to communicate anyway, with the stage mics muted now. Why hadn’t she thought about using them before? Right, because there’d be a riot.
Maybe a minute had gone by since the chainsaw blade caught fire. Why couldn’t the dancers smell the smoke? They were shuffling to the doofdoofdoof beat, feeling the bliss of whatever they’d taken.
She needed to do something. Fast. She couldn’t get to the sound board fast. With the back on fire, the only way out was through the front door. She looked at the ceiling, where shiny fabric was looped around the exposed pipes, and wondered if the sprinklers were working. Not likely.
She couldn’t see Two Olives anymore, but drinks flamed on all the tables against one wall, so he’d been there. She scanned the floor, looking for a phone she could borrow and distantly wondering why Two Olives had swallowed the salamander. Was he on something that made him hallucinate? Or… was she? Was the salamander—or whatever it was—looking for someone who would follow its orders?
A wall flickered where a poster was on fire. Worry about that later. An angel with neon hearts around his nipples had his phone out. Tress jumped off the stage and yelled in his ear, “There’s a fire! Call 911!” Pointed to the poster. Fear bloomed on his sweaty face. He poked his screen. She held her breath.
He shook his head and showed her the NO SIGNAL message. There was probably a block on tonight, to keep wasted people from sending out live feeds of whatever laws they were breaking in the port-a-potties. But no emergency service? Now would be a good time for the cops to shut down this outlaw party.
She seized the bucket off the stage and shoved it at the angel, yelling for him to use the towels, not sure if he could hear her over the thumping music. He nodded, wide-eyed, grabbed two towels and held out one to the gymnast beside him.
The gymnast kept dancing.
Tress jabbed the gymnast with her piccolo. He snapped out of his trance and she steered them both toward the wall posters, hoping they wouldn’t panic.
She turned to face the crown, then realised: she’d poked the gymnast with her piccolo. What an idiot. She knew better than to put her instrument in harm’s way.
But maybe she could use it.
She stepped onto the low stage and stood in front of the muted microphones. She lifted the piccolo to her mouth and zipped up the D major scale as loudly as she could. She played the fastest six seconds of the Dalbavie.
She looked out. No reaction. Of course, nobody could hear her over the thumping music. The angel and the gymnast were shaking people, pointing, but something was off. They couldn’t get anyone’s attention. The dancers just kept dancing.
She waved her arms, gesturing toward the exit like an airport ground control worker. “Go, you morons! Get out of here!” Yelling was no use, but she yelled anyway.
Then the music got quieter and rushed voice came over the PA. “Attention, please, emergency, everyone go to the doors!” Crackle, pause. “Hurry!”
The sound guy must have smelled the smoke, or maybe someone in the band had gotten his attention. Not helpful, sound guy. Here comes that riot.
But the crowd kept dancing. Like they were tranced, brainwashed, indoctrinated—
Inspiration. Flutes were war instruments, she’d heard somewhere. They’d used fifes on the battlefield. She was armed. She had been all along.
She blew out short notes, rough and loud, steady rhythm, dragged in a smoky breath and blew again. The piccolo screamed like a police whistle. Good. She wanted the dancers to move in an orderly fashion, not lose their minds and stampede. Eight beats. She tried for a heartbeat tempo. She couldn’t hear the house music anymore. The sound guy must have turned it all the way off. She heard a cough, a stifled wail, the rumble of the generator.
She needed drums, but the drummer was long gone. She’d have to be the percussion section. She stamped her feet in their awful shoes, set the beat, and a few dancers started marching with her.
She jumped off the stage in between notes and started toward the exit. Dancers shuffled in place and made her an aisle. Sixteen heartbeats. She felt them behind her, moving in rhythm. Good. She couldn’t tell if the crowd was still in a trance, but if they were with her that was enough.
There was a bottleneck at the main door, where you entered single file to pay. That was going to be a problem. But the only other way out was through the back, and the back was on fire.
She was the Pied Piper, leading the crowd. She was sweaty and lightheaded, and had to force herself to keep breathing in and blowing out over the mouthpiece.
She reached the curtained doorway at the entrance. This was it. Almost there. She turned to see the partiers surging behind her. Wide awake now. Ready to burst forward. Ready to trample her.
She started to push the curtain aside, but just then Two Olives stepped through it.
He blocked the whole doorway. There was just enough room for the two of them between the crowd and the curtain. His torso almost bumped hers.
Once, she might have been interested in getting chest to chest with messy-haired Two Olives. Not now.
The chainsaw was gone, but Tress didn’t doubt he could still light something on fire. His skin looked tight and crackly. Flames licked the seams on his jacket. His hair was singed and a cinder dropped onto his striped lapel, leaving a smoking hole in the fabric.
He leaned in the narrow doorway, shoulder against the frame. His body looked relaxed but his face was hard. The contact lenses were gone.
He opened his mouth. Tress’s stomach swirled as she waited for the salamander to crawl out. But he puckered his chapped lips and blew, and a gumball of fire shot up. Close to the dusty curtain. Way too close.
People were rustling and starting to shout, but Two Olives’ soft voice cut through. “Hey chica.”
“Let us out, T.O.” Tress’s voice sounded too loud in her ears. All bravado.
Two Olives leaned down, reached out a finger to flick the beads at the low neckline of her dress. He didn’t have to reach far. “How about a kiss?”
Someone behind Tress gave a sharp inhale. Two Olives’ face was close to hers. She felt the heat coming from him, smelled burning cloth. He hadn’t gotten burned from the inside, somehow. But if he touched her, her burns would be terrible.
She glanced back at the crowd behind her, all zombie makeup and sparkly wigs and the white eyes of panicked horses. A park ranger urged “Do it.” People were shoving. Coughing.
She didn’t have a choice. She’d held back the horde until now, but the real panic was about to start. “Just let us out, okay?” she said.
“I’m kissing a death’s head, y’all.” Most of Two Olives’ makeup had melted, but the skin around his eyes was still black. “Two skulls, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
“You’ll let us by?” Please be calling 911, she begged whoever was outside. Somebody had to be outside.
“Yeah.” His voice sounded thick. Hungry.
She moved closer. One step and they were touching. She felt the flame in his mouth. The piccolo still in her hand, useless now, useless tomorrow.
She heard crackling as his burning lips touched hers, but she didn’t feel anything.
Two Olives gripped the back of her head with one hand and held the curtain open with the other. People streamed past them. It lasted a long time. Four heartbeats. Eight. She stopped counting. Partiers smashed her and Two Olives against the wall on their way outside.
She was the last one out. Beautiful, beautiful fire trucks sat outside, blinking in the dark street. People huddled together or sloped away in twos and threes, looking back, telling each other what happened.
She didn’t see Two Olives. I should look for the band, she thought. But she couldn’t feel her legs, couldn’t feel her hands. Is my piccolo still here? Audition day tomorrow.
Her vision filled with darkness, and she realized she was sitting on the curb with a firefighter standing over her. “Honey, you okay? Oh, no, you’re not. Your face. Your mouth.”
The firefighter turned to give an order into her shoulder radio. And then Tress was in a swarm of face masks and latex gloves. And then the pain hit.
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