From the author: This is a story about Janis Joplin and a chance meeting in a Texas bar.
Had to be a better world than this.
Bigger colors, brighter skies. Something. Saw it in her mind sometimes when she sang, like fireworks deep in the hindbrain. But the song always stopped. Had to have an end, that's what made it a song. Otherwise, singing all the time, music all the time — it would just be air.
A person could get into a lot of trouble, following those colors. Finding brighter ones, bigger shades. Looking for something sharper in the music. For something sharper than the music. It had almost killed her once, the singing and getting strung out, looking for brighter lights. Never again. She'd keep clean this time. She'd even tried to stop singing. But she couldn't go that far, not in the end.
Sometimes, she felt like what she sought was nothing more than a pinprick of light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel. Past that light had to be a better world, if she could just get to it. But the tunnel kept going on forever.
And that was how a white girl from south Texas ended up sitting on a bare stage in the back of a bar, strumming guitar and singing a throaty kind of blues.
Maybe she could stay here, singing, forever. Maybe she would never need any more than this.
Then one night, singing, the light got big, brighter than a sun for a moment, a flashbulb of clarity. Did that sometimes, when she hit the right note. But her voice stumbled, and the light stayed. Nothing else changed. Nothing much. She kept on singing, but opened her eyes to look.
Been drinking too much. That's all she thought it was, when she saw the woman sitting in the back of the bar. No woman like that was ever in Texas, not even in Houston. The way her nails were painted, how her hair was pinned up like some Hollywood starlet, the single diamond hanging around her neck. The way she glowed. Plenty of oilmen's wives tried too look like that, spent the money and wore the diamonds. But they always came off as hens dressed up in peacock feathers. This woman, she had a space to herself. No one sat near her. No one even seemed to see her, which was strange, and another reason Janis thought it was just the booze making her see things. Just going crazy.
Then Janis found herself singing just to her.
And the woman smiled, and Janis thought, there goes my heart. Just like in the songs.
Janis packed up slow and stumbled out, hoping to catch the last bus, or maybe hitch it home. Some nights she had friends waiting for her. Tonight she didn't, at least she thought she didn't, until she saw the white Caddy in the parking lot and the tall, pale woman standing next to the open back door. There was a driver and everything, a shadow behind the tinted windows.
"Let me give you a ride," she said, her voice like a bell pealing through an autumn sky.
Guitar case dangling in her hand, Janis obeyed, mutely.
Driving on empty roads, inside the car, Janis couldn't hear anything outside it. Plush seats felt like velvet. Tiny lights above the door cast just enough to see by — enough to make weird shadows. The driver still didn't seem much more than shadow, hat low over his head, gloved hands loose on the wheel, like he barely had to steer.
The woman smelled faintly of apples.
She wore a gray fur coat, even though it wasn't all that cold. A white hat topped her pale hair, with a bit of netting draped over her brow. White silk gloves covered her hands, which rested starkly over the coat, on her lap.
Janis wondered if she should say something. Thank you, maybe. But she could say that at the end of the ride. Anything else she might have been thinking, like who the hell are you and what are you doing here, didn't seem right. Didn't seem right saying anything at all when she came down to it. All she wanted to do was stare: perfect fingers, slim neck rising above the coat, to a perfect, noble face. Eyes hard like diamonds.
"You have a beautiful voice," the woman said after a few miles of driving.
Janis blinked, startled — and realized neither of them, the lady or her driver, asked where she needed to go. They were just driving.
Some kind of spell broke and she could think again. Then, she bit her lip to hide her smile. "You'll find better in a church choir." Her country girl voice sounded like sandpaper compared to this woman's.
"There are different kinds of beauty," the woman said.
Janis frowned and tried to look out the window, but between the tinting and the light, she only saw herself, round rough face and stringy brown hair tied up tight. Oversized shirt and sweater. Proper skirt. Trying to go straight and be respectable. Trying so damn hard. There was nothing glamorous and beautiful about her. Nothing about her to love. And yet, wasn't that the point, be yourself, your own person, don't follow the crowd, don't try to be some painted smiling cheerleader type when what you really wanted was to be free. And yet. If she could just be normal.
A different kind of beauty. The woman was like carved glass. Cut your heart if you let it. Suspicion dawned on Janis: what would a woman like that want with a homely thing like her? Woman like that could have anything, probably did have everything. Wandered about, plucking what she wanted clean off the street.
To a girl like Janis she was the light at the end of a tunnel. But it was dangerous, running toward something like that. Too perfect. She wanted it too much. And she'd end up strung out and done for, like she had before.
Because of all these thoughts, of expectations she didn't know she had, because it wasn't the better world she wanted, Janis wasn't surprised when the woman said,
"Will you come with me? Sing for me and just for me?"
Paid gig, Janis thought first off, and there was something to be said for that. But then she wanted to know, "Why?"
The woman flinched back a fraction, as if she'd made this offer to a hundred other singers and not one had ever asked that before.
"Come with me," she said, a hungry turn to her mouth. "And I will honor you. My court will honor you. I will shower accolades and riches upon you. This is a rare chance. You understand, don't you?"
Ah, that dream of fame. That dream of being loved. It hadn't gone away, had it? Is that the light she was after?
The woman would take care of her, look after her, adore her. Janis could see, just by sitting close to her in the back of her car, how very bright her world was. She would be loved--
The woman hadn't smiled, not once.
Long as they'd been driving, they ought to be out in the middle of nowhere by now.
"You only get this one chance," the woman said. "Hesitate, and you'll never see me again."
Janis shuddered at the tragedy of it. Gut impulse said, yes, keep going, take me away, love me.
What was the trick, the catch? Maybe it was a joke. But then, she might never have another chance.
She could argue herself out of anything. Talk herself in circles. Kept trying to get out of her own head, and ended up staring at her hands, thinking too much, too hard. She longed to throw herself at this woman. Such a clear path. Easy.
Except she didn't believe this woman really wanted her.
And that was what made her hesitate. Being with her, even with all she promised, would be another kind of trap, sure as being strung out and stinking drunk. This woman's scent was making her high, and it frightened her.
"What happens if I say no?" Janis said.
"Despair," the woman said, without hesitation, without emotion, skin like ice, eyes like frost. "You'll seek to find me again. You'll never succeed. You might win the adulation of millions, but all your life you'll seek for more, as every taste of joy turns to dust in your mouth. The world will pale, dim to almost nothing, after I leave you. If you refuse me."
The picture she drew for Janis was so very clear. And yet.
Janis stared a moment, fearful. Then she laughed. Because she'd been to that dark place already. "That supposed to scare me? Whatever you're selling, lady, can't be that good. Figure life after you can't be too much darker than life before."
"Then. . .your answer?"
Janis turned away. She could talk herself into or out of just about anything. It all came down to what scared her more. She took a breath. "Maybe you ought to just let me out here."
"Stop the car," the woman said, and the car stopped, instantly.
They'd been driving for an hour, should have been in the middle of nowhere or nearly there. But they were on the corner, right outside the bar, a few steps from where they'd picked her up in the first place. Janis didn't remember turning any corners.
The door opened on its own. The woman didn't move. Looked Janis up and down with heavy-lidded eyes and said, "Pity."
Janis didn't need to be told to get out. Suddenly, she wanted to flee. She slammed the door behind her, flush with rage, angry that she'd even gotten into the car with that woman in the first place. Who does she think she is? What kind of woman picks up musicians in bars? There was nothing good in any of it.
The Caddy pulled away, humming quietly, not even kicking up the gravel of the parking lot. Left in darkness, Janis watched the car disappear into the night, and wondered.
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.