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Stairs to Heaven

Life imitates art. Art imitates life. Who gives a shit?

In the Gutter, the picture still colors the same shade of bleak. You're looking for hope, try the next corner.

Stairs to Heaven by Nikki Palomino




“You’ll let me know when I can come home, Mom?” 

Nervous, I twirled a strand of blonde hair. I needed her. “Found that Zeppelin record, ‘Stair-something to Heaven.’ At my job. I work at Ginger’s Vinyl. Remember?” Mom grunted. I leaned into the payphone. Id started tricking at fourteen. I was sixteen now. I felt beyond tired. You know the record I broke when I was little?” She never forgave me. Lies, suicide notes, razors, shitty childhood. I never forgave her. Lies, suicide notes, boyfriends drunk.

Scary split to scarier streets.

Spotted Flora on the corner with foot traffic in combat rhythm heading toward me. Click. Never great with goodbyes.

Flora had a plan to get us off the streets. She held up the papers.

“Like melting butter in a skillet.” A falling star, she’d been rough trade longer.

She pulled me from the crowd, gave the details. Her devoted trick, she had straddled, knocked off his glasses, pushed the driver’s seat back and crunch.

“He believes he signed a reference for an apartment rental.” We knew better. Twenty grand insurance policy. I looked leery. Flora laughed, “I promised to fry him a burger and wash his feet in our new place.”

We no longer belonged to life, just a crappy series on an analog TV. Peat, repeat. Other girls bugged Flora because she was favored, but she could bust their balls for kicks. She liked me. I never cut in. I was a blur behind her shoulder.

Flora tapped my canvas bag. “Ginger find you the record?”

“Never opened.” A high-five.

“Gotta be tonight with the bomber on the loose.”

“Too many cops, Flora.”

She became aware of her surroundings, trying desperately to think on what I’d said, but any image of death and destruction was irrevocably gone for now. Survival.

“W-h-a-t?”  

“I’ve never shot anyone. I might be no good.”

“Backing out is not an option.”

Flora believed normality would arrive with the money.

Wet night, chilly. The street around the corner from an escape alley, she’d parked at the curb. I came up the driver’s side, window lowered, with the gun. I had no choice but to carry my canvas bag with Mom’s record. We were homeless. No safe place to stash. An unopened Zeppelin would score a solid buzz for any junkie.

Flora was good, leaning back on the steering wheel, her dark hair flowing across the dash. She straddled him, the trick lost to passion against the worn seat. Gave me enough room to hit his chest. My eyes half-closed, I aimed, fired multiple rounds. Hadn’t expected the trick to pull her to him when he came.

I eased toward the sedan, expected a word from Flora, but she was slumped onto his chest. That’s when I noticed the blood seeping through her long, stringy hair. Shocked, my eyes skipped to his bugged, lifeless, like a flat poem, an instrument without music. I touched Flora, jumped when she slid down onto the stick shift. Crying, I tried to piece together the scraps.

I took off down the alley, pitched the gun into a dumpster, and ran until I reached another street. Saw Ginger closing the record shop. Tossed her my canvas bag with Mom’s vinyl and address. I didn’t need to explain.

“I’ll send the package first thing in the morning.” 

I took off again even as Ginger yelled, “You can still have the job if you want?”

But I was gone, three streets over and slamming straight into vice.

“Why you in such a hurry?”

He knew Flora and me. She should have listened. Every cop in the city rocked the streets. Each wanted a collar that could set him up for a higher rank. The bomber had hit hard. Ten industrial buildings, strip mall, a closed public pool. Only a matter of time before someone other than a security guard was killed by the blast.

“Let me see your arms, Summer.” My name always sounded so harsh when a cop trashed it.

“I’m clean.”

“And I’m Kojack.”

Before the sleeve of my leather jacket reached my elbow, a distant cop yelled something official-sounding, and vice took off running back toward the sedan. I was left alone under a circle of white raining down from a streetlight.

I bolted a few blocks over. I hit dead-center into a hairy guy in a dark jumpsuit. His body jerked involuntarily, and his work boot knocked into a silver, half-opened case set against the brick apartment building. I blinked a millisecond to rid the tear smarting, and my vision narrowed to one thing, his hand dropping the cigarette butt and grabbing me by the throat. There were no mysteries, no walls hiding us from the world. His throat pulsated against my head. He wasn’t sucking air between his teeth. He lost track as the next second clipped by. I heard a cutting scream from an opened window two flights up, and then the weakened boom done right that could have secured his reputation.

Only I had changed both our lives just by being there.

Thrown to the sidewalk, I marveled at the thunder rumbling and the apartment dwellers above the quivering light raying ethereal through the smoke. I was not surprised at the momentary gilded stairway jutting skyward. But I did startle when a bronze lord under the far fixed stars scooped me up. I had never known anything except lies, suicide notes, razors and my shitty childhood.

My mom believed in no more.

Had I not been so stunned in photographic memory of a time when Mom and I held each other tight, I would have recognized the face above me not as God but as vice. His shaven head blazed, his eyes with punchy determination were the same ones that had stared Flora and me down when tricking. In the midst of a botched bombing and successful capture, “Kojack” smiled sympathetically, knowing that to have winners, there must be losers.   


Nikki Palomino is the author of the Dazed series (The Story of a Grunge Rocker). Her writing has been featured in L.A. Examiner, Houston Chronicle, and more. Named Best Genre Short Story Writer of 2003 by Writer's Digest, Palomino is also a rock journalist for Punk Globe Magazine and the host of Nikki Palomino's DAZED on irockradio103.com.