By Jeff Penalty
(A short story originally published on Skepchick.org)
As I approached Surly Amy’s apartment her door flew open and spat out a well built, shaven-chested man wearing a leopard print thong. He ran past me down the hallway, crying and clutching a crumpled up police uniform. The word “SLUT” was scrawled on his abs and arms in red lipstick.
“Animals!” he shouted back towards the door. “You’re all animals!”
I walked into the apartment and thankfully my reflexes forced me to quickly duck. An empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label smashed against the wall in a space previously occupied by my head. As I stood up slowly, I was greeted by a familiar voice.
“Holy shit, it’s Jeff! Get in here you fucking asshole!”
It was Rebecca, America’s Skeptical Sweetheart, wearing her signature horn-rimmed glasses and a white dress with little cherries all over it. Rebecca runs Skepchick.org, one of my favorite science/skeptical thinking blogs. I had once contributed a guest article to the site and had met Rebecca on two previous occasions (once after a bar fight in Boston and once after a hazy night in Vegas). When she and several of the other regular Skepchick.org contributors descended on my home city of Los Angeles to celebrate the birthday of one of their own, I jumped at Rebecca’s invite to join them for what she described as a “modest little get-together.” I was giddy at the idea of finally meeting some of these other brilliant, endearingly nerdy women whom I had only known through their writing, their pen names, and their cute cartoon avatars.
Part of me would forever regret accepting that invitation.
Rebecca greeted me with a hug and squeezed my ass with both hands. I looked over her shoulder at a scene of utter chaos. The carpet was partially burned, various mathematical formulas were spray painted haphazardly on the walls, and the TV had been smashed. It was probably for the best that I had left my DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the car.
“Let me introduce you to everyone. That’s Surly Amy, it’s her birthday!” Amy was eating fistfuls of chocolate cake with one hand and giving herself her fourth teardrop tattoo with the other. She offered a verbal greeting muffled by a mouthful of pastry and then offered a hand covered in chocolate frosting. I opted for a fist bump over a full handshake for sanitary reasons.
“And this is Maria, also known as Masala Skeptic.”
“Hey there,” Maria said cheerfully as she squatted over a potted plant in the corner and gave it an asparagus-scented watering. Masala Skeptic reminded me of a human version of a cartoon squirrel. Albeit a rabid one that eschews underwear.
“And that’s Elyse and A.Real.Girl.”
Elyse said “Hi!” but couldn’t really wave with a bottle of Everclear and a red funnel in her hands. A.Real.Girl waved but couldn’t really speak with the other end of the beer bong in her mouth. Judging from their facial scars and toned muscles, these two were clearly the “enforcers” of the group. And somehow, Elyse’s all-black glass eye complemented A.Real.Girl’s diamond-inlaid platinum grills perfectly.
“We’re about to hit the town,” Rebecca said, uncapping a new bottle of Black Label. “You wanna come with?”
“Sure, where are–”
“WE’RE OUT, BITCHES!” Rebecca yelled on her way through the door.
“Um, what about…this guy?” I asked, indicating the loose rooster strutting around the kitchen. Surly Amy tore open a box of Lucky Charms, dumped its contents onto the kitchen floor, and glared at me as she walked out the door.
“Don’t forget the hanger!” Masala Skeptic called to Elyse, who ducked into the hall closet and produced a standard wire hanger.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” A.Real.Girl slurred as she grabbed a handful of my shirt and pulled me outside.
It was a busy Friday night on Hollywood boulevard, with club-hoppers in rhinestone-speckled T-shirts and identical black mini dresses littering the sidewalks. But Skepchicks apparently don’t bother with the sidewalks: Rebecca led our group through a back alley and slipped a fifty to a nervous busboy to gain us access to a brand new club co-owned by Ludacris and Justin Timberlake.
I was expecting an evening of soda, snacks, and secular humanism, but apparently the Skepchicks had a craving for synth loops, strobe lights, and celebutantes. I was rather underdressed for the occasion; the dance floor was a sea of designer labels and overpriced haircuts, I was in a hoodie and jeans.
Elyse, A.Real.Girl, and Masala Skeptic carved a path to the dance floor while Rebecca and Surly Amy elbowed their way to the bar. I cowered by the men’s room, baffled by the disconnect between these girls’ cerebral online personas and the unsettling reality. I was particularly taken aback when I watched Rebecca lean over the bar and swipe a bottle of Bacardi 151 when the bartenders weren’t looking.
I wondered why she needed a new bottle of booze when she was still clutching her bottle of Scotch from the apartment. Rebecca indirectly answered my question when she poured half a pint of the Bacardi into Surly Amy’s mouth. Amy grabbed a tea light off the bar, held it in front of her lips, and spat out the 151. The resulting fireball singed the hair of Kirsten Dunst and engulfed the shirtsleeve of Mario Lopez, who stopped, dropped, and rolled with a ballet dancer’s grace.
Security was on them in an instant.
I tried to intervene and calm the situation down, but the other Skepchicks swooped in from the dance floor and it became a shouting and shoving match that was way beyond my control. Our whole group was hustled out the front door.
“Fuck it, come on!” Rebecca said, as she led the group down the street to the next club. I was mentally composing excuses to break off from the group and head home when a police cruiser pulled up next to us. Its siren issued a short burst.
“Miss? You can’t have that bottle open on the street.”
“Excuse me?” Rebecca asked indignantly.
“You can’t have that bottle open on the street, drop it in the trash or it’s a $400 fine.”
Rebecca looked the cop dead in the eye and took a long pull of Johnnie Walker. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and quietly said, “I dare you.”
The cop opened his car door and stepped out. POW! Masala Skeptic flew in from nowhere with a hard right cross and knocked him out cold. The Skepchicks all cheered as Elyse grabbed his gun and hat. A.Real.Girl took the wheel. “Get in!” she yelled. The Skepchicks piled into the cruiser…and pulled me in with them.
A.Real.Girl buzzed down the street, weaving through opposing traffic and causing a symphony of honks and squealing brakes in our wake. When my life stopped flashing before my eyes, we were in a seedy, deserted section of Chinatown. We left the cop car parked halfway on the sidewalk and walked up to the rear entrance of an abandoned tire warehouse. Amy pounded on the door, leaving a chocolate imprint of her fist. The door opened only an inch.
“Password” said a serious voice with a heavy Mandarin accent.
“Skepchick,” said Elyse, sticking her new police-issue Glock 22 through the crack. The door opened wider and the Skepchicks filed in past the enormous bouncer.
We took a freight elevator to the basement and stepped out into a smoky room filled with shouting Asian businessmen, Triad gangsters, and the thick humidity of human sweat. At the center was a fighting cage made of plywood and chicken wire, inside of which two neckless and bloodied men were locked in bare-knuckle combat.
“All right, birthday girl,” said Masala Skeptic, “Get some!” The other Skepchicks hooted as Amy walked down the aisle and posted herself ringside.
“What’s she going to do?” I asked Rebecca naively.
“It’s a Skepchick birthday tradition. You’ll see. So what have you been up to, anyway? It’s been forever since we’ve talked!”
“Oh, you know, same old, trying to keep busy…” I trailed off, distracted by the sight of A.Real.Girl trading a wad of cash for a Ziploc full of multicolored pills with an unsavory character near the back of the room.
The fight bell rang and the competitors were carried out of the ring. Surly Amy leapt into the cage and raised her hands victoriously over her head. Her challenger would be a 6’7” Samoan man with arms the size of redwoods and a tattoo of a gargoyle covering his shaved head. The Skepchicks howled like rabid wolves. Amy didn’t need much encouragement though, as her opponent’s nose was broken one second after the bell rang. Blood flowed from his face like syrup out of a squeeze bottle as Amy worked his body. He landed a punch or two, but it just made Amy laugh more maniacally each time. Finally she went for the groin and then hocked a loogie on the back of her opponent’s head when he was doubled over in pain. He responded with a perfect uppercut that sent Amy reeling into the chicken wire.
Elyse tore down the aisle, kicked open the cage door, and unloaded a flurry of fists on the Samoan. He was out cold after the third or fourth strike, but she didn’t stop battering his eerily still body until Surly Amy pulled her off. “My birthday, MY fight!” she reminded Elyse.
“Who the fuck are you talking to?” Elyse shot back, punctuating the question with a backhanded slap. Amy laughed and then came back at Elyse with a left hook. Elyse, also laughing, launched a fist into Amy’s solar plexus. They traded punches one by one until the crowd started booing. Several other fighters entered the ring to try and pull them apart and a melee ensued. One of the Triad guys started firing a machine gun at the ceiling and the place cleared out.
I followed the Skepchicks into a parking lot near the building where A.Real.Girl was using the coat hanger to boost a souped-up Honda Civic. “So that’s what the hanger was for,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Elyse said with a devilish grin.
A.Real.Girl hotwired the Civic as the Skepchicks piled inside. I had the choice of either heading back towards the machine gun fire, driving away in the stolen cop car, or going with them, so I took what I thought would be the least dangerous option. I probably would’ve been better off with either of the other two.
The Civic blazed through the side streets of East L.A. “We’re so disappointed you never submitted for the calendar!” Rebecca said to me.
“Well, I had this idea for a photo, but…um…where are we?”
A.Real.Girl slowed the car to a crawl as we entered an intersection closed off by a huge multiethnic crowd encircling a fleet of sleek, modified import vehicles. A scrawny Guatemalan teenager wearing an oversized T-shirt featuring an airbrushed portrait of Tupac came to the window. Rebecca threw him an impressively thick wad of 100-dollar bills and he waved us through the crowd.
“Where did you get all that cash?” I asked.
“I got BLOG money, punk!” Rebecca shot back before taking another gulp of Scotch.
“What was it for?”
Rebecca pointed out the windshield at a Mexican version of Bettie Page holding a pair of black lace panties in the air. She dropped them to the ground and A.Real.Girl hit the gas.
The Civic peeled out ahead of the pack and the Skepchicks screeched louder than the tires. The speedometer shot past 50…60…80…110…we were probably going faster but the numbers on the dash only went so high. Two cars had fallen behind us, but two others stayed neck and neck. “Maria! Hanger!” A.Real.Girl barked over the growl of the engine. Masala Skeptic crawled over our laps and leaned out the rear driver’s side window. She straightened the hanger out, but left the hook on the end intact.
“Get me closer!” Masala Skeptic yelled. A.Real.Girl inched closer to the hot pink Mitsubishi Eclipse with the glowing undercarriage to her left. Masala Skeptic shouted “Bottle!” Rebecca guzzled her last drops of Black Label and handed over the empty. Masala Skeptic hurled the bottle at the front passenger-side window of the Mitsubishi and shattered both with a surgical strike. The driver looked over quickly but couldn’t afford to take his eyes off the road for more than a millisecond.
Surly Amy held Masala Skeptic’s legs as she climbed further out of the car. She extended the hook of the wire hanger through the Mitsubishi’s now-open window. The driver tried to swat it away, but soon Masala Skeptic had hooked the bottom of the Mitsubishi’s steering wheel. She yanked the hanger towards her, turning the wheel violently to the left. The Mitsubishi spun out and caught a tire. Its forward momentum caused it to flip four times in the air before landing upside down, rolling several more times, and slamming into a taco truck.
“So that’s what the hanger was for,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Surly Amy said in a sinister tone as she pulled Masala Skeptic back into the vehicle. I have no idea if the driver of the Mitsubishi or the taco truck employees survived.
The only car left was a hideous orange Acura Integra leading by half a car length. “Ready girls?” A.Real.Girl asked as her thumb hovered over a red button installed after market on the steering wheel.
“PUNCH IT!” the Skepchicks replied in unison.
She punched it. The Civic shot forth with a burst of nitrous oxide. The Skepchicks’ cheers were deafening, but thankfully we were traveling past the speed of sound at that point. The race was ours.
Until the explosion.
Either some fuel leaked into an intake valve or someone shot a Revolutionary War cannon at our engine, but the end result was the same: the hood popped off and angry flames enveloped the front of the car.
Everything seemed to go into slow motion. My heart was pounding too hard for me to hear any outside noise, but I saw Rebecca’s lips form the word “Bail!” A.Real.Girl hit the brakes and the car skidded for at least two city blocks as the Skepchicks leapt out and rolled away. A hand (maybe Surly Amy’s?) grabbed my collar and pulled me out of one of the doors before my brain had time to process it all. When my senses returned, I saw A.Real.Girl stepping out of the Civic and casually strolling back towards the rest of us scattered about the asphalt. The flames finally hit the gas tank: BOOM!!!
Of course, A.Real.Girl didn’t look back.
We dusted ourselves off and inspected the damage. A few scrapes and bruises, and my Levi’s had an embarrassing tear just below one of the rear pockets, but somehow, against all the laws of probability and physics, we were alive.
Surly Amy produced a set of homemade brass knuckles shaped like a Darwin fish from her side pocket and slid her fingers into them. “Let’s go get our money back.” She started walking back toward the starting line when the faint sound of helicopter blades became audible. Five seconds later we were caught in the spotlight of the LAPD’s patrol chopper. The Skepchicks instinctively scattered in different directions. In a panic, I followed Rebecca as she dived into a sewer drain. We heard sirens and gunshots on the streets above. Could’ve been the cops. Could’ve been Elyse finally putting that Glock to use. I was glad I wasn’t in a position to know either way.
Rebecca pulled a butane lighter with a Pantera logo on it out of her jacket pocket and did her best to light the way as we splashed through sewer water and rat corpses.
“So, where are you living now? You moved to a new place, right?” she asked casually.
“Yeah, it’s in Hollywood,” I managed to squeak out.
“Oh, right near Amy! I’ll give her your email address, you guys should hang out more often.”
“Yeah, maybe” I offered, as non-committal as humanly possible. “Do you know where we’re going?”
She smiled at me. “Skepchicks always have a rendezvous point. So are you still doing music?”
It was a journey filled with half a dozen rodent bites, a million cockroaches, and a thousand horrible stenches. I think fear of reprisal from Rebecca was the only thing that kept me from crying and/or vomiting. Finally, we popped open a manhole in a part of town I didn’t even recognize. The rest of the Skepchicks were waiting by an ornate set of wrought iron gates that guarded the entrance to a Jewish cemetery. None of the girls had any bullet wounds, but Masala Skeptic seemed to have somehow lost one of her high heels and gained a canister of LAPD pepper spray. I didn’t ask.
I feigned a yawn. “Wow, it’s really getting late…we should probably—” The whole group shot me a look that stopped my vocal cords in their tracks.
“Maria, you still have the hanger?” Elyse asked. Like an X-rated sword swallower, Masala Skeptic slowly slid the elongated wire from its hiding spot between her cleavage. She handed it to Elyse who used it to pick the massive, ancient lock of the cemetery gates.
“Let me guess: this is still ‘not exactly’ why we brought the hanger?”
A.Real.Girl pinched my cheek just a little harder than she had to. “You catch on quick.”
The gates creaked open and we crept inside. I wasn’t too fond of adding B&E to the list of the night’s inevitable charges, but at least the quiet of the cemetery was a welcome change of pace. We snaked between gravestones and mausoleums until finally Surly Amy held up her fist like a platoon leader, signaling the rest of us to stop. “Right here,” she said. “Fancy headstone. Fresh grass.” Masala Skeptic and A.Real.Girl split off from the group, the rest of us circled around a grave with a shiny, ostentatious headstone that read SCHULLER in bold block letters.
“We should probably get out of here,” I whispered to Rebecca.
“What are you afraid of, ghosts?” Her response got a solid laugh out of Elyse and Amy.
“No: Skepchicks,” I thought silently to myself.
At that point, Masala Skeptic and A.Real.Girl returned. With shovels.
“No way!” I hissed. Surly Amy took one of the shovels from A.Real.Girl and shoved it into my hands.
“Dig, motherfucker,” she insisted.
It took at least 2 hours before Elyse’s shovel finally clinked against the lid of Mrs. Schuller’s coffin. Surly Amy cracked it open and I pulled the collar of my shirt up over my nose to guard against the putrid smell. Opening a casket to discover a moldy skeleton would have been far preferable to seeing a freshman resident like Mrs. Schuller, with her skin receding from her fingernail beds and her cheeks melting away from her jaw.
The Skepchicks, however, were unfazed. Masala Skeptic let out an “Ooh!” in a voice that would have otherwise been adorable, if she hadn’t been brushing maggots off of a dead woman’s hand to steal her 4-karat diamond wedding ring. “Happy birthday, Amy!” she said as she handed Surly Amy the ring as a gift.
“Aw, thanks Maria!” Amy cooed as they embraced. Elyse, meanwhile, was pulling the rings off Mrs. Schuller’s other hand while Rebecca concerned herself with liberating a large teardrop-shaped amethyst pendant from around Mrs. Schuller’s neck.
“We really should get out of here, guys.” I pleaded. “We’ve pushed our luck pretty far for one night.”
“You’re right,” said Rebecca. I was relieved. It was finally over. “You really proved yourself, Jeff. Tonight, you became one of us.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure of the consequences of accepting such a compliment.
“We want to induct you as an official Skepchick.”
“Okay. Great.” Anything to get us out of there faster.
Elyse and A.Real.Girl grabbed each of my arms. I tried to struggle free, but Masala Skeptic dosed me with pepper spray and my knees buckled. When my eyes opened, I was six inches away from an eager worm burrowing itself under Mrs. Schuller’s eyelid. Rebecca was behind me with the wire hanger, bending the hook end into an “S” shape. Surly Amy worked her fingers into the tear at the bottom of my back pants pocket and with one swift pull she created a flap to expose my entire right ass cheek.
“You wanted to know what the hanger was for…” Rebecca said coyly. She clicked her Pantera lighter on and slowly ran the butane flame over the wire S.
“No! NO!!!” I screamed. But that was met with another spritz of Masala Skeptic’s pepper spray.
“Shhhhh…” she whispered sadistically.
And then there was that trademark sizzle of hot metal meeting flesh. Rebecca held the brand in place for the longest eight seconds of my life. I tasted blood in my mouth from biting my lip so hard to prevent myself from screaming. I felt urine running down my leg and stinging the fresh scrapes from jumping out of that car. And then I passed out.
I woke up strewn over a toilet in a truck stop bathroom on Highway 15 around 7 a.m. the next morning. The Skepchicks had taken my shirt, shoes, wallet, and phone but had mercifully left me my tattered, piss-stained jeans. Sore and exhausted, I panhandled at the gas pumps until I had enough change to buy a pair of flip-flops and a “No Lot Lizards!” T-shirt. I did my best to ignore the stares of the other truck stop patrons during the purchase, but the clerk’s eyes were boring a hole through me the whole time. When he handed me my receipt, he said “Son…?” and pointed to his right cheek. I inspected my reflection in some mirrored sunglasses on a display rack by the register. There was a huge penis drawn on my face in bright red lipstick. Thanks for that one, Elyse.
Covered in dirt, blood, urine, sewer water, smeared lipstick, and the unmistakable mustiness of death it took me all day to hitchhike back to Hollywood via a lazy-eyed trucker who vastly misinterpreted my awkward way of sitting and a Mormon youth group that kicked me out of their van when they saw what they thought was the “mark of Satan” on my butt. (To be honest, though, listening to them sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints” over and over again was probably the most painful part of the whole ordeal anyway.)
I didn’t want to knock on Surly Amy’s apartment door ever again, but the Skepchicks either had my keys or at least had some information about where they might be.
“Hey, you made it back!” Amy said as she opened the door. “Come on in.”
“No thank you. I would just like my keys back please.”
“Oh, don’t be like that. We’re having a fondue party!”
That sounded much more like the innocent, science-loving bloggers I thought I knew. Had I misjudged them? Was the previous night all some sort of dream? It seemed pretty hard to believe when I thought about it.
Then that rooster started pecking at my shoelaces. It was no dream.
Amy opened the door wider and a chorus of “Jeff!”s greeted me. The Skepchicks were circled ceremoniously around Amy’s coffee table. Rebecca was at the center, fluffing up a pile of Colombian marching powder that would’ve made Scarface blush.
“I thought this was a fondue party,” I said.
“Cocaine!” Rebecca replied cheerily. “We’re ‘fond’ of ‘do’-ing it!”
The Skepchicks went into hysterics. I went to Home Depot to get new keys made.
A few days later I was massaging Neosporin onto my new least-favorite part of my ass when my phone buzzed with a text message from Rebecca:
Hey! Gr8 catching up w you other nite! How far u from san diego? Mxicn border guards no sense of humor. Need $$!
I blocked the number and locked my door.