Part OneIn the mirror’s glassy surface, I watch detachedly—almost disembodied—as a familiar hand applies makeup on my face.
The foundation is thick and matte. Powder goes on like dust from a flaking cake that shimmers on skin as the brush caresses cheeks, forehead, nose, neck, and breasts.
Lipstick, for color. Red. Fire-engine bright. Slathered on in a pretty, painted smile, it reminds me of a clown. Or a corpse.
I hear someone call for me. It’s time. Time to get up. To go. To rise.
A tear slides down my cheek, ruining all my work, causing the paint to smear.
All except that smile.
My smile is—as always—perfect.
“I can’t believe this!”
I look up from my desk, hearing the crinkle of newspaper beside me.
“I cannot believe this!” My brother’s voice booms again, snapping the paper open. I roll my eyes and look at Keith. “Look at this, Cady, just look at this!” He waves the paper at me. “The governor’s priest—Father Whatshisname—just came out of the closet today in the Sunday paper. The front page!”
I finish the email I’m typing to some campaign contributors, thanking them for attending last night’s event before turning to him. “A priest came out as gay?” I brush my blond bangs out of my eyes before leaning back in my office swivel chair, wondering why Keith cares so much.
“Not gay.” Keith scoffs. “I wish. We could have spun that to our advantage.” He sits on the corner of my desk, making me move my mug before it spills coffee all over my keyboard. I take a sip as I see thoughts—campaign plots and strategies—churn in his intense gaze. “No, he came out as a member of,” he pauses to shake his head before saying through gritted teeth, “that club.”
I stop, perking right up—choking on the coffee I’d just sipped. I sit back with a squeak as I sputter and cough. “Donovan’s?”
It’s the governor’s latest endeavor to clean up the city. After struggling with his war against drugs, Governor Jacob Reynolds realized that, if he’s going to be re-elected next term, he needs a war he could win.
So he’s aimed his sights on Donovan’s. Kink clubs. Dungeons. Bath houses. And sex workers. It’s the latest craze for politics. Publicly shutting these organizations down—with lots of cameras and media present to document, of course—works as an instant way to boost voter morale and an official’s lagging approval rating. And, let’s face it, they’re easy targets. Nothing excites religious conservative voters quite like a sex scandal happening right under their noses.
So Governor Reynolds and his entire staff jumped on the bandwagon.
I gaze at Keith over my mug as I take a deep swig and think, some had leapt more enthusiastically than others.
I’ve always considered myself a conservative, ever since eighth grade civics. I believe in fiscal responsibility and slow and steady change. And I believe that, unless it’s broken, there are parts of a person’s life where government just doesn’t belong.
I firmly believe in the politics—lower taxes and giving more power back to the state governments—that had built Jacob Reynolds’s first campaign, when he was just an up-and-comer in the republican party. I’d volunteered and interned and eventually got hired to work on his campaign on those promises.
And then the political sphere shifted. Tom Rosen, a celebrity tycoon with a flair for drama and presidential aspirations, changed the world. Suddenly, the nuance of tax code and financial reform got outshined by border walls and birth control rights. The rhetoric against the strain of overspending and the choke holds of regulation were replaced with rants about the evils of immigration and vice. Instead of debating the points of political rivals, suddenly we were debating the rights of those deemed the undesirables.
It shouldn't have been possible. A man who made more than half the country his enemy—women, minorities, the LGBTQIA+ community, immigrants, liberals, and even conservatives who refuse to get in line—shouldn't be able to become the next president of the United States. His promises to “make America Rise Again,” like some callback to Confederacy days, should have fallen on deaf ears. The American people should have known—should have learned from our past—that in order to truly rise as a nation, we cannot be content to leave our own people, whatever their race, religion, gender, or orientation, behind. A man who would sell the soul of our country, that had been won with the blood, sweat, and tears of those before him, should never have been elected to lead.
And yet it happened.
Right before my eyes.
And, suddenly, I wasn’t the same kind of conservative that Governor Reynolds and the rest of the party had become. Or that Keith had slowly morphed into. Or even like our working-class, rural, Protestant parents want me to be.
The Risen. That’s what Rosen’s followers call themselves and what those in the party are expected to be. Deifying him into some figure who could do no wrong, no matter how outrageous, unconstitutional, or unconscionable his words or actions. How this self-righteous, alpha-male, might-makes-right, nationalistic sideshow became the focus—the face—of political conservatism, I’ll never understand. But somehow they—along with a good amount of fear-filled disinformation and flat-out ignorance—had taken over the party, casting the entire conservative stance as caricatures and endless fodder for late night comedy shows.
“Donovan’s,” Keith grumbles, tossing the paper aside. I stare as it lands on my tidy desk between us. “We’ll get them—they’ll eventually slip—but this,” he says with a sweeping gesture over the newsprint story, “looks bad for us.”
Yes, it did. Reynolds had won on the merits of a campaign touting faith-based civic service. If his religious advisor had been part of the big, bad enemy all this time, what did that say about the state of faith in his flock?
“Listen to this.” Keith picks up the paper again. “ ‘When asked why he felt the need to announce this now, Father Nicholas Bailey of Anointed Assumption Church said, “This issue is being framed in terms of lust and lasciviousness, of squalor and sin. But, in my three years as a member of this establishment, I’ve seen sinners find salvation, of a sort. I’ve seen the lost become found. And I’ve seen couples—often lost in mistrust or mired in the grind of modern life—find love again. These are gifts given. These are miracles witnessed. My faith tells me that God places upon us the sweet demands of love, so that we may find happiness by responding to them.” With unshaken faith, Father Bailey has no plans to leave Anointed Assumption.’ ” Keith balks, his hazel eyes—so like her own, usually kind with a sheen of undeniable intelligence—bugged. “Can you believe this guy? Using religion to defend this whorehouse?!”
“It’s not a whorehouse.” I nearly groan, knowing that was the absolutely wrong thing to say as soon as it’d been said.
“We can’t prove that it is,” Keith insists, “not according to the letter of the law as it’s written today, but it’s only a matter of time.” He rolls his eyes dramatically—his whole head and shoulders getting in on it. “Men pay to get into this club to engage in sex acts of…” he shakes his head as his lip curls in disgust, “all kinds. If that’s not prostitution—sex trafficking, even—of some sort, I don’t know what is.”
Except that the men—and women—paying to get into Donovan’s aren’t paying to have sex, not that I really see what the big deal would be, if they were—so long as everything’s consensual. But, at Donovan’s, the patrons are paying to get into a club where, yes, nights often end with consensual people having consensual sex exchanging nothing more than mutual pleasure. Which happens at nearly every club and bar anywhere.
Which is why the governor is having such trouble shutting Donovan’s down.
They aren’t doing anything illegal, whatever your stance on the morality of it.
And, believe me, I would know.
I grab my phone from my desk when it dings, my fingers and palm spread over the screen.
I stare at the screen. I should have shut off notifications. At least on this app. But then I’d have missed this message.
See you tonight after the show, right?
I suppress a smile. Hallie. Clutching the phone tight in my hands, making sure that the screen isn’t visible by anyone but me, I click on the kinky social media app many of Donovan’s members use and type Absolutely! back.
Good. Just be warned, zombie girl: I bite back.
I’m counting on it. I slide my phone back into my bag.
“Who was that?”
I blink. I’d forgotten Keith was still here. I shrug. “No one. Just a friend.” The words feel awful in my mouth. Hallie is so much more than that. But Keith wouldn’t understand. Maybe he would have—would have at least tried—a few years ago. But now…
I’m not sure anymore. He feels different now. The world feels different now. There was a time where I’d have laid my life on the fact that family meant more to my brother—to my parents—than anything else. That, for me, for my happiness, they’d have been able to see past politics and religion. But now.
I know I should just come out. Should have done it years ago. But, as bisexual, it hadn’t felt necessary. For a long time, I’d been attracted to both men and women, but really only dated men. So why come out, when it would just complicate things unnecessarily?
But then I met Hallie.
It should have made things simpler. Now there was a reason to come out. I want to be with her. To do that—to really, honestly, fully do that—I need to come out. And, what’s worse, I know—I just know—if my family got to know her, they’d love Hallie with her sweet demeanor, easy laugh, and tenacious strength.
But I met her at Donovan’s. Which, until recently, hadn’t felt like it was anyone’s business but my own. My government doesn’t need to know and my brother and parents certainly never need to know.
But where does that leave Hallie? Suppose that Keith and our parents could accept Hallie as my girlfriend, how do we answer basic questions like “Where did you two meet?” How could I ever hope to explain my family to Hallie? To my friends at Donovan’s?
And, God, what about my job? If anyone at work found out that I’m a member of Donovan’s, that I perform at that club, that I’m dating someone from the club—dating a woman from the club—I’d be ruined. Everything I’ve ever worked for, wasted. Even if my party is a mess at the moment—going through some strange growing pains—one day, hopefully soon, it’ll go back to what it once was. Won’t it? It has to. And, when it does, I want to be in position to make a real difference. If I walk away now, will I still be able to do that? To do everything I’ve hoped for?
And, dear God, if my friends at Donovan’s ever found out where I work—who I work for—I can’t even imagine what they’d think. Would they hate me? Think I’m some kind of traitor for holding my nose through all the hateful rhetoric and spiteful politics, that I despise and am disgusted by, in exchange for my hopes for economic reform that could save or at least help struggling people like my parents? Would they question my convictions, thinking my concerns over long-term debt mean nothing in the face of appalling present-day policies that threaten their freedoms and safety right now?
But what scares me most is that they could be right.
No. It’s best to just keep everything the way it is. I hate Rosen and what he’s done to my world, but he won’t be president forever. I, just like the rest of the world, simply have to get through this administration. I just have to keep my eye on the future. Keep my family and work life out of my personal life and keep Donovan’s and Hallie out of my everyday life. It’s not perfect—not even ideal—but what other choice do I have?
Keith shakes his head. “Well, if it’s not work-related, then help me out with this. This is a major problem. We cannot be connected in any way to these perverts.”
It’s hard not to flinch at that. If he only knew.
“Come on, Cady.” My brother looks at me like I’m his saving grace, his only hope. “You’ve gotta help me here.”
“Look, I’ll have the statement about Father Nicholas done after I finish my section of the tax proposal edits. They should be ready tomorrow morning in time for the meeting, I swear,” I say quickly before I hang up the phone on a panicked Keith, a gloved hand cupping the phone’s mouthpiece furtively. I know this all is important to the governor—and I’ll get it done—but this is important too.
“Rebel!” Elin the stage manager of Donovan’s Burle-Q Burlesque Troupe hisses, “The Risen number’s up next.”
I breathe out deep and slip my phone into my bag before standing tall on wobbly heels. I fix my long, brunette wig, fluffing the bangs over my grotesque zombie gore makeup as I lean in close to the mirror.
I’ve been performing as Rebel Rouser, a Russian Bettie Page, a doe-eyed devushka with a heavy accent and too many stilted A-meri-kan idioms, for nearly five years now. It’s a fun escape to play the clueless tourist or the tough-as-nails, sexy-bitch spy. To step into a role so different from myself.
But, since the election, the Burle-Q girls had been performing as The Risen, sexy Rosen-supporting zombies who shimmy and shamble aimlessly over the stage losing limbs and clothes throughout the dance. A real crowd pleaser.
Stripped of my usual conservative suit or Stepford sweater set, I hardly look like myself. With ample cleavage showing and my long legs exposed by the torn “We Shall Rise” dress, the woman I’d been earlier that day—the prim and proper campaign aide—all but disappeared. With the dark wig and heavy makeup, I couldn’t recognize myself at all.
It’s almost frightening how easy it is to lose yourself. To erase all traces of the life you’ve built and the person you’ve become. A change of clothes, different hair, some makeup, and a brand new person’s born.
Which is the point.
Cady Carrington doesn’t exist in Donovan’s. In fact, outside a very well-protected file kept under digital lock and key, that part of my life has no ties to the club or any of its shady clientèle. And there are a whole bible of rules and regulations keeping it that way. Cameras, video, and recorders of any kind outside of the club’s sanctioned security are strictly forbidden. Anyone caught outing or telling on any fellow member is banned.
Donovan’s believes in privacy for its clients above all else. With all their efforts—not to mention my own—the two halves of my life remain completely separate.
Sighing, I blink at the image in the mirror and wonder who the hell I’m looking at.
“Rebel!” Elin calls. “Cue’s up in ten.”
I adjust my props—a detachable zombie arm and breast—and rush out of the dressing room to the stage wings.
The other girls are in place, making last-minute adjustments to costumes and props.
Elin hands out mic packs and says in a hushed whisper, “Good luck, girls, knock ‘em dead.”
The lights dim as the other performers clear the stage and we take our places. As the eerie music starts and the lights come up, I blink, blinded by the brightness. But soon my eyes clear and then—the first sight I see is her.
Smiling that brilliant, beautiful smile, she’s clapping, cheering us on. Cheering me on.
As we go through the routine—a mix of old school vaudeville humor, tawdry striptease, and good old fashioned bump and grind—all I see, all I can think of, is Hallie.
Even after the show is done and all the yocks have been had, I still can’t get her out of my head.
She’s so stuck in my head that I don’t even notice her watching me while I take off my makeup and change out of my costume. But, when I look up, there she is reflected back at me in the full-length mirror.
“Great show,” she purrs, her Southern belle tone drawing out the sound. “As always.”
“I’m,” I say, suddenly flustered and nervous as I futz with the edges of my robe, trying to decide whether to close it or not, “so glad you could come.”
“Well, you know me,” she drawls as she saunters close, snaking a hand beneath my robe to grasp my hip. “I rarely pass up the opportunity to come...”
Read Part Two Here