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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Neon Darkness

The Bright Sessions (Volume 2)

Lauren Shippen; read by Charlie Ian

Macmillan Young Listeners



In retrospect, going on a power spree in Las Vegas was not my smartest move.

Typically, using my ability to get things—money, food, cars, you name it—isn’t too much of a problem as long as I keep the mark in my sights or move on quickly. But I didn’t think about the cameras. A security guy watching me take a table for all their chips with a pair of twos isn’t going to be susceptible to what I do. Not from a surveillance room all the way across a crowded casino.

After a few hours on the empty, endless expanse of desert highway, I’ve traded the claustrophobia of Vegas for the traffic jams of Los Angeles. The sun is starting to set, making me squint as it beams through my windshield, but my wince turns into a smile as I think about the look on the head of security’s face when he said he’d never met anyone like me. That glow of admiration, the slight tinge of confusion. It felt good, seeing that expression on someone like that. His job is to make sure that the house always wins, and I won.

I could have stayed, could have rubbed it in, hit up every casino on the strip, but after being taken to a back room with five guys twice my size, I figured it was time to cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge. Things turned out all right in the end, but I spare a thought for the fact that my face is still all over their security tapes. Still, I can’t imagine they’ll come after me for taking twelve grand. That amount of money means about as much to the Bellagio as it does to me. Which is to say, not much.

LA seemed as good a place as any to hit up next on my haphazard tour of the western United States. Anything’s better than goddamned Nebraska. But, in another boneheaded move, I haven’t looked at a calendar in weeks, which means I’ve somehow timed it so that I’m driving into Los Angeles on the night of Halloween.

So now I’m sitting in traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, just trying to get to the ocean—I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean before—while swarms of people in absurd costumes walk west. I can barely see the next intersection for all the bodies in the street. I expected Los Angeles to have a light, nice sea breeze, but I have to roll up my windows against the hot October air carrying the smell of body spray and sickly sweet party drinks.

“Screw this,” I say to no one, pulling over. I grab a couple of stacks from the bag of cash flopped uselessly on the backseat and shove them in my pockets. I can get by without it but it’s always nice to have the extra security. I leave the car unlocked, keys on the dash—it served me fine through the Nevada desert, but I’m going to want something slicker for LA.

The street is loud and a lot more Vegas-like than I would have thought, people shouting and stumbling through the streets in bright costumes. Vegas was fun, but I was hoping for a different scene. After two weeks there, I think I’m starting to discover that I like things a bit … quieter. Everything is easier to manage with fewer people. Less chance I’ll slip up. Less chance something will go terribly wrong. I look at the flow of people headed down the block toward booming music—groups of friends smiling and laughing with each other. I feel a pang low in my gut and I’m taking a step toward the teeming crowd before I have a chance to think about it. Maybe things could be different this time—maybe I’ll join the revelers and then it will be me laughing and smiling like I have no cares in the world and I’ll mean it.

But before I can even make a plan of attack for how I would go about joining in the celebration, my feet stop in their tracks, the pang overwhelmed by roiling anxiety. There are too many people, moving too quickly, already too drunk. It would be impossible to hold any influence and without it, I highly doubt anyone is going to welcome the baby-faced kid in a hoodie and scuffed-up shoes with open arms.

I’m thinking about just calling it a night, starting the process of finding a place to crash, when I glance across the street to see a bright red neon sign proclaiming BAR LUBITSCH. There’s a bored guy out front, smoking a cigarette, but otherwise the place looks a hell of a lot emptier than the street. Emptier and easier. Eventually I’ll have to sleep, but right now I just want to sit in something other than the driver’s seat. I take a deep breath and saunter across the street, plastering on my most innocuous “nothing to see here” face.

“ID?” the guy asks when I reach the gate. He squints at me through the smoke and I smile at him, the motion of my mouth curving feeling foreign and fake like always.

“That’s okay,” I say smoothly, heart beating in my chest. “I don’t need one.”

He exhales. More smoke. More squinting. I stand perfectly still and focus on what I want, and then:

“Right,” he drawls, and then his eyes relax and his lips twitch around the cigarette he’s put back in his mouth. “Right, yeah, sure thing. Go on in.”

Copyright © 2020 by Lauren Shippen