CHOKING GALL AND PRESERVING SWEET • by Elizabeth M. Thurmond

She comes here at odd times of day, despite the conventional wisdom that you don’t visit the Santa Monica Pier near dark. Something about the creak of the timbers, the lap of the waves against the seawall, and the wind off the ocean helps clear the cobwebs out of her head after a long day trying to fight City Hall.

It’s not quite sunset when she reaches the old theater at the end of the pier. It’s not much more than a skeleton now, its walls barely holding together, the ceiling sagging in the places it hasn’t fallen in entirely. The door hangs by only one hinge; it creaks as she pushes it open, and shakes a bit, but the hinge still holds. Inside, the battered proscenium and worm-eaten boards are the only remnants of the theater’s all-too-brief heyday as a venue for old-fashioned musical revues… the faintest echoes of this place’s origin three centuries ago. The seats and other fixtures are long gone, sold after the Third Jazz Age made way for a new fad, and what remains is a stark reminder of what was happening to most of the Old City before she and the other preservationists intervened. So much of the city’s history before the Quake of 2183 is long gone; the post-Quake restoration will meet the same fate someday if her efforts fail.

There’s someone else here — a figure silhouetted against a gap in the wall where a window used to be. If she believed in ghosts, she might imagine it to be one of the dancers who used to perform here… but she doesn’t, and this person is far too solid to be a ghost. Still, she approaches cautiously, her breath catching in her throat as the salt-tinged wind carries a familiar cologne past her nostrils. Could it be…?

Before she can decide how to make her presence known, he speaks. “My father played this theater once.”

“Did he?” She jams her hands into her coat pockets and walks over to him, the old floorboards creaking in protest. He doesn’t meet her eyes, so she turns to face the window, watching the copper-glittered waves break against the seawall. He’s the last person she would expect to find here — he knows it’s one of her “thinking” spots — but somehow it seems appropriate that the two of them should meet this way; they had spent the majority of their relationship sneaking around in abandoned buildings.

“Yeah. Before he decided to go into politics.” He chuckles bitterly. “Funny how things change, isn’t it.”

He strikes the window frame with his open palm, a shower of sand and dust and paint chips raining down on them. “Funny how people forget the rot in their own back yards, when it suits them.” He practically spits the word “rot”, turning to look at her as he speaks.

“And we don’t.” It’s a statement, not a question.

He strikes the window frame again, harder, this time dislodging a small chunk of stucco that barely misses his head. “You think I wouldn’t have fought for you, if you’d let me?” He grits his teeth, picks up the crumbling stucco and hurls it into the ocean, the sea spray glittering like tears on his face. “If you hadn’t been so worried about your reputation.”

Her reputation… her all-important credibility as the head of the Old City preservation movement. In the end, that was what doomed their relationship; she could never be seen with someone who was that close to City Hall, no matter what his political bent. She has spent hours, days, wondering what might have been if she hadn’t sacrificed her personal life to a handful of rotting late-21st-century buildings.

At a loss for words, she reaches out to touch his arm. He tries to wave her away, but his hand brushes hers —

— catches —

— holds —

Their fingers entwine, palm to palm, and he faces her fully for the first time. Her hair and eyes are bright in the dying day, reflecting the bright orange of the sun as it creeps closer to the horizon and the glare off the seawall.

It’s close to dark now and not safe for anyone in this part of town — police patrols don’t begin until nine — but neither notices as she reaches up on tiptoes to press her lips to his. Neither has time to breathe or to think before it’s over, but the sudden electricity that crackles around them lasts long after she pulls away.

As she settles back on her heels, what looks like his customary smirk tugs at the corners of his mouth. “You’re somethin’ else, Lindsay.”

Her lips are still buzzing from the shock of the kiss; she can barely think, let alone muster a snappy comeback. Bracing herself for one of his usual wisecracks, she manages a grin, and a “Yeah?” that’s meant to be more confident than it sounds.

“Yeah.” His breath is warm on her face; he closes the gap between them, pulling her to him as the world spins off its axis and the sun sinks into the waves.


Elizabeth M. Thurmond lives in Los Angeles. She owns more books than are strictly necessary, and always has at least two manuscripts in the works.

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