Title- Please, Pretty Lights
By- Ina Zajac
It’s September when Via Sorenson stumbles into a Seattle strip club, drunk and alone on her twenty-first birthday. Mattias and Nick—best friends, bandmates, and bouncers—can see she’s not like the other girls and do their best to shield her from their shady, sadistic, cocaine-trafficking boss, Carlos. They don’t realize her daddy issues come with a forty-million-dollar trust fund and a legacy she would do anything to escape.
She is actually the adult version of Violetta Rabbotino, the tragic little girl who had been all over the news ten years earlier when her father, an acclaimed abstract artist, came home in a rage, murdered her mother, then turned the gun on himself. Violetta was spared, hidden behind the family Christmas tree, veiled by the mysticism of its pretty lights whose unadulterated love had captivated and calmed her.
Now, desperate to shed her role as orphaned victim, Via is attempting to recast herself as a party girl by stage diving into a one-hundred-day adventure with Matt and Nick, the bassist and drummer of popular nineties cover band Obliviot. At first the rock-and-roll lifestyle is the perfect distraction. She gets high on true love, but the rush terrifies her. As Christmas looms closer, she can no longer deny her demented past. But how will she ever untangle herself from her twisted string of pretty lights?
Warning: Recommended for mature audiences due to explicit language, sexual content, and drug use.
SoHo, New York City, December 21, 2004
Back to the wall, Via shuffled through the candy cane wilderness, careful not to displace piles of presents or disturb crystal angels. It was so close. Branches prickled against her chin and neck as she stretched into the corner. Needles latched onto her green St. Anne Elementary School sweater. After months of waiting and wondering, there it was—white with a gold bow. She reached out. Her fingertips grazed the paper, the tag. It would have her name on it.
“No peeking,” her mother called from the kitchen. “Cookies are almost ready. Come and help.”
Guilt settled in and crowded out her naughty curiosity. Mama’s feathery voice lingered in the air, and mingled with the smell of gingersnaps.
The front door slammed shut. Her body tensed against the wall as it recognized the rumble of her father’s approach. Her arm retreated to the safety of her side. The hardwood floor vibrated his location in the foyer. He wasn’t supposed to be home from the country yet. He needed his rest.
“Ingrid!” he yelled. “Violetta!”
He called her Violetta when he was angry. When he was happy, he said she was the heartbeat of the universe. Now that she was eleven, she wasn’t a little kid anymore, but she still called him Daddy. He made her promise she would always call him Daddy.
His voice was muffled. The floor was still. He must have stopped to check the front bedrooms, but for how long? That tummy pain was back, the one that burned from the inside out; the one Dr. Peyton said fifth graders shouldn’t have. Being the daughter of Joseph Antonio Rabbotino wasn’t easy. Kids at school called her Rabbit and were never allowed to come over and play. The floor trembled more and more. He must be standing nearby, maybe next to the piano, she thought. She couldn’t see past the tree’s festive colors, and prayed he couldn’t either. She had promised to be a good girl.
Her mother’s voice rushed over from the kitchen. It was shrill. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Put that down. You’re not yourself right now.”
Put what down? She wondered. Sometimes he brought home presents or pets.
“You think I’m crazy?” He let out a harsh laugh she had never heard before. “You think you can drug me and leave me in Connecticut to rot?”
A bell near her elbow began to jingle. Don’t be a spaz, she told herself. She had to stop shaking; she just had to. Being invisible meant being silent, so she leaned to the right and smothered it. Her other arm met up with something pointy.
“But, you wanted to go, remember?” Her mother was talking really fast. “Dr. Goldman said you should rest, give the new meds some time.”
Daddy had a lot of doctors. Daddy took a lot of pills.
“I know what you think of me,” he said. “That the critics are right. That I’ll never paint again.”
“It’s okay, it’s all going to be okay,” her mother insisted. “But you’ve been drinking. We’ve gotten through this before. Remember?”
“Why do you do this to me?” he asked. “Evil little actress. Acting like you love me.”
“I do. You know I do.”
“Please, put that down. We’ll call Dr. Goldman.”
“You sent me away. Do you know what it was like there? Knowing you betrayed me? All you had to do was love me, but you’ve ruined me!”
“No, you wanted to go. You needed to rest. Please remember. Please.”
“Where’s my Violetta?”
“Still at school.”
“She should be home by now—home with us. We should be together now. She hiding under her bed again?” His words turned and trailed back toward the front bedrooms. “Violetta! Come when I call you!”
“Mama?” She called through the branches.
Her mother didn’t seem surprised at all to hear her. “Shh,” she said, faint but firm. It was not her normal ‘shh.’ Something was wrong.
Her father’s voice was already growing louder again. “Violetta!”
“I’m right here,” she tried to say. She decided that she would come out; then he would be angry with her, not her mother. But, a strange sound surrounded her, like baby birds and chimes. It seemed to come through the Christmas tree lights. She blinked. They were such pretty lights—colors she had never seen before. Buzzing into a haze around her, they were mesmerizing.
Shh, it’s all okay, the lights told her, but not in words.
She felt their meaning in her teeth and bones.
Come and play with us, they urged. Come play pretend.
They flurried about. She tried to speak, but they settled against her tongue like candy-coated snow. They loved her. She watched them spin and shine and gleam and glow. They were everything she needed in that moment, and so she relaxed into the soft aura of Christmas.
Her mother was screaming, “She’s not here! She’s not here!”
The purest colors were born and danced within reflections of those who had come before. You’re not here, they echoed. You’re with us. They snuggled in and tucked themselves around her. Be still, they insisted. This isn’t real. She knew they were right. Nothing was real. She was everywhere and nowhere at all, safe between worlds. Her mother’s golden wall clock started to ding its hourly announcement—once, twice.
“You did this,” her father said.
A third ding.
“You made me do this.”
Mama’s voice fluttered. “Remember who you are.”
A loud noise exploded throughout the apartment. Ornaments rattled and slipped from their homes, and Via with them. Her hands came up to cover her ears, but his voice soon rode the wave of ringing and broke on through.
“Why?” he cried. “Why did you make me do this?”
Another explosion ripped away the space around her. She sank down overcome by the bells ringing around her. Why? Why were the bells so loud? It was a gun, she realized. The sound vibrating through her was gunfire. Her shoulder came to rest against the edge of the big box—white with a gold bow. Air came into her lungs in notches, each tighter than the last. She didn’t know what to do. Her trembling hand grasped a branch with a candy cane hanging from it. She began to pull it back.
Don’t look, the pretty lights urged her. It’s not real. It’s not her.
But it was too late. She had already peered past the angels—and through to the other side.
Mouth open, heart lost, she released the branch and it sprang back into place. Its candy cane held strong. The pretty lights spoke no more, but hummed and tingled. The murmur of their adoration grew faint and she began to panic. She curled up into herself, tight and small, desperate to disappear back into their protection.
“Please, pretty lights. Please don’t go.”
She blinked and the lights were just lights. The floors roared. New voices overtook the fading bells. People were yelling. People were coming. An alarm shrieked overhead. The taste of gingersnap dust burnt through the air.
“Please, pretty lights,” she called out again, even though she knew they were gone.
Via leaned against the side of the 7-Eleven and pounded her third mini bottle of chardonnay. After leaving the Space Needle, she had walked around the same block three times, past that same Pink Elephant Car Wash, three times. She couldn’t find her car to save her life, which was proof she had no business behind the wheel anyway. She had called a cab company, but they could only take her as far as the West Seattle ferry terminal. If she were to walk onto the ferry, she would have to go to the upper deck and just knew she would run into people from church. And she didn’t want to go home anyway. Her chest felt toasty warm.
She scarfed down her last mini powdered donut and threw away the wrapper. It was a sign, an actual, literal sign. In the next parking lot over, the Hotties marquee changed colors for the two-hundredth time—hot pink to purple to white, and then red, red, red, and then hot pink to purple to white. The letters flashed, “Gallery Night. She’s a Masterpiece. Amateur Night. Win $750.”
She had nowhere else to be. Screw it. Why not? Before she’d started dating Dan, she and her college roommates had often gone dancing at the Blue Tonic, a bar just over the Canadian border where the drinking age was just nineteen. Its big dance floor had two dancing platforms, each surrounded by a gilded cage awash in spotlights. Toward the end of the night, the bouncers invited a few girls to go inside and dance a song or two. Ceremoniously opening the side doors, the bouncers escorted the chosen ones inside. There was no lock. The bars were wide enough that the girls could climb out at any time. Via had gone in often and never gotten out early—not once. Drinks could wait, her bladder could wait, flirting could wait. A fire alarm could wait, because her time there had felt precious and fleeting, and her soul had wanted to stay and dance forever. Rarely making eye contact with the men watching her, she’d felt their lustful stares. She had fed on their energy and lit up from the inside out.
This is how it is supposed to be, she had realized, lost in the lights. Her opera-obsessed parents had chosen this life for her the day they had chosen the name Violetta over Brunhilde. The day they had chosen Verde over Wagner. They could have named her after a Norse warrior woman who rode a flying horse and kicked ass, but instead they’d chosen an Italian slut who coughed blood into a hanky. She could have gone by Hilde or Hil. Maybe she could have been brave. A badass.
The Hotties sign drew her in even more. The flashing neon began to morph, then hum and buzz. She blinked. Wait, she realized. Wait, she knew those lights. Their unadulterated love blazed toward her. They danced and shimmered just for her. They vibrated their epiphany. Pretend, pretend, they urged. Don’t you remember? The recollection teased her, but retreated before she could fully recognize it. Instead she softened her focus, and let them blur and buzz and snap her into a new state of being.
She tucked her last mini bottle into her purse for later. While crossing over into the Hotties parking lot she tripped, but caught herself. She just laughed it off, too wasted to care. Should she take her mother’s ring off? She wondered. No, it would be safest right where it was. She skimmed her thumb back and forth over it for luck, for courage. She didn’t let herself pause at the tinted double doors for fear she would change her mind. Just one night dancing. Lost under the lights. She couldn’t stand being alone with herself, so she would just be somebody else. Just for the night.
COMFORT EAGLE (Cake)
*ENTER SANDMAN (Metallica)
NICE GUYS FINISH LAST (Green Day)
SKILLS TO PAY THE BILLS (Beastie Boys)
*STIR IT UP (Bob Marley)
*I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW (Jimmy Cliff)
*ISLAND IN THE SUN (Weezer)
*ROCK-AND-ROLL LIFESTYLE (Cake)
*ALL THE SMALL THINGS (Blink 182)
BAD FISH (Sublime)
SUCK YOU DRY (Mudhoney)
GOTTA GET AWAY (The Offspring)
*THE NATIONAL ANTHEM (Radiohead)
*EVERLONG (Foo Fighters)
* ROYAL OIL (Mighty Might Bosstones)
*SONG FOR THE DEAD (Queens of the Stone Age)
*MAGIC FIRE MUSIC (Richard Wagner/The Ring Without Words)
WHEN THE ANGELS SING (Social Distortion)
CORDUROY (Pearl Jam)
SONG 2 (Blur)
*WELCOME TO PARADISE (Green Day)
*SANTA MONICA (Everclear)
*STRONG ENOUGH (Sheryl Crow)
Un De Felice (Verdi)
About the Author
Ina Zajac is an award-winning journalist, avid people watcher, and lover of quirk and contrast. Her writing is heavily influenced by her fascination with music, art, and her hometown of Seattle.