Click-clack-click-clack-click-clack – the sound of your red kitten heels echoes high into the vaulted ceilings of the Black Queen’s palace. Trembling guards bow their heads when you pass them – one of them bonks the hard shell of their head against their spear. You flip your hair and strut past them, Green Sun and static electricity crackling through your dark curls.
You are on your way to visit your stepmother.
The arched doors to Her Imperious Condescension’s throne room stretch high to the ceiling. From watching the strings of Dersites who tug them open with long, velvet ropes, you know that they’re much too heavy to be pushed open by one girl alone. This does not concern you. As you click-clack down the obsidian tiles, you lift your hand and feel it hum with the Sun. The throne room doors hiss as they light up chartreuse, and all at once they fly open to allow you inside. You are a tiny shadow in the massive column of dim light that pours into the room.
At the end of the throne room, down a long, long carpet that leads up to her glistening obsidian throne, sits Her Imperious Condescension, cast in shadow and looking bored as ever.
“Mother,” you growl, “I have to register a complaint.”
Betty beckons you with two fingers. It isn’t obedience that brings you forward so much as it’s a magnetic pull that yanks at the core of you, a satellite tugged on by gravity. You know that Betty is controlling you because you are not a completely braindead idiot, but you don’t mind it so much. It feels like a mother hoisting you up onto her lap. You would never tell another soul, but it’s – well, comforting.
Feet from the Baroness’ throne, you take a low bow that tickles your feet with the tips of your hair. Then you snap up straight.
“What’s on your brine, little gill?” she asks, a deep and burbling sound that comes from the back of her throat. There’s a waver to it, like someone speaking underwater, like the sound must ripple through her fuchsia gills before it comes out.
“Jane is about to drive me out of my fucking mind,” you mutter through your teeth, pointing an accusatory finger behind you.
Betty blinks her long, long eyelashes and cocks her head to look behind you, where Jane has dutifully – no, apathetically – followed you.
Jane’s face isn’t really stiff, more like all the muscles have gone slack. She can scarcely summon the strength to pull her mouth into a smile. This strikes you as a shame, because flashing evil and villainous smiles to anyone who will look has been one of the most delightful parts of being grimbark. But no, she’s just standing there with that bored, blank look on her face, her hands folded behind her back as she clutches her shining trident.
Your stepmother strokes the Cat on her lap. You should hate this creature, but you don’t. Its blood is your blood, you share the rippling, nuclear heat of the same Sun under your skin. Still, the twitching of its long and skinny tail is irritating. Your ear flicks when it yawns, curling its paws over its face as Betty scritches it with her pink talons. Her heel bobs in irritation.
“And just what is it, cray tell, that so offends you about the Maid?”
“Look at her!” you protest. “She’s a total fucking drag! You couldn’t give me a sidekick who can talk ? I’m trying to keep up with an image here!”
The Condesce sighs through her slit nostrils, the fuchsia gills peeking out of her hair trembling as she does so. “Jane, my guppy, do you have an answer for Jade’s quandary?”
Jane blinks very, very slowly. “Cease reproduction,” she drawls.
For a moment, the Condesce just closes her eyes. You alternate between staring at the end of her nose – because eye contact is too scary, even for a werewolf girl – and glaring at the floor in deference.
“Jade, do you eel that the tasks you’re completing for me are too dull for your liking?”
Your heart jumps. “No, of course not!”
“Do you eel I had poor judgment in selecting Jane as a servant?”
“Do you eel that your task is more important than Jane’s?”
You know you’re about to contradict yourself. Your ears flatten as you shuffle your feet and murmur, “ No , I was just–”
“Come here, guppy.”
She doesn’t have to tug at you this time. You walk up the velvety stairs to her throne with your head bowed. The white Cat on her lap pounces off and saunters into the shadows, and your stepmother lifts your chin with two fingers. Her hand is very cold.
You are very afraid of Betty. You feel like you have been for a long, long time.
The Condesce lets go of your chin. Then she winds her hand back and slaps you hard across the face. You allow yourself only the tiniest gasp, even when you feel that one of her rings has drawn blood.
“Your problem, little gill, is that you think this is aboat you. Whale, let me clarify something, guppy – you do what I tell you to do, and whatever nonsense games you wanna play with your fronds comes second.”
“Yes, Mother,” you mutter.
Her golden circlet shimmers. “I couldn’t hear you, angelfish.”
“Am I gonna hear any more bellyaching from you today?”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Betty pats your cheek, and you flinch at her touch. Your face stings. “Now be a good gill and take this to the Rogue.”
She shoves a folder into your arms that leaves a residue of sticky glitter on the front of your tunic. Pink sparkles fall out of it as you set it away in your sylladex.
“Don’t disappoint me, my guppies.” The Condesce flashes you a big, bright grin that shows off all her rows of shark teeth. “Class is dismissed.”
You leave the throne room burning with resentment. Static crackles around your fists as you clench and unclench them. A Dersite guard tumbles over himself in his effort to bow as you pass.
“Real nice job back there, Crocker,” you growl. Your face still hurts. You wipe away the blood. “Do you think you could be a normal fucking villain for a second?”
You won’t look at her. “Yeah, yeah, submit, obey, whatever.”
Outside, a belltower is sounding. Nervous carapacians shutter their windows and dart down alleyways. You are standing in the middle of a ghost town.
“I guess this is where we part,” you sigh.
“Oh, look who can express a thought all on her own.”
“Of course I can. I’m not a completely braindead idiot.”
Jane tilts her head and looks at you in a way that makes you feel like she can read your mind. It sends a shiver down your spine that you feel all the way down to your feet. Her face is just so distressing to look at – the eerie black of her sclera, the faint sheen of red circuits that you can see pulsing and flashing under her morbidly pale skin. In a sudden, robotic movement that makes you jump, Jane lifts her hand and gently nudges the spot where your stepmother struck you. Her hand lights up blue, you feel your skin itch, and then it’s over. You touch your cheek and feel that she’s healed the cut from Betty’s ring.
“Thank you,” is all you can begrudgingly mutter.
“You were injured. I healed you. It is to be expected from an ally.” Jane tightens her grasp on her trident. “Squabbling between the two of us will achieve nothing. You do things your way. I will do things my way.”
The sudden onslaught of original thought coming out of her mouth is almost too much to absorb right away. You become aware that your mouth is hanging open stupidly, so you close it.
“Also. I think of you as my sidekick.”
You blink. “Okay.”
Later, you will kick yourself for not coming up with something clever to say. But you hardly had the chance to, anyway, because as you’re stuttering a half-formed retort, Jane has already taken flight. You watch the red blip of her become a speck above the violet horizon.
“Oh! Oh my god, watch the turn here. Watch the – okay, you’ve got it. Phew, don’t scare me like that.”
Jane Crocker is clutching the clothes hanger-dealie for dear life as you turn down a gravelly section of back country road. You haven’t passed another car for a while now – Jane picked a rarely-frequented stretch to teach you how to drive. Her anxiety is starting to rub off on you, though.
“Are you trying to teach me or scare me?” you half joke. Well, it’s more like 80% serious, 20% joke.
“I’m sorry,” Jane titters. She does not let go of the clothes hanger-dealie. “I scarcely had a real driver’s license for more than a few months before I was whisked away from suburban life. My dad would be a better teacher.”
“You’re doing just fine, Jane. And if your dad was teaching me, I’d want you in the car anyway. I don’t think we’d have much to talk about.”
“He asks me all the time to bring you all over. ‘Jane, no one coming over for dinner?’ ‘Jane, why don’t you send someone a text and see if they’re free?’ ‘Jane, look at all these leftovers, anyone have room in their fridge?’”
She pretends to sound annoyed as she mimics his voice, but you can tell her complaints are affectionate. You can’t help but smile, maybe because the presence of a bona fide adult in your life with a real birth certificate and social security number and life experience is so bizarre to you. Jane’s dad is basically your nephew, in a roundabout sort of way, and that doesn’t alleviate any of the awkwardness you feel around him. The Prospit family acquires a new level of complication and ascends to Tier 29: Habsburg Hullabaloo.
“Sorry that he kept talking to you about your water heater the last time you were over,” she sighs. “I think he doesn’t quite understand how to speak to young adults.”
“That’s okay, he was very helpful. I don’t think we could’ve renovated my house without him.”
“It is a very nice house.”
You fall into another silence, the car rumbling over a ragged pothole in the road. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see Jane’s foot flexing forward to mash an invisible brake pedal. This is an improvement over her suddenly gasping for you to slow down, which has made you almost stall the car twice.
You could’ve asked anyone to help you navigate this machine – it’s a junker that belongs to Dirk, who lets it sit under a tarp in a garage, more curious with the machinations that make it run than actually sitting behind the wheel. Actually, you don’t need help at all, because the manuals that came with this model were very straightforward. You asked Jane to teach you because she spends too much time at home, and you’d like her to feel useful. Like John, your ecto-mother had the closest thing to a normal life before the game. You worry that she’s clinging, barnacle-like, to the meager patch of normalcy she’s managed to carve out here. Sometimes it helps to give her a simple job to do.
The truth is, Jane is as much a stranger to these vehicles as you are. They aren’t the cars that clogged highways on your version of Earth – they remind you more of the shuttles that carried carapacians between the two moons, or the escape pods that were tucked into the belly of the golden battleship. The escape pods you sometimes huddled into when you didn’t want to be found, flipping all the dead switches and pretending that it might be able to take you somewhere far away. Some of the cars on this planet run on solar power, but most of them are electric. Your battery percentage ticks down to 49% on the dashboard.
“Have you hung out with Roxy lately?”
“Huh?” Jane pushes her red cat-eye glasses up her nose. “Oh, sure. I see her plenty.”
Ding-ding – lie detected. Roxy told you last night that she hasn’t heard from Jane for over a week. And since it was her New Year’s resolution to stop being the one to initiate so many of her conversations, communication with Jane Crocker has taken a nosedive.
“Roxy’s pretty busy with classes, right? It’s nice of her to take time for you.”
Jane’s hand twitches. “Yes, I agree.”
“Have you been to their apartment? I helped them hang up some flea market paintings the other day. It looks really cool in there, with all the plants and stuff.”
“I received their snaps about it.” Jane tucks her hair behind her ear. “I actually haven’t found an opportunity to visit their home in a while.”
“Oh….” Jane trails off for so long that you think she isn’t going to answer at all. Then, defeated, she sighs, “Things come up.”
“Things? Like what things?”
Even without looking at her, you can tell Jane is shooting you a glare. It makes your mouth tug into a smile. Jane isn’t Nanna – it’s easy to needle her, and you think it’s kind of fun. But you never argue, not really. You just press her with annoying questions that she doesn’t want to answer until she turns red in the face, and only then will you back off.
You think Jane needs to take a massive fucking chill pill.
“I don’t want to….” Jane goes quiet again as she twirls her wrist in a whatever kind of way, then continues, “Interrupt things, between them.”
“You’re friends with Callie too, though.”
“I know that!”
Her volume is too high. You raise your eyebrows, and she clears her throat. On the other side of the road, a car with its top down passes you well over the posted speed limit. The driver is a troll. Black hair and a long, purple scarf billow and whip in the wind.
“I hate feeling like I’m intruding,” is all she says.
“You sound just like John,” you observe with a small smile. “He didn’t even step foot in Dave and Karkat’s place for the longest time.”
“I’m confused. I thought he hung out with the boys all the time?”
“Well, yeah. Now he does. You wanna know why he started?”
“He didn’t want them to think he was uncomfortable with their relationship.”
Jane doesn’t respond, but she does let go of the clothes hanger-dealie. For a while longer you drive without speaking, her hands folded in her lap. You flip the turn signal to warn that you’re making a sharp right turn, even though there’s no one behind you. You start driving the way you came, sailing past a long track of gray farmland. Jane leans her head against the window.
“I’m not uncomfortable with their relationship. I’m… happy, that they’re happy. I just don’t feel like I have a place in that dynamic anymore.”
You look at her for as long as your driving anxiety will allow before you return your eyes to the road. “Roxy was really disappointed when I didn’t bring you with me last time.”
Something about the doleful look on her face irks you. It’s a small agitation that pierces you quickly and then fades away just as fast. You blink hard at the road, already having a hard time remembering why you were annoyed at all.
“Jane, you’re friends with some of the most ridiculous boys I have ever met in my whole life. On the other hand, you’ve got a couple of perfectly nice, sane, lovely ladies who get all puppy-eyed when I tell them you’re not showing up to hang out with them. You should probably text them before Dirk and Jake are your only friends left.”
Jane laughs hard at this. It’s a nasally, infectious sound that makes you snort. “You just described my nightmare scenario. They’d have me investigating whether the medical professionals of this society are above performing lobotomies.”
You tap the steering wheel. “Have you thought about taking classes yourself? Roxy seems to like it a lot.”
“Classes? Like, what kind?”
“I don’t know. What were you going to study, when you thought you’d be going to college?”
Jane waves away that thought dismissively. “I didn’t pay it any mind. Actually, I didn’t believe I would have to go to college. Isn’t that silly?”
“It’s pretty stupid, yeah.”
“Point taken.” Jane rubs her temple. “I guess I’ll have to acquire a formal education if I ever want a real job.”
“There you go getting hung up about ‘real jobs’ again,” you tease.
“Well, excuse me Miss Harley, but not all of us can scrape by selling vegetables at the farmer’s market, or whatever it is that you do.”
Jane can’t take it most of the time, but she sure can dish it out. You recognize the pinch of irritation you feel as her successful retaliation.
“Hey, I do plenty of things. That’s not the point, though. We’re lucky enough to live in a society where most essential tasks are automated, and it means that we don’t have to dedicate years of our lives to thankless labor.” You drive past a farm that’s dotted with white and brown cows. You glance at them as you continue down the country road. “I won’t pretend that I totally understand what life was like for humans before everything ended. It seems very sad, though, that anyone would want to emerge victorious on the other side of a game set to murder them only to turn around and try to reap a profit from any line of work.”
The corners of Jane’s mouth curl downward. “We didn’t all want to be gods.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you. I didn’t want parades and fortune and fame either, and I sure didn’t want a spotlight cast on me. I think it was the right choice to keep our heads down and go unnoticed, but it doesn’t mean I have to get an office job.”
“Being a god is pretty cool though,” you add.
“Yes, it is pretty awesome.”
“Have you given up on Crockercorp, then?”
Jane is taken aback. She laughs nervously at the question. “I – I, where would I even start?”
“It isn’t like time is of the essence,” you note.
She slouches and looks out the window. “It seemed so easy when I was a teenager. I would be handed a large corporation without having to work for it at all, and then I would implement all the silly ideas that I thought would make things better. My dad discouraged communication between me and anyone with real power at Crockercorp. I didn’t know who I’d be working with, I didn’t even know if I was being set up to get the rug pulled out from under me.” She shrugs. “When all’s said and done, Crockercorp was a nasty little side business erected by a nasty crone of a woman, and if all traces of it are wiped off the planet… well, I guess nothing of value was lost.”
“You’ve been talking to the Nannas a lot, haven’t you?”
“Is it that obvious?”
You love both of them, your dual Nannas. You may never think of them as your mother, and you think that works out just fine for all three of you. You love the warm safety of their home, of vases and framed photos placed atop doilies, of hanging flowers tickled by the breeze from the open window. You love the quiet sound of the wires popping with heat inside the oven, one of the Nannas humming over a mixing bowl while another one asks you – with genuine interest! – about the current state of your garden. And once every blue moon when you wake up in a cold sweat, when the memory of a large mansion and a dead dog and a woman with golden rings resurfaces, you call them in the early hours of the morning and sleep on their sofa. One of them fills out a crossword puzzle as the other strokes your hair and talks you through the heartache. She was a nasty old crone, she’ll grumble, and you must have been such a strong young lady to stand up to her.
“Have you tried asking your paradox clones for career advice?” you ask.
“The idea hadn’t occurred to me. She, they , lived such a different life from me. From the get-go their opportunities were so starkly set apart from my own.” Jane rubs the back of her neck. “I suppose that’s what I like so much about talking to them. Seeing how my life could have unfolded if things were different.”
“Seeing what it would be like to be normal?”
“As normal as one’s life could be once one’s evil fascist stepmother disappeared without a trace. She had to learn to grow up so fast. She was alone in dealing with lawyers as they transferred ownership of the corporation, she was alone in selling the estate, she was alone in trying to navigate the normal, outside world. There was so much she didn’t know about how other people lived. But once she found her way, she was able to live that quiet, peaceful, domestic life she had always pined for.”
Lost in thought, Jane pauses with her finger to her lips. You’re comfortable enough now that you’re driving a few kilometers over the speed limit, but Jane doesn’t seem to notice. Her foot no longer presses the invisible brake pedal.
“Well, I guess I should reconsider what I said before. We aren’t all that different. My life was upended just as hers was. All of her plans and schemes to avenge her dignity were for nothing, just as all my grand designs for Crockercorp fell apart. Now we’re both trying to fumble our way through the new world we’ve been dumped into.”
“Do you ever want to settle down the way she did? Like – husband and kids, the whole nine yards?”
“Do I want a husband…?” Jane taps her chin. “I definitely did, a long time ago. I had a vague idea of what it would be like, me and the blotchy, indistinct man standing next to me. I didn’t want marriage to interfere with my career, I always imagined that whatever partnership I developed would sit third or fourth on my list of priorities.”
“Maybe you wanted a husband because you thought it was the normal thing to want.”
“All our friends are dating aliens now, so I guess ‘normal’ doesn’t really mean anything.”
Jane laughs her hooting hyena howl again. “Yes, I guess I’m free to do whatever I want now.”
“I don’t think it’s bad to want to throw yourself into a career. Sorry if it sounds like I was dumping on your life choices earlier.” You push your glasses up your nose. “Actually, I’m pretty jealous. I didn’t think of what I would be doing at all when I was a kid. All I cared about was busting out of that island and making it into the game, just like Prospit had always told me I would. When that was over and I was on the ship, I… well, I thought I was in a doomed timeline. I spent my days waiting for everything to fall apart.”
Talking about it still forms a lump in your throat. You swallow it hard before you continue.
“So while you were busy with your grand designs for Crockercorp, I didn’t even think I’d live to be this old.”
“I never thought of it that way. I’m sorry to hear that, Jade.”
“Oh, don’t be. We’re only a fraction of a fraction through our expected lifespans. If we don’t do anything heroic or evil, we don’t have to worry about settling into a career path for a long, long time.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me.”
Two RVs pass on the other side of the road, headed for the same destination. Several mountain bikes are strapped to the back of one. You watch them disappear in your rear view mirror.
“I thought you liked noir-type stuff. Couldn’t you be a private investigator?”
Jane scoffs and slaps her knee. “You can’t just be a private investigator! The bare minimum would be a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, or at least two year’s experience with some sort of law enforcement agency. Also, you need to become licensed with a detective agency. That’s hoops upon hoops to jump through.”
You crack a smile. “Sounds like you’ve thought about it a lot.”
“I… may have invested quite a bit of research into the option, on days when running an international corporation seemed too overwhelming to think about.”
“I also remember hearing a rumor that you were quite the puzzle-solver during your session,” you tease.
Jane blushes. “I still have the trophies I unearthed from my planet’s quests.”
“Aw, you do?”
“They’re useless, honestly. Just dusty bones and trinkets that don’t do anything. Half-broken tablets that transcribed the cryptic prophecies of Hemera, that sort of thing. The rewards you get from solving puzzles in a void session are all very disappointing.” She shrugs. “I never even found my denizen, no matter how hard I looked for her. But it made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile. It was exciting to collect all the prizes along the way.”
“I wish I had more time to do side quests in my session,” you sigh. “Instead I got stuck hunting frogs. I guess I only got one reward from that, and I can’t even put it on my shelf.”
“No, instead we’re all living inside of it.”
You can only smile at this. The Sun is gone, your Bec ears vestigial and your guardian dormant, but you can still see your baby tadpole clear as day. His belly full of stars, the wet and nebulous blinking of his fabulous eyes. If you ever found a real job, you could put “creating a Universe” under your list of technical skills.
“Okay, let’s make a pact,” you say suddenly.
“What kind of pact?”
“Roxy has class two days from now. Pinky-promise me that you’ll visit campus with her and just see what kind of criminal justice program they have. It’s not like you have to pay for it.”
Jane stares at your outstretched pinky finger. “Usually a pact means that both people are required to do something. What exactly am I getting out of it?”
“You get to see your lovely friend who loves you very much, for one thing! If you want something from me… hm. I don’t know, I’ll weave a windchime for you?”
Jane pinches the bridge of her nose. You recognize the fork in the road that will take you back in the direction of your house. Today is a new record – you’ve never driven for this long, much less without incident.
“Your windchimes are very cute,” Jane concedes. She reluctantly hooks her finger with yours, and the two of you shake on it. “What do I have to do, bring you back a brochure as evidence?”
“Snaps will suffice,” you reply. “Tell Roxy I said hello.”
Early morning has given way to the afternoon. A sliver of sunlight pokes through the overcast sky, casting the pond you’re driving past in white freckles of light. As your car sails by, a flock of geese flap their wings and take flight across the highway.
Harley Tower is dark and dusty.
The Land of Frost and Frogs, like its siblings, is withering. Floating in its delicate space above your coffee table, there is no Skaia to tug on its tides with its gravity. It has nothing to spin around. One day these planets will calcify, their flowers will close up and their oceans will stagnate. Lava will cool, and as years go by the denizens will close their eyes for the last time. One day you will have to excavate your old home from the earth if you ever want to salvage it. But there is nowhere for Harley Tower to go, so it looms in its marshy graveyard, a lone mausoleum in a vast, empty world.
Every now and then the tower will surge to life when the geothermal plant underground decides to function, but now is not one of those times. Between brief bursts of electricity and warmth, the house is dead silent and pitch black – the SBURB machinations that allowed your house to thrive off the grid have long since been snipped. As you tread carefully across the damask carpet, you fear that the parlor may suddenly come alive, the fireplace igniting and the pipes humming and thumping inside the walls. You’re on pins and needles waiting for the monster of Harley Tower to wake up.
Jake sweeps his lantern in an arc to cast the parlor in dim light.
“Gosh, Jade, it’s a sty in here.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I never had the energy to clean it. Not after the game, anyway.”
“I have to tip my hat to you,” he grumbles, “keeping up with this cockeyed bull hockey.”
You sigh. “My grandpa didn’t care much either way if I dusted or not, but I tried to do what I could.”
The gas-lit lantern you hold over your head casts dark, twitching shadows across the carpet. An eerie orange glow shudders under the eye sockets of taxidermied bucks, shining on the tarnished helmets of knights. A layer of grime and dust settles over everything.
“This is where he lived,” you murmur, “before he got launched into space, that is.”
You mean for it to be a joke, but like many of your attempts to make light of what’s in front of you, it falls flat in a way that might make an audible splat on the floor. Jake looks at you only briefly before turning away.
The spot where his mahogany mount stood still leaves a dent in the rug. You stare at the faded rectangular patch that remains after so many years, a quiet testament to the world-renowned explorer-naturalist-treasure-hunter-archaeologist-scientist-adventurer-big-game-hunter-billionaire that spent his last years as a parlor curiosity. Every now and then you had to stand on a stepladder and brush the dust out of his wiry hair. Mites would settle otherwise, living in the folds of his clothing and the brim of his hat.
You want Jake to ask you about him. How did you drag him up the hillside, Jade, when you took him home to stuff and mount him? That one is easy – Bec realized what you were trying to do and teleported you to the laboratory. Was it hard to cut your grandfather open, Jade? Were you prepared for the task? Yes and no. The robots did a lot of the heavy lifting for you. All your had to do was bag up the organs, replace the wet eyes with glass. Your grandfather used a needle injector to insert pins into your gums, effectively keeping your mouth shut, but you preferred stitching by hand. The curved needle you used to poke up under his chin and sew behind his teeth was as long as your forearm. His skin was tough as leather, and his moustache got in the way of the wire. Wearing a face mask helped, or else you probably would’ve hurled. But your grandfather prepared you for this, and he guided your hand patiently as you tanned skin and re-sculpted the foam core inside the hollow cavity. Just as we practiced, Jade, good girl, precisely what we did with the hammerhead, yes? You’d carved out and made a trophy out of many a monster in this laboratory, standing by the work table as you fussed over the silver tools laid out on a cloth. You wanted to be his helper. You wanted him to trust you.
But Jake does not ask any questions, because that is not something Jake likes to do. Not when the subject is himself. So you answer your own questions in your head, and you let Jake step over the faded patch in the carpet. Your jaw tightens when he tracks mud over the spot where your grandfather stood.
He whistles lowly. “What am I looking at here?”
You come up behind him and lower your lantern on a side table. “That’s me.”
“Exactly , Jade. Say, while you’re at it, could you tell me what color the sky is?” He nudges you in the shoulder, laughing nervously at the stiff likeness hanging above you. “Kind of chintzy, don’t you think?”
You walk up to the mantle with your hands folded behind you, looking up at the shadowy portrait whose eyes are flickering in a blank, disinterested sort of way.
“This was my dream self. He took this portrait after he found me on the Battlefield.”
“Oh, right. It keeps slipping my mind that both our forebears had a secret tunnel into the Incipisphere. Your gramps must’ve been a lunatic to barrel into the heart of Skaia like that.”
You stare up at the portrait, at all the slight imperfections you noticed so long ago that they started to look normal – the awkward simper he stapled your mouth into, with all the pins underneath, sealing your mouth into a lopsided grin. The black stitch running down your temple. The glass eyes were not a perfect replacement. You think you look like a mounted deer.
“When I died saving John, he brought the body back to Earth and stuffed it. I guess he didn’t want me to see the body, because he kept it up in the laboratory with the rest of his junk.”
“Aw.” Jake clicks his tongue, sounding genuinely charmed. “That was gallant of him.”
“You think so?”
“Sure. It may seem ghastly, but the preservation of our loved ones appears to be a common quirk among this branch of the slime family.” He scratches the side of his head. “We could postulate all day on why we have the predisposition to perpetuate the structural integrity of our guardians and our children. Something universal in our DNA, I guess! Anywho, I’m jealous of you, Jade.”
Your eyebrows furrow. “Why?”
“You got the chance to salvage your pops. See, when you do what Jane’s Poppop and the Batterwitch and even my old geriatric doppelganger did, you’re upholding the memory of something precious to you. I wanted to do the same, when my grandma passed. It wasn’t in the stars for me.” Jake shrugs. “She was too far from home – the beasts would have wrested her from me before I could return her to safety. Besides… I’m not sure there was enough to produce a faithful interpretation!”
He does not look at you the entire time he says this. The thought comes again: the reminder that when you and Jake English look at one another, you are seeing the ghost of someone else. Two chameleons staring each other in the lopsided eyes, and you’re not sure what color to turn into. It isn’t fair. You wish you could go back to thinking Jake was your penpal, your grandson from the future who ran to you for advice, for consolation, for guidance. The idea of him as an overeager child strains against the dark, looming figure of Dr. Jacob Harley. You have known two Jakes in your life, and the former has a shadow that’s hard to crawl out from.
“I’m jealous of you,” you reply suddenly. “I wish I had cremated him.” Jake looks at you like he thinks he’s in trouble, so you pick your lantern back up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to get onto this subject. We’re looking for his study, remember?”
“Righto. Got on a morbid fucking tangent, didn’t I. Lead the way, captain.”
He moves suddenly, and this makes you feel bad because you know your words came out harsher than you meant them. Jake’s got his tail between his legs now. At the same time he turns away from you, he swings his lantern in such a sudden swoop that the far wall is bathed in a dull swath of orange. Your eyes widen – the lantern’s arc unveiled a crease in the wallpaper. You walk past him with your own lantern held high, trying for another glimpse.
“Whoa, wait! I think I saw it.”
“Oh, shitting Christ. Pardon my shaky hand, Jade, I’m just so damn rattled.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Jake. It’s much creepier in here than it ever used to be.” You pause. “Or maybe it always was, and I’m just now picking up on it.”
Jake gulps. “I’ll say. This crypt’s a far cry from the digs you’ve got now.”
You pat your hand against the wallpaper. It’s pockmarked with air bubbles, and your fingertips hiss over the rough texture. Then you find it – the slightest dip in the paper. You dig your fingers into the groove and feel for the hidden door’s latch. Finally, the entry to Dr. Harley’s private study groans open. A smell like wood varnish and leather seeps out.
The darkness is heavy. Your trembling lantern-light struggles to poke past the pitch black. You catch the glitter of a shining globe, a glint off of a bottle of whiskey. More smells make themselves obvious – old carpet, yellow newspaper, horsehair.
Jake experiments with the switch against the wall. Something sparks, a deep clunking resounding from inside the wall. Then, very slowly, the glass lights along the walls flicker to life.
“Huh! How do you like that, they run on gas,” Jake muses aloud. “Nerts, really didn’t expect that to work.”
“Oh, no.” You set your lantern on your grandfather’s writing desk and crane your neck to look up into the corner of the ceiling. Dark, greyish streaks run down from the plaster. It’s freckled with several shades of discolor, a musty smell coming off of it. “Water damage! How did that happen?”
“Maybe.” You push your curls out of your eyes. “Crap! This place has turned into a total dump.”
A lump is forming in your throat. You can hear him now – I dip out for a brief eight years and come back to find my study in ruins. And have I not made it very clear, Jade, that you are not to pass this threshold without my express permission? The plaster smells putrid. Thankfully, nothing sat below it to collect dirty water and mold. You sweep aside furniture and boxes that may become victim to falling flakes.
Something else has already nabbed Jake’s attention. He whistles at something as you’re squinting at the ceiling with your hands on your hips, as if a piercing glare will shame it into going back the way it was.
“Scope the hooch, Jade! Heavens to Murgatroyd, was your gramps some kind of blotto or what?”
He’s reading the labels in your grandfather’s liquor cabinet. Mostly liquor cabinet – rum and gin bottles share shelf space with science journals and jars of floating specimens. This is poison, Jade, highly potent, strong enough to fell a beast. You must promise me you’ll never take even a sip. He drank it anyway, because he was building up an immunity, and maybe one day you’d be grown enough to know what he meant. The old plaster is forgotten. You stand shoulder to shoulder, your hands folded and fidgeting.
“You could call my grandfather many things, but conservative wasn’t one of them. If he had one thing, he had it a dozen times over. Whether it was muskets, or mummies… or merlot.”
“No kidding. Fuck, there’s enough booze to keep a man zozzled til kingdom come.”
“I never watched him drink it, if you can believe it. I would just listen to the ice in the glass.”
“You hung around in here often?”
This makes you beam wider, for real this time. “I’d lay on the bear skin rug right there and play while he wrote at his desk. He didn’t like to be interrupted, so I would act out silent dramas between my Squiddles while he shuffled his papers and refilled his glass. He sighed a lot.” You trace your bottom lip with your thumb. “I kept coming in here after he was gone. Even though he didn’t want me to.”
“You think your pa had stuff in here he wanted to keep hush-hush?”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure he did.”
You forgot how bad he was at organizing things. Books are sorted haphazardly on the shelf – some look like they were ordered by color, some by height. A glass bell jar displaying a bat skeleton teeters precariously on a stack of folios. You set it away from the edge, sweeping a layer of dust from a copy of a classical history journal. The grime comes off in fluffy stripes on your palm. Jake thumbs through a yellowed botanical text, pausing to read your grandfather’s notations along the crinkled margins.
“He must have been really smart,” Jake says sadly.
You peer over his shoulder, and allow your hand to rest on his arm until it tenses. “I think my grandfather was the smartest man I ever knew.”
Jake kneels to run his finger across your grandpa’s old photo storage boxes. Their designs are all blue and marbled. Yellow, warped labels vaguely hint at what may be inside – Cairo – 1961. Roxanne – 1986. Joey – Recitals 1989-1991. Mongolia – 1991-1992. Jade – 1995-1996. Jade – 1996-1997. Jade – 1997-1998. Jade – 1998-. Jake picks out the loose newspaper clippings that are crammed between the boxes, thumbing through the snips detailing falling meteors and a vanished businesswoman and a new mom-and-pop shop in Maple Valley.
“He had a sentimental side, I see. If I had half of my gram’s old knick-knacks and gewgaws to look back on!”
“It’s like you said,” you respond stiffly, “he liked to preserve things.”
Jake shimmies a photo box out from its cranny on the shelf, blowing off the stratum of dust that’s accumulated atop it. “Aye carumba, I’ve got the fuckin’ jitters here. I feel like the carpet’s gonna open up beneath me and send me headfirst into the hellmouth if I go rifling through my old self’s stuff.”
“There’s nothing in there that interesting,” you lie, picking at your fingernail.
He pops the lid open, and you recognize which box it is. You open your mouth to stop him, think better of it, and shut yourself up. If Jake hears the stepped-on puppy sound you make, he ignores it.
“Oh, would you look at this?” Jake marvels to himself.
He chuckles quietly as he flips through the photos inside, clucking and cooing affectionately the way you might react to a cute picture of a cat that someone shows you on their phone. His shaky fingers skim past rows of girls in matching tutus, a class of ballerinas lined up for a recital. A child in a lavender leotard sits on a woman’s lap. A twiggy, older girl with a bleached puff of hair holds a baby on one hip and a flower bouquet in her other arm – the younger girl in lavender has her arms looped around her waist. Jake stares hard at this one, then begins shifting through the photos faster.
“Is that…?” he mutters. “I guess it could be….”
More photos of ballerinas and the girl who looks like you. The blonde girl doesn’t appear for a while, but Jake stops abruptly when he reaches the end of the stack. A vintage station wagon with the side paneling that looks like wood, a big canoe strapped to the roof. A man in a suit leans against the drivers side with his hands in his pockets, a woman with a black coif of hair wrapped around his arm. A puppy with a droopy jowl lies beside their feet. The blonde girl is hanging out of the back window, her hand a blur as she waves to the camera. Her teeth glint with the shine of braces.
“She was their babysitter,” you blurt. Jake turns and looks at you, so you quickly turn to stare at the opposite side of the room. Your eyes fixate on the twitching gas flame inside one of the lights.
“Their…? Were these girls….”
“Just two,” you bark. “He had two children. Roxy looked after them when he was gone.”
“And for just how long have you been sitting pretty on that landmine of intel?”
You give him an apologetic look. “Since the first time I saw Roxy without her mask.”
“Wow.” Jake laughs and shakes his head. “Wow, would you look at them? I don’t know what I expected. They’re so, well, normal .”
“About as normal as he was capable of.” You go back to picking your nails. “You can try to find other photos of them, if you want. I’ve never found any.”
Jake lets all the photos sift back into the box. His shoulders slouch, like he’s just sloughed a great weight off his back. The track of his fingers leaves a dusty trail on the box’s lid.
“Why do you figure he didn’t, that no one–” He pauses, seems to scold himself. The more uncomfortable he becomes, the smaller he chops up his sentences into self-conscious fragments. “If they were posted on the mainland… I mean, if he wasn’t a hermit, why didn’t they…?”
“Come looking for me? I don’t know.”
“How ? How could that possibly… wasn’t your gramps a big shot magnate? You don’t know where his kids went?”
“You don’t know why no one ever came snooping around for the goshdanged godforsaken baby ?”
“You don’t know how the hell Roxy figures into this?”
“Christ on a fuckin’ motorbike, Jade, what’s the point of having kids if you’re not even going to take ‘em on adventures with you!”
He shouts this last part, but you don’t give him much of a reaction because you have already digested and tucked away this information a long, long time ago. The children who look like you and the house you don’t recognize. They’re all as far away and foggy as the life in the tower that you remember most clearly only in your dreams, when you are small again and you can smell the sand and the salt and the ceiling stretches far above you. This doesn’t feel like a real place anymore, it doesn’t feel like the home you grew up in. It’s like you’re Alice with your arms and legs sticking out of the White Rabbit’s house, it’s like you’ve stumbled upon a dream bubble copy that’s been twisted and turned around by the flux and flow of your faulty memory. You do not know who these children are or what they were like or what happened to them. You do not know why you didn’t live with them, why he bore you far away and left you alone with no one to come to your aid. Maybe they tried. Maybe Bec zapped them all away when they got too close. How could you possibly know? So you just don’t think about it.
“It’s awful,” Jake says. All the muscles in his face have gone slack, all that conscious effort that goes into the chiseled Michelangelan visage of Jack English has fled him, and now he looks deflated. “There’s not really another word for it, is there?”
You rub your arm. “I guess not.”
When he looks at you, Jake looks small and sad. “Did you hate him?”
The directness of the question is more surprising than what he’s actually asking. You open your mouth, then close it again. Time is of the essence, here – your silence betrays you by the second – but you can’t get out anything more than a mumbly consonant that meanders its way into an indecisive sigh.
There’s a spot in the shiny mahogany bookcase where a pen knife has etched away an even, chicken scratch row of thin lines. The writing that accompanies them is hard to read. Stooping low so that you’re sitting awkwardly beside Jake, you can see that the lowest line reads 6/95. You remember it now, standing straight with your back against the wood, snickering when he told you not to stand on your tippy-toes because that’s cheating, Jade, and she who cheats at play will cheat in any other way. The soft sound of the scratching wood just above you, how he rested his heavy hand on your head so your hair wouldn’t give you a few extra inches.
He wasn’t the only one to carry on this habit. You performed the same ritual on the thing in the attic, standing at the laboratory’s wall and etching your height into the frame. The mounted body stood at one hundred and sixty-two centimeters, one hundred and seventy if you included the mount. Each month you got closer to matching its stature.
The scratch marks end at the third shelf. Beside the tallest mark, there is a jar with some sort of pickled fetus inside.
Did you hate him, Jade?
“No,” you stutter, finally. “I didn’t hate my grandpa.”
It’s unconvincing, and it’s delayed, and when you fail to meet his eye, Jake’s hands clench and unclench nervously. Would it have been better if you said yes? Does he want you to yell at him? You aren’t sure. Jake has always been better at making requests of you when it’s written with pen and paper. To him, there’s a safety that lies in the space between you – but you are growing very tired of the vast emptiness of space.
“Being alone,” you falter, “makes you tough. My grandpa wanted me to be strong. Being strong means that you’ll win the game, right?” Jake just stares at you, so you shrug. “When I arrived on my meteor, maybe he saw me as a doomsday omen. Maybe he wanted to take me far away from his real family so that, when it all finally happened, they might have stood a chance.”
“Oh, Jade, surely you don’t mean that.”
“What?” You cock your head. “I’m just telling you what I think, Jake. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating.”
“How can you not think of yourself as his real family?” he gapes. He takes your hands in his. It’s an overeager display of affection that he’s never quite executed perfectly – rather than clasping hands, it just looks like he’s flopping your arms around like a puppet. “Have we been snooping through the same house, or have you gone flat-out typhlotic on me?”
“Of course you were his family, Jade! Look at the damned fireplace if you think I’m crazy, but that doesn’t look like an old Victorian gent hiding his problem child in the attic to me!”
You don’t say anything, just look uncomfortably at the carpet, so Jake lets you go with some reluctance.
“Don’t feel like you have to answer for what he’s done,” you reassure him. “You aren’t him, you didn’t live the life he did. My grandpa didn’t make the best choices, but it doesn’t reflect how I think of you.” You reach to squeeze his hand, then drop it again. “I knew you long before I had any idea you shared the same genes as that old bag of wind, anyway. You’re my friend, Jake, and I love you.”
Jake looks like he might cry. You feel a twinge of those old, dormant memories sleeping inside you, the ones that filtered into you and settled in the back of your mind with the powers of Heart and Roguery. The old woman who went into the woods and scooped a child out of the burning, crackling earth, who fled to the end of the world with her baby and built a new home for him and loved him so fiercely, so ferociously that she kicked and spat and punched and fought when she thought that awful monster might try to harm him. The woman whose blood left a thick, viscous trail in the jungle soil as she dragged her way back to her child, because if she could only make it past the door then he wouldn’t have to go looking for her, and how badly she wanted to see his face at that very moment, at the end of all things when all she could feel was the dirt under her fingernails.
You lean forward and hug him.
Over the course of several years, Jake English has swayed very little from his stance on public displays of affection. You have seen him go rigid when John throws a friendly arm around him, a visible shudder running through his body. Only when he gets punched gently in the arm by Roxy have you seen him loosen up, to not go all tense and fidgety. This time is different. Jake hugs you back so hard that you think your ribs might crack. You gasp for air as he sniffles loudly into your hair.
“Jake!” you choke, “I can’t breathe!”
“Jeepers!” Jake lets you go, and you inhale deeply. “Didn’t mean to squeeze the soul right out of you. I don’t know what came over me!”
“It’s fine, you just took me by surprise.”
“Pot, meet kettle!”
Jake starts to set aside the box he pulled off the shelf, putting everything back the way it was before. You have a feeling this isn’t over, that Jake will want to return, that he will sift through documents and files and photos until he finds names and birthdays and some concrete way to track down anything official about the siblings you never met. You’re calling it now – he will be in contact with Roxy to scour Earth’s old Internet databases before the week is up. Putting a name to a face, being able to see where they worked, if they had a social media presence, using Google Maps to trace the path from their house to wherever they might’ve gone to school – little details that might make them real in his eyes. Maybe taking an interest in their lives will make him feel like he’s doing more than his counterpart ever did.
But maybe he won’t. You only suspect as much.
“Jade,” he starts. “What did you do for fun here?”
“No, scratch that. What did you always want to do when you lived here that you weren’t allowed to?”
“Because this whole adventure has segued into the bummer to end all bummers and I want to be able to say we got something out of this whole mess other than enough baggage to keep the TSA busy for four-to-ten business days! Come on, what’s something your gramps never let you do? No rules, nothing off limits!”
The answer has already come to you. “My grandpa kept crates of fireworks under the house.”
“Well, maybe they were supposed to act more like flares. I don’t really know why else he would have them? Either way, he always told me they were very dangerous, and Bec would never let me get near them regardless.”
“Why the hell are we still slumped here then?” Jake shouts. He grabs your hands and hoists you up. “Let’s party with some pyrotechnics!”
It’s still muggy outside. At some point the sun sank, so your living room is dark and LOFAF hangs in the dim half-light of whatever switch you left on in the kitchen. Out in the marshes, Harley Tower is a spindly spire toothpick-thin and far away.
“This is so incredibly dangerous.”
“Isn’t it!” Jake beams at you. “Who knows, though! It might not explode at all!”
This hadn’t occurred to you. He’s right – the pyrotechnics Dr. Harley kept under the tower have sat there for over two decades. Water could’ve leaked in at some point, or maybe they’ve reached their expiration date. Do fireworks expire? No, you think they can’t possibly expire, but maybe at some point they’ll stop going off? You should have put more thought into this before you trekked out here with half a ton of perilous explosives.
You thought about setting them off once. You must’ve been eight. The planes skipped their routine flyover for two months in a row, and if that wasn’t a problem in itself, an aphid problem killed a swath of plants in the atrium. If you detonated one of them, a spark or a flare, someone might have taken note of you.
Or maybe they’d just think a rich old buffoon was goofing off on his private island. Either way, Becquerel wouldn’t allow you to approach. Even now, you feel a twinge in the dark and animal part of your brain. Don’t step too close, it says, you’ll get hurt. It feels less like common sense and more like your dog nipping at your ankle.
“How do you think we should do it?”
Jake taps his chin. “I’m thinking we throw caution to the wind.”
“We kind of already are.”
“Let’s explode them all at once!”
“Jake, are you mental?”
“If I’m mental, that makes you mental by association.” Jake fishes in one of his deep pockets and pulls out a lighter, a simple silver thing riddled with dings and scratches. You squint at it – did he get this from your grandfather’s office? “The way I figure, we’ll know right away whether they’re still viable if we make ‘em all kablooey in one fell swoop.”
You stare at Jake, then rest a hand on his shoulder. “Jake, if you blast your arm off, you are going to be the one to call Jane and ask her to patch you up.”
“Spoken like someone who thinks I’ve never rung Janey in the wee hours to fix garden variety lesions and lashes.” He jerks his thumb to his chest. “I’m her biggest patron.”
“Confidence is key!” You thump him on the back. “As long as it’s your limbs on the line, let’s burn this mother to the ground.”
Jake, being Jake, already had gunpowder in his sylladex. He shakes out a trail of it all the way to the crates arranged in a haphazard semi-circle. You’ve used a crowbar to pry open their lids, and the discombobulated piles of fireworks poke out in different directions. He kneels, lights the trail, and the two of you run to hide behind a tree, flushed and laughing nervously.
For a moment the fire licks up the snaking pile of powder, burning bright and steady, and when it reaches the crates it seems not to know what to do. The wood crackles and browns, burning with a bonfire smell. Jake tsk s with disappointment, and your shoulders fall. Maybe the fireworks did get wet at some point, high tide leaking into the basement and settling. Part of you is relieved, but mostly you’re just disappointed.
“Well, that was a bus–” Jake starts.
Then it explodes.
You scream and claw your fingers into Jake’s shoulder as the first pops of color and sound echo in the clearing. You can hear him laughing, sort of, but all four of your ears are ringing. A trail of yellow-white careens in your direction – Jake yanks you both to the other side of the tree. It collides with the ground in a shower of sparks behind you.
“Wow!” Jake shouts. It echoes distantly, drowned out by the popping and whistling of the fireworks shooting every which way. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
You’ve seen much cooler in your life. But no, you’ve never seen anything like this.
It isn’t neat, and it isn’t clean. The fireworks combine into grand, sloppy mash-ups of whatever intricate designs they were originally designed to perform. Warbling trails of yellow whistle across the sky, turn red, and snuff themselves out. Bursts of whizzing green shift to pink, then orange, then fade. Trails of smoke suspend themselves in midair, and in the great hanging clouds of haze you can see the reflections of all the exploding colors. Smoke clouds turn pink and orange and pink again. And because there is no wind, it all hangs motionless in the sky.
Birds are flying in frantic flocks to escape the noise, their beating wings whisking past your heads. The booming bounces against the trees, it bounces against the hills, creating one great big echo chamber that drums against your ears. It’s a thrum-thudding bang-bang-bang that you feel reverberate inside your chest, a heavy throb like the recoil of a rifle against your shoulder, a familiar popping like the unloading of a magazine.
You fall back against the grass, arms splayed in the tall weeds with their blooming red buds. Jake beams down at you, and the shape of his head is a sharp black silhouette against the bedlam of color erupting behind him.
“Thank you!” he shouts again. “Thanks for letting me do this!”
Thanks for letting me do this. As a flurry of red fireworks explode above you and shower the treetops with embers, you really look at Jake, your grandfather-grandson, your not-father penpal. The lenses of his glasses are lit up white, dazzling rectangles obscuring his eyes, and his smile is so, so wide. He meets your gaze and grins at you – and it’s so genuine, so comfortable, that it makes your chest hurt. Dimples carve into his cheeks, the gap between his front teeth made more prominent by the multitude of colors bouncing off his skin. Another firework whistles into the sky and erupts – bang-bang-bang , a sharp vibration in your chest.
You beam back at him and squeeze his hand.
Jake is a pro at starting fires. The marshy fields of LOFAF are not ideal for kindling, but he shows you how to set up a nice, dry bonfire and blows on it gently until it smells smokey and the twigs are crackling with flame. The air is hazy, the scent of fireworks lingering above you. Clouds of smoke still hang in the air, holding the shape of the trails of color that whizzed across the sky not long ago. Hummingbirds are attracted to the warmth and light of your fire, and they brave the open air again to settle on your shoulders and in your hair. They tremble a bit – still shellshocked from the barrage of sound and heat.
Jake tosses a charred piece of a crate into the fire. The flames lap it up, spitting ashes.
“Aw, Jake, you threw away the best part,” you joke, “that plank had his moustache printed on it.”
“Oi, best?” He pokes the kindling with a stick. “That was an impressive gerbil growing on his face – I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Did your gramps have to use a moustache comb on that thing?”
“Yes, it was very tiny. I used to comb my eyebrows with it.”
Jake guffaws loudly. “Do you think I would pull off a ‘stache? Be honest.”
“I said be honest, Jade, not hurt my feelings!”
“I didn’t say no!”
He feigns a dramatic air of dejectedness and allows you to shove him in the shoulder.
Somehow, Jake seems a little lighter, a little goofier. He almost glows in the light of the bonfire, which you know must be only an illusion, because only Hope powers would give him that sheen of phosphorescence, and you have not seen Hope rear its head from the Page in quite some time. It’s a warm, delicate glow, though – whatever it is. You stretch your legs and let the heels of your boots dig trenches in the mud. You’re happy that he’s happy. You’re happy that you’ve made made him happy.
There you go again, snickers the annoying Jasprose sitting on your shoulder, forked tail twitching and pitchfork at the ready, you and your little heroes journey. Did it feel good to boost this buffoon up a rung on the ladder of self awareness?
Shoo, Jasprose, Jade didn’t invite you into this scene.
Bah-humbug, Jasprose sneers, you know, I know you wouldn’t know this, Harley, but most airlines require that you fasten your own air mask before assisting others.
Shut up, Jasprose. Jake is happy, and because he is Jade’s dear friend, that makes her happy too. Leave it to a catgirl to look down upon helping others work past their problems.
Whatever. Jade Harley loses half a million experience points and descends to the nary-achieved Odyssean Oaf: Circe’s Sanctioned Sycophant. The isle of swine erupts in a din of raucous oinking.
You stop being Jasprose just in time to return to the second person point of view, and you are so comforted by the presence of your dear friend that you scarcely notice it happening. But you’re still remembering how Jasprose nettled you – even though it’s been about a year since she scolded you – and in typical Jasprose fashion you are left feeling uneasy and somewhat flustered.
“I wish I could return the favor, Jade,” Jake sighs, “getting to see everything my cool alternate self got to do… I dunno, it kinda feels like something makes… sense?” He scratches his head. “It’s a shame all my gram’s stuff went up in smoke. All her photos and his gizmos and her experiments… man she had one hell of a laboratory. You woulda loved it.”
A familiar scent comes back to you. The humid stink of a shed carapace rotting in the jungle heat, the smell of the cage where she trapped a fairy bull for Jake to keep as a pet.
“I was afraid of coming back here for a long time. I think I was embarrassed.” You click your boots together, clunk-clunk-clunk. There’s no place like home. “Everything looked different on Prospit. Once I got into the game and saw how normal houses looked, maybe I was worried the others would think I was a weirdo.” You shrug. “More of a weirdo than they already thought, anyway!”
“No way! I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s a creepfest in there. A seriously government-funded freakshow, you’re right.” Jake laughs at you as you cover your face in your hands. “My grams wasn’t as much of a hoarder as Colonel Fuddy-Duddy must’ve been, but it’s comforting regardless! Maybe my wrinkly old self remembered her, and wanted to grow up to be as smart and cool and adventurous as she was. Maybe he remembered you before you were you! Wouldn’t that be neat?”
The glassy eyes above the mantle, her mouth glued into a grin. You feel your stomach drop. “That’s an interesting theory, Jake. Sort of sad, though.”
“How do you figure?”
Your mouth twitches. “The world was his oyster. Anything he wanted, he got. I hope someone so staggeringly in control of his own life wasn’t modeling himself after someone he would never meet.”
“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
“Depends on who you’re flattering.” You pick at your nails. “And if they’re even alive to care.”
“Are you still afraid of the house now that you’ve had your homecoming?”
“Hm.” You exhale through your nostrils and look up at the sky, which is not dark due to night but because the lights in your living room have been switched off. “No. It’s such a big house, but I feel like I’ve outgrown it now. Like the me that’s here right now and the me that grew up in that tower are far apart from one another. Whatever I was afraid of, whatever was holding me back… I’m bigger than it’ll ever be.”
Jake whistles lowly. “That’s a gritty monologue, Jade. You rehearse these lines in a mirror? You’d let me in on the secret if Hitchcock is writing your dialogue, yeah?”
“Bluh, like I’d let him write my lines!”
“You’re absolutely correct, Jade, mea culpa, whoever writes your lines is far more talented than that gasbag could ever be; I am tripping all over my shoelaces in my mad dash to plant kudos and laudations at their feet.” He mimics the motion of falling over himself, and you have to catch him before he faceplants into the reeds.
Barf, Jasprose sneers. I can’t stand here and watch this, Moon Pie.
Jade does not like it when you call her Moon Pie. She thinks it is condescending.
I can’t stand here and watch this, Moon Pie. For the record, Hitchcock did write your lines, and you like it like that. You like being Mark Rutland’s little Marnie with all her trauma swept under the rug so he can feel like a big man. You like being Grace Kelly flitting in and out of James’ Stewart’s apartment, coming and going as it’s relevant for him while he stews in his own charismatic miasma. Hell, you even like being Marion Crane – does it feel good to start off as the heroine, only to be unburdened with the weight of narrative relevance by Norman Bates and his infamous knife? What will you be, Marion, without Norman in the nightgown? Without your martyrdom you are just a silly girl on the lam, embezzling your life away for an ill-advised marriage. What kind of film is that?
Wow, first of all, Jasprose is much more versed in classic film than originally anticipated. Also, where the fuck is this analogy going, exactly? This was supposed to be a cute scene between not-grandmother and not-grandson.
I live to interrupt any scene that may be deemed saccharine or otherwise heartwarming. Additionally, I’m an intrusive figment of Jade’s imagination – a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of how she imagines I might neg her if I were curled up and purring oh-so-sweetly at her feet. Take that as you may.
That does it! Jasprose has lost her privileges and will now be forever relegated to tropey shoulder-devil. You had your chance to appear later and flirt with Jane, but clearly you cannot be trusted. Let’s return to our saccharine scene.
Oh, shove it you pretentious pus
You suddenly remember that you have been focusing on your conversation with your dear friend Jake English this entire time and have not been entertaining any long-winded pontifications about your role as a fictional character – which of course is ridiculous. Unfounded, really. Just as you suddenly remember this fact, you notice Jake checking his phone.
“Am I holding you up?” you blurt. “I’m sorry, if you have to get going, or–”
“No, no!” protests Jake, throwing up his hands. “Nonsense, no worries on that front. Just checking the time.”
“Oh, I see, you’re looking to see if Jane texted you back.”
He huffs and puffs. “Of course – that is – a baseless accus – I –”
“She’s still miffed at you?”
“She’s miffed at everyone! For all reasons! All the time!” Surprised at his own outburst, Jake moves one of his outstretched hands into his hair with all the grace of a malfunctioning robot. “You’d clue me in if she told you something, wouldn’t you?”
You chuck a piece of kindling into the fire. “Hell no, I wouldn’t tattle on her.”
“You’re friggin’ pieces of work, both of you,” sighs Jake. “She wasn’t always like this. I wish I knew what I was doing wrong.”
“Jane has a lot on her mind. She cares for you very much, but it’s hard for her to show it sometimes.”
“She’s like Strider in that regard,” he grumbles.
“She doesn’t hate you, all right? Jane’s just stuck in her own head. Try to be patient with her.”
He chews on his for a moment, and you feel like he’s fighting back the urge to argue. “How do you guys do it?”
“Who’s ‘us guys,’ and whats’s ‘it?’”
“You four, the original crew, the O.G. Sburbanites! You and your bro and the blondies, how do you get on so fuckin’ peachy keen with each other?”
“You mean how do we avoid rough patches in which we have trouble maintaining eye contact with each other?”
“That’s hard to say, Jake. Your friends grew up teetering on either sides of a dangerous, world-ending alien dictatorship. That’s bound to breed some conflicting personalities.” You shrug. “Nothing makes my friends inherently different from yours. We just didn’t have to scrape to survive in the middle of the ocean.”
“Ha, I realized it just as I said it. Yeah, okay, three out of four of us didn’t have to survive in the middle of the ocean.”
“What’s the phrase, that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder?’ Maybe you folks are so chummy because you had such a big break from each other while you had time to grow up.”
He looks so pensive that you decide not to tell him that this hurts your feelings. Three years on the golden battleship were not a break by any stretch of the imagination.
“Maybe….” Jake taps his chin, running his finger over the sharp stubble that he hates so much, and that he will neglect to shave until it diminishes the effect of his weaponized himboism. “Maybe we’d all get along better if he hadn’t been shoved in such tight quarters all those many moons ago. Maybe it made us realize how incompatible we truly are.”
“Would three years of isolation have made your heart grow fonder?”
He blinks, surprised. “Who can tell?”
You’re a little miffed now. A lavender hummingbird flits in front of your glasses, curious about the fire’s reflection that shines across your lenses. You cup it in your palm and feel the faint whisper of its frantic wings whispering across the skin.
“In my experience, long periods of going M.I.A. is an invitation to alienation. I think you should cherish those months you spent with them, and try to remember all the happy memories of your time together. It could help you get past this slump between you and Jane.”
“There were some pretty good times.” Jake laughs, “There was this time, with Roxy and Dirk and these chess folk that’d, oh man….”
“See?” You get up to stretch your hands above your head – the hummingbird flitters in nervous circles around you. “SBURB was a long time ago. Someday we’ll all forget the homes we grew up in and what it was like before everything changed, and in the far off future when everything is different, I don’t want to think back on myself as a miserable kid who always got the short end of the stick. The way I figure, you might as well hold on to what makes you happy. That has to count for something, right?”
His smile slackens into something small and sad, but a smile nonetheless. As he diverts his eyes you wonder if he’s thinking of your portrait on the mantle, or of Roxy’s beaming grin armored in braces as she waved from Dr. Harley’s station wagon.
“I think I should call Jane.”
“I think you should, too.” You kick the dirt, and some of it sprays into the fire. It hisses and hiccups with embers. “Because John already has a movie picked out for this month, and I don’t want any awkward vibes in my house.”
“Of course! You know Janey and I are always on our very best behavior for Jade’s extra special monthly movie night.”
Jake lets you pull him to his feet. You stand side by side with your hands warming in the soft light, tiny pinpricks of flame drifting and popping in the air. Behind you, a mausoleum of dust and dirt stretches high into the sky, a pyramid for an old pharaoh and his treasured antiquities. He buried himself with his fineries and his gold, he stacked the ceilings high with death and dust until there was hardly room to breathe. These are the dark corners you would creep into when your heart was fit to burst, when loneliness felt like a cinder block sitting squarely on your chest. How miraculous it is, then, how lucky you are, how wonderful that you’ve been given a second chance to stand beside him. Different, but better.
The Page and the Witch, the supernova and the supermassive black hole, a limitless expanse of explosive potential shared between the two of you. Dormant til the time is right, slumbering under layers of grey matter and doubt. Your time came a long time ago, and then it passed. This world likes the idea of the Witch, it likes the fairytale of a Page, but the opportunity for theatrics and spectacular heroics has gone – you snooze, you lose – and for the final time your puppet strings have been snipped.
Jasprose be damned, her cheeky analogies and her insistence that you are the hero’s guide, that you prefer to be an afterthought, that your realm is that of the background, where you can tug the strings but never join the cast. You didn’t have a sword fight at the end of all things, you didn’t kill a demon and you didn’t slay an empress. But you bred the precious Frog that makes your new life possible – you bred a new life, clean and fresh and full of opportunity, nearly from thin air! You saw what life had allotted you, you accepted the grim prophecies of Prospit, and in return you crafted yourself a second chance – a new life for everybody, but mostly for yourself. Maybe there was only so much you could do under Skaia’s watchful eye and ear. Maybe Calliope was right. But whatever gasbag – Hitchcock or otherwise – has been writing your lines until now, you’ve broken free to the other side.
“Thanks for letting me do this,” you say.
Jake nudges you gently in the shoulder, and you think he looks like he’s truly glowing.
In the dream it is winter and the radiator is humming, humming, humming against the wall, burbling and hiccuping like rain on the windowpane. Your bedroom is swimming in midnight blue, moonlight reflecting off of fresh snowfall. You are under the impression that you were just in the middle of a deep, deep sleep, but now you’ve woken with a jolt and your forehead is cold with pinpricks of sweat. The radiator is not enough. The room itself seems to huddle up for warmth, everything a little tighter, more cramped.
You are lying flat on your back and the shutters are slamming against the outside of the house, rat-tat-tat, midnight blue swimming in your cloudy vision, because your glasses are perched on the dresser and you can see nothing more than a few inches from your face. Your room is an abstract, impressionistic blob of swirling color, and as you blink in the dark you see the shadows start to tremble.
It’s a hiss like a wolf’s jaw clamping shut, like a hot poker diving into the coals of a furnace. Your shoulders seize up with a terrible, frosty weight that makes your jaw chitter open with shivers. Your mouth opens wide, and you breathe in a foul, fishy scent.
Long, long fingernails drumming on the wardrobe door, scratching down the door frame. Past whirling swirls of blue, you see the violet impression of something, something red.
She’s upon you like a jungle cat, her clammy hand forcing your wrist to the side of your head. The cry that comes out of you is squashed before it can grow louder than a whimper. It’s as though she’s been here this whole time, a presence like a nightmare sitting on your chest, the pressing weight of her sending shockwaves of cold down your spine. You gasp aloud and clench your jaw shut, and your mother seizes your chin with her sharp fingers. Her rings press hard into your flesh.
“You will look at me,” she hisses, “when I’m speaking to you, little gill.”
“I–” you choke. When your mouth opens to speak, she squeezes the sides of your lips hard so that your mouth is forced open like a fish’s.
Betty blinks down at you, her yellow eyes retroreflective in the night, and then her second set of eyelids blinks, too. Her jaw cracks, cracks, cracks, until you can see all the shark teeth lined up in rows inside her mouth.
All that pours out is saltwater, gurgling out of her and onto your face.
Once upon a time, there was a dreadfully dull planet hanging listlessly in the Medium of a cold and vacuous session. Life might have grown here, perhaps many eons ago, fed by the warm light that seeped from its denizen’s skin like the sun. But it was so void of any happiness or heart that the denizen decided to crawl up in the planet’s core and slumber – all in the hope that one day, something or someone worth waking for might appear. So the sunlight waned, life began to wilt, and the creatures that depended on her sank into the earth to wither into bones.
Once upon a time, after a mild dose of childhood trauma and an animated sequence that would leave any D.A.R.E. representative scratching their head, The Land of Crypts and Helium sprang to life with a thick coat of lush greenery. The cracked, dead earth exploded with thick vines, with pink flowers the size of your face, with sprawling trees that reached their grabby hands towards the heavens. You could see it from space, all the bubblegum pinks and cotton candy blues with their dancing petals and their puffs of sugar-sweet pollen. At the time, you thought it was marvelously magically miraculously magnificent . How easy it was to fix the deadly dreary desert of your planet, the wearisome well-worn waste of dust and death. You didn’t even have to try. Isn’t that nice?
But they were just made of sugar and glue, paper and glitter, and when the lollipop fell into the crypt, the buds began to close, one by one. That, too, was easy enough.
On your way down the craggy mountain path, your boot crunches on a wilted pink flower with its petals curled up like the legs of a dead spider. The color’s been drained, and your fabulously fanciful fantastic fairy garden has begun to smell sour.
Your name is Jane Crocker, and you don’t know why you felt the need to clarify that just now.
Ahead of you, Jade Harley is looking at the maps you brought along for this hike. They were only fragments of the whole thing, but with LOCAH spinning in the palm of her hand, Jade was able to trace the paths to Hemera that were invisible to you from the ground. All those fruitless weeks bashing skeletons to bits and getting lost in chilly caverns ended up in nothing but a handful of trinkets. If you succeed in finding her now, she won’t have a quest for you anymore – she may not even be alive – nonetheless, you would still like to see her face after all this time. With your ecto-daughter tagging along, you might stand a chance in finding your denizen.
It feels odd to call her that. Jade Harley doesn’t look quite like you. The dip of her nose, maybe, or the angle of her eyebrows. You have spent a lot of time staring at your ecto-children out of the corner of your eye, mapping similarities and watching for familiar tics. Jade Harley, you think, sways more towards the English side. It certainly doesn’t help that there are fluffy dog ears poking out of her mane of curls. Jade is a very pretty girl, but you find it hard to look her in the eyes when her ears are swiveling every which way. It’s sort of uncanny.
Jade mumbles something to herself as she traces the map with her thumb. Her ears are flattened against her hair, no doubt frustrated at the roundabout path you’ve had to take. She’s not paying attention to the rocks, though. Her heel slips on a large, wet boulder. She starts to fall backward, grabs the crumbling stone wall, and yelps when a rock falls down its side and crash lands against her head.
“Fuck! ” she yips.
“Ouch! That sounded like it hurt.” You lift your hand to help her regain her footing.
Jade turns, her fingers hovering above her temple. A thin stream of blood runs down her cheek. “I feel blood. Is that blood?”
You cluck in a matronly sort of way that you will later realize you picked up from your elderly counterparts. “Yep, looks pretty grisly. You’re a regular poster girl for mountain safety. Here, let me help.”
Jade flinches away when your hand sparks to life with that warbling, marble-blue glow. It feels as though you’ve dunked your hand underwater, a heavy sort of swirling weight that presses down on your skin. It almost itches, like the legs of so many insects crawling over your fingers. You don’t have to think about it. It’s just another reflex – one foot walking in front of the other.
“Hold that pose just a moment,” you murmur.
“I–” Jade starts, then pauses to squeeze her eyes shut when your fingertips trace her temple. You do not know how it feels to be on the receiving end of this power, but you know well enough how it feels to spoon-feed life into an open wound. A slight crunching sound that only you can hear, the churning and twisting of skin and muscle lacing itself back together. Jade winces as the tear in her flesh mends itself, leaving only a streak of still-wet blood down her cheek.
You have wondered many times where the thing called Life comes from, how it is you’re able to conduct your Maidenry, and each hypothesis has been worse than the last. That you’re sucking it out of the very air around you, leeching off of innocent life. That you’re slicing off slivers of your own lifespan, handing out chunks of your livelihood like Halloween candy. Accordingly, you try not to perform the Lifey thing very often – unless your dad has burned his hand on the stove for the umpteenth time.
You didn’t ask for this power, but then again, Pickle Inspector didn’t ask to be a Godhead, so you might as well handle it with grace. You lick your thumb and wipe away her blood.
Jade stares at you with a glassy look, so you ask, “What?”
“I just got deja vu,” she answers.
For a brief moment you feel her, your Red Passenger, rumbling in her sleep in the back of your brainstem. She turns over like a white whale breaching the surface and settles back to where you can trample her underfoot.
The two of you tread further, down where the light can’t follow, and when you enter the mouth of the cavern you flick on a flashlight. A washed-out halo of yellow illuminates the way forward, past puddles and stalagmites and statues of salamanders that have become abstract over time with the buildup of minerals. In the deep dark, you can hear water dripping.
Jade lingers behind you, and you wonder if the awkward tension you feel now is one-sided.
“I know this is a weird time to bring this up, but, uh, it’s occurring to me that I never apologized for how rude I was when we first met,” Jade laughs nervously. “So, sorry.”
Ah. So the tension is mutual. “In the original timeline, before John fixed what went wrong?”
Her mouth twitches. “Right. You don’t remember.”
“I hear tales of it secondhand. Glimpses of it too, in my sleep, as though I’m watching a scene play out inside a dream bubble.” You shrug. “I hardly think any of that counted. A first impression doesn’t quite qualify when both parties are under the influence of matriarchal mind control.”
“Maybe you didn’t mean anything you said under her influence, but I certainly did.” Jade kicks a pebble that tumbles, tumbles, tumbles into the dark. Blip blip blip. “It felt good to be mean, and I let myself get carried away. Being evil was kind of the whole point, but we were supposed to be on the same team. Sorry for being a bitch.”
The heavy weight of her makes your stomach sink. Her, the shadow that stretches up your bedroom wall. Her, whose quiet laughter sneaks up on you and seizes your muscles with terror. The sharp and shiny sheen of her shark teeth, the clammy fingers that brush your cheek as if you were a porcelain doll on her shelf.
“Our experiences with the Baroness were fundamentally different. She used her alien psychic powers to subdue both your human and animal halves. My mind was hijacked using Crockercorp technology that rewired the way my very neurons fired. My body became a machine. I don’t believe being a werewolf girl is comparable to being a robot.”
Jade casts her eyes down, the backward swivel of her ears betraying how crestfallen she is. Now you just feel guilty. You know what it’s like to gasp awake, so profoundly terrified that you lie completely still until the sun begins to rise. A cold, electrical hum thrums under your skin. The Red Passenger breathes down your neck. You lie awake and think of the sound it makes when a trident pierces flesh and bone.
“Do you ever dream about her?”
Jade’s lips part. She pauses with the map to her chest. “Huh?”
“Not her, exactly, not the way that we knew her. The role that she forced you into, the you that she created. Like you’re reliving it again, or like you’re seeing yourself from a bird’s eye?”
She doesn’t meet your eye. “You think of her as a separate person?”
Jade laughs in a way that’s more of a puff of air leaving her nose. She shakes her head and keeps walking. Standing in the shallow pool of light that your flashlight gives off, her shadow extends far behind her into the darkness.
“‘Forced’ is a funny word. ‘Subdue,’ too. She pushed me to do horrible things, cruel things I’d never think of doing in a million years. The way I thought and the things I said, though… that wasn’t coming from her. It was all me.” Jade folds her hands behind her back and flashes you a smile. “I could say whatever I wanted to, without caring who I hurt or what they would think of me. Things I would have never said because I was scared. Sure, I dream about ‘her.’ I dream of what it was like to be her, to feel powerful and big and mean like she was. She’s not a ‘she,’ though, she’s just me. Just a different part of me that I wouldn’t allow myself to become.”
“Please dispel the hunch I’m gathering that you’re defending Betty of all people.”
“Of course I’m not,” scoffs your ecto-daughter. “She turned us against our friends. I threatened to gore Roxy and eat her intestines. I’m just saying – she didn’t warp us into anything that we couldn’t otherwise become under different circumstances.”
You are not sure you understand what she means by that.
“Don’t think I don’t remember,” Jade sing-songs as she walks further ahead. It echoes, eerie, off the cave walls. “Didn’t you tell Callie and I that you wanted to do all of those things, even if you didn’t know you wanted to?”
Your chest tightens. Fear and anger drips all the way down to your feet, a warm pulse like the circuits that flashed and hummed under your skin. “I didn’t – not really.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” you hiss in a near whisper.
Your light hits a bare wall, which you have to climb if you wish to go forward. Jade abandons all adherence to the laws of gravity and drifts up to where her boots can find solid ground. You decide to hoist yourself up manually, so Jade pulls your arm and yanks you up while you hold your flashlight with your teeth.
“You had a rough day, after all,” Jade sighs as you continue. “Probably the worst birthday ever. No one could blame you for wanting to wreak some havoc.”
Your chest still feels tight, so you don’t say anything.
No one could blame you, right? Five months of no dad in the house, five months of thinking he was gone, that he was gone forever, and all you had in the whole wide world was a girl who kept sleeping on your couch and leaving her clothes on the floor and two boys who only ever spoke to you to speak of one another. Five months of fruitless searching and hunting for trophies that didn’t mean anything and didn’t lead anywhere, five months of jolting awake at seven in the morning because you’re running late for school, aren’t you, and shouldn’t you make sure Dad gets up early enough to drive you there? Five months of shambling skeletons in your front yard and rationing the soup and potatoes stacked in the pantry, and five months of no dad at all. No one could blame you for lashing out. What’s a bit of sexual harassment between friends, right? You’re not a monster, right? Right?
You could’ve held onto it forever, all the sickly dread and anger and hate, you could’ve held it down and smothered it until it calcified into a hard little stone, small enough to swallow so no one would ever know it was there. You could’ve latched onto it tight and willed it to disappear, and if it wasn’t for Betty, you might have. Betty, who uncorked it and let it all spill out, leaking between your fingers and leaving dirty handprints. Betty who let you smear it on everything you touched, curdling the gossamer threads tying you to anyone who might’ve cared about you. Betty, who guided your hand with her clammy, bejeweled fingers, who burned it all down and left you standing in the cinders without a sendoff, without even a goodbye.
Jade is looking back at you, trying and failing to be subtle. She walks on eggshells when you go small and silent like this, which only annoys you further.
“It was like, six years ago, Jane. I look back on all the mean stuff I said to Roxy and we just laugh about it. Threatening to eat her guts is kind of a running gag now. It’s not a big deal.”
It was six years ago, Jane, get over it, Jane. Easier said than done. Jade doesn’t still live with her father in a house that could almost pass for her childhood home, the same back bedroom tucked into the corner of the second floor, a bed by the window and the smell of baking wafting from the vents. It was six years ago, sure, but you woke up at seven in the morning today, and when you heard the sound of cookware clattering in the kitchen you thought you had to get up for school. You haven’t changed at all. How can you change when all you want to do is be normal?
The flashlight finds the end of the cavern’s path. A large door looms in front of you, crusted over with salt and lime. The large bronze rings that would be used to pull it open are all lumpy with mineral. Upon the door is something like a sliding tile puzzle, an intricate design carved into each salty block.
“Do you want me to shrink the door down?” Jade asks. “I’m not sure it will budge otherwise.”
“No, let me handle this. I’ve done enough of these puzzles to last a lifetime.”
“I should’ve known you wouldn’t just take the easy way out,” she laughs. “Here – your notes.”
She hands you the composition notebook you filled cover to cover during the five month hiatus inside your vacant session. Pages upon pages that you used to solve riddles, to map the labyrinthine mountain paths of LOCAH and record patterns as you noticed them. Things you would’ve pieced together quicker with a second or third pair of eyes, challenges you could’ve overcome with a partner – if it wasn’t so much more satisfying to figure it all out by yourself. Yes, you’ve seen this pattern before. The tiles are all flipped turnways and spun around, but you think you can force them into place if you just give them a good shove. You pass the flashlight off to Jade and set to work.
“Wow, fifty seconds!” Jade whistles. “That’s impressive. I always hated those kinds of puzzles.”
“Nothing much to them,” you say, wiping your hands off on your cargo shorts, “you simply need to see the bigger picture. All the tiny details just obfuscate the goal.”
The door doesn’t open, but something is slowly, slowly, slowly chugging away in there. Machinations waking up from hibernation, sluggish gears and creaking bolts. It’s unlocked now, but it needs encouragement. You still know what to do when this sort of thing happens.
You summon your pitchfork from your strife syllabus and use its flat end to bash the door open.
Jade yelps as rocks rain from the other side, dust and pebbles rolling past your feet. She points the flashlight into the dark, and the yellow beam unveils a lantern-lit hallway. The bricks here haven’t quite worn away yet into smooth grooves of seamless rock. Torches are mounted on either side, into the dark where you can’t see them anymore, and their flickering lights are warm with color. Pink, orange, green, blue, pink and orange again… a chromatic pattern lighting the way.
“Guess I don’t need this anymore,” Jade mumbles to herself. She clicks it off and tucks it into her backpack.
You’ve seen hallways like this before, and it’s not encouraging. Soft, worn-down sigils are carved into the stone. In salamander language, you imagine that these symbols translate into something like your princess is in another castle. Every lanterned labyrinth like this has only led to disappointment. A treasure chest with a single dubloon inside, an empty vase cracked in half. Jade hands you the map when you motion for it, and you trace your pinky finger along the path you’ve taken. If you are quick and clever and don’t pause for snacks, the antechamber to Hemera’s lair should be two to three kilometers ahead. If the riddles you’ve translated and transcribed are credible, that is. Today is a big day for “if’s.” You take a moment to wonder if riddles can ever truly be credible.
“I feel like we’ve been walking for hours,” Jade yawns. She stops to stretch her legs. You keep walking without her, your map glowing orange, green, blue, pink, and orange again.
“I’ve walked for longer,” you respond in a mutter as you squint at the faint pencil marks you made six years ago. Does this circle say walk around or bats abound ?
“Yes, I’ve run a fair number of short-notice marathons in my life. We had a neighborhood stray that delighted in taking me on surprise field trips.”
“Right, your feline First Guardian! He was such a rambunctious little guy,” Jade laughs.
“‘Rambunctious’ is one way to put it. My dad once sent me outside to rake the leaves, and the damned cat jumped out from the bushes. He teleported me outside of Chelatchie in the drizzling rain, leaving me to trace the railroad to the general store – a forty-five minute ordeal start to finish. I got an earful from Dad on the phone, and the talking to of a lifetime on the ride home. He thought I had been kidnapped by anti-Crockercorp goons to be left in the wilderness. It was easier than telling him a magic cat zapped me out of my front yard.
“You wouldn’t have had to walk so far if you kept at least three computers on your person.”
“I resent the insinuation that I would ever be bereft of handheld communication devices of my own accord. Dad is a firm believer of leaving electronics in the house when committing oneself to yardwork.”
“That sounds like something he’d say, yeah. Your dad is cool, though.”
You snort. “I’ll let him know you said that.”
“Roxy said he tagged along with you when you toured her campus?”
“Oh, God, thinking about it makes my ears burn with sheer shame. Roxy went to all the trouble of plopping me in with a group of real prospective students, and my dad keeps throwing his arm around my shoulder with a ‘ My daughter’ this and a ‘My daughter’ that, asking the poor cerulean fellow leading our tour about retention rates and insisting on touring the dining hall kitchen so he could ‘interview’ the staff.”
“Aw, he loves you!” Jade clasps her hands together and presses them to her cheek.
You weren’t just embarrassed about his presence, the smothering shadow of him that was always asking questions and pointing out the obvious and reminiscing about the good old days at Washington State. You were also embarrassed that you were so much older than everyone else. Your tour group was full of fresh-faced babies with bright eyes and bushy tails, eagerly latching onto any pamphlet waved in their vicinity. You know that the old standards of your culture don’t matter anymore, gosh darn it, you know that, but fuck if it doesn’t sting that you’re so far behind the curve. You scraped and spat and clawed your way out of a SBURB session hellbent on crushing the life out of you, you created a universe and stepped through a door into the next universe, and you’re living with your fucking dad because the name Crocker is just a legend and a bedtime story now, a cautionary tale of evil witches and their cheeky Maids, and what place does Crockercorp have in a brand new world like this? There is no safe and secure future gleaming down the yellow brick road – that guarantee is gone. The rug’s been ripped out from underneath you, floorboards and all, and there’s nothing under your feet but a big black question mark.
What do you think this overdue quest is going to do for you, Jane? Do you really think Hemera holds all the answers for you now?
“He’s dead-set on murdering my social and academic lives in cold blood. I kept wishing I could vanish into thin air like our dear friend and kin Mr. Egbert.” You fold the map in half and hand it back to her.
“Roxy thought it was adorable. And anyway, he just wants the best for you. Your dad probably got all that cornball over-the-top attitude from his dad. John told me all about how his post-Scratch self brought his son onto the set of his live audience shows, how he’d do his homework in one of those big, tall director’s chairs while makeup artists fluffed makeup onto actors’ faces. Growing up like that probably changes the way you interact with people.”
You chew the inside of your lip. “John does like to interrogate my father all about his life as a world-famous comedian’s son.”
John visits you once a month with a foil-wrapped tray held bashfully in one arm. Never anything very good – brownies with burnt edges, a casserole with a pinch too much salt – but always eaten in one sitting over the kitchen table. John rests his chin in his folded arms and asks Dad all about his old life, what it was like growing up, all about the horribly mundane things that you’ve heard a hundred times and no longer care about. You drift in and out of their conversation to set their dishes away.
You’d rather learn more about John as he is now, your paradox slime-son, rather than the dusty old cotton-stuffed geezer who stood watch in your living room, nailed onto a mount. You had a strained relationship with that old man. Sometimes you’d come home in the late afternoon and jump out of your skin at the sight of him in your periphery, convinced he was a home intruder. But then your dad would throw a Christmas garland around his neck and a Santa hat on his head, and as the three of you posed for your holiday postcard you thought, maybe, that your poppop might be endearing after all. John seldom divulges the details about the person he is now, though. You think John is more interested in visiting your father than you. Would it be unfair of you to say that this hurts your feelings?
After walking for a moment in silence, Jade notes, “He sure likes to wring anything he can get about his elderly self from your dad. I could tell him plenty, but it’s good for John to hear it from him. Being in your house makes him feel safe, I think. He’s always wanted you two to be closer.”
You blink. “He has?”
“Sure. You two are very similar.”
Jade has a knack for saying confusing, open-ended things in a way that makes them seem obvious. Ergo, you feel stupid for asking her to elaborate.
“What do you mean about being able to ‘tell him plenty?’”
“Eh….” Jade makes a wishy-washy gesture. “It’s hard to explain. I got a lot of my memories and emotions back from before John made his deal with Typheus. You already knew all that, right, all that Heart and Time meddling Davepeta did for me? It’s not really an exact science, though. Extra stuff gets through the cracks.”
“Meaning that you….”
“...Sometimes experience moments of clarity regarding my post-Scratch self, yes. They come and go, and sometimes I forget the details just as quickly as they come to me. I think they happen because I’m more receptive to them than, say, timeline #560207-niner where my dead dream self marries a dead god tier Feferi or something.”
“That’s kind of a bombshell, Jade. Why didn’t I know about this?”
She shrugs. “I guess I just don’t see what good it does for anyone but myself. Wouldn’t it be annoying if I slammed down my fork in the middle of dinner and started shouting, ‘oh, this reminds me of the 1976 MET Gala – my hair is pinned into this stuffy kokoshnik and I’m so depressed because I’m old and I’m not pretty anymore and my on-again off-again girlfriend is too busy to call me, oh, and my dress has a sewn-in pocket for my flask, let me take a quick sip.’ ” She dismisses it with a wave of her hand. “Better to keep it private.”
“Is that an accurate example?” you ask.
“Yes. The theme that year was Russian costume. I looked it up.”
“Go figure. Did you really have a girlfriend?”
“I feel like it was probably very tumultuous.”
“Ain’t that just the way.”
You wonder what it would be like to have Nanna’s life lifted and laden into you, when stories stop being enough and you need to know how it felt . Placing the needle on the record player so she would have something to listen to other than the arguing downstairs, how it felt to read a book by the open window as she watched horses and their buggies come and go, up and down the long driveway into the woods. Things you’ve only heard about as you closed your eyes and imagined it. You’ve dreamt about all the hand-me-down memories, living out the life that was but wasn’t yours.
“How much do you remember about her childhood?” you ask suddenly. “Do you recall what the house was like?”
Jade’s face yields to a smile, and all at once she bursts into laughter. It travels down the hallway and doesn’t bounce back.
“What? Was that humorous in some way?”
“It’s just – the Nannas asked me basically the same thing, almost two years ago now. I’d started visiting them after having these nightmares I couldn’t explain, and they had me lie on the couch and talk through it like some sort of hypnosis therapy. They asked me to describe what I saw and what I was hearing, until we slowly pieced together what I had only begun to suspect.”
“So,” you press, “you do remember?”
“Of course. I can picture it clearly. Like the bay window in the kitchen looking out over the yard, or the old wood shed that sat out by the railroad. All the big, vague details like that.”
“The railroad that rattled the windows every time a train passed by,” you mumble.
The words tumble out of you without permission. The wood shed that she locked you in, that she sent your brother out to fetch you from after you had spent a night with spiders nesting in your pinafore.
“Those pretty, checkered, marble tiles in the front entryway that went up to the staircase,” Jade describes idly, “and her rose bushes that grew along the house, with all the bumblebees they attracted during the summer.”
“The rose bushes you could see from the parlor window, yeah,” you continue, breathless, “with the lattice that was always overgrown with ivy.”
She sounds excited now. Her ears swivel as she continues, “The parlor with all the old rifles mounted on the wall–”
“–And the taxidermied man in front of the fireplace,” you gasp.
“The pattern in the steps that you had to follow if you didn’t want them to creak under your feet–”
“How quickly you had to dash past the kitchen doorway if you didn’t want her to see you.” Your hand flits to your face, and you push the sweaty hair out of your forehead. “The clicking of her heels on the tile.”
“She had different rings on every day, and it always changed the way it felt when she hit you.”
“She had a big ring with a gleaming stone on it that cut the deepest.”
“Her accent would start to unravel when she was angry enough, almost like the way she looked and sounded and acted was just a mask being held together with gum and string, and at any moment it could all fall apart–”
“–And there wouldn’t be a human underneath.”
Your chest pounding, you press your back to the wall. Jade pauses just ahead of you, tracing her finger along the torch on the wall. Soft pink light traces her hair with arabesques of fuchsia.
“Well,” she says, “there you have it. Seems like the old lady had very particular tastes, huh?”
You have never known what box to drop Jade into – mostly because she’s always shifting her shape to defy categorization. Like trying to shove a square into a circle. She is not Jake’s great gallivanting globetrotting grandmother – not aloof enough, not as infamously irritable, neither cunning nor clear-cut. She’s a tangle of your DNA and his, a slop of pseudoscience and slime, but you have trouble spotting your traits in her. Jade Harley doesn’t need you to play the act of ecto-mother – the Nannas do a fine enough job of that. You have seen their framed photos on the fireplace, Jade and John in their Christmas sweaters with her hand on one of their shoulders. So if she isn’t the looming legendary shadow of a lost ancestor, nor is she your daughter, nor have you been able to stutter the acknowledgement of friendship in quite a few months, what exactly is Jade Harley?
“If we were raised by the same woman,” Jade muses, smiling, “I guess that makes us sisters.”
You feel a dull swell of something that you vaguely recognize as familial affection.
“I… suppose it does, doesn’t it?”
Jade offers you a bright grin, the hint of English’s dimples etched into her cheeks.
“I always wanted to stick it to the old bitch,” you say as you start walking again. Your boot crunches on a clump of dirt and dust. “Or, she did. Nanna did. I still do, in these recurring dreams where I’m baking with her in the kitchen. My heart is on fire with this stifling hate that I can barely contain, and it grips me to the very core. When I wake up I’m always shaking… like she made a remark that seized me with rage, and I failed to say anything in response. I’m mad at her for saying it, but I’m also mad at myself for not fighting back.”
“Fighting back comes in different forms,” Jade responds. “Sometimes fighting back is running away where she can’t follow, so you can build a life outside of her shadow. Sometimes fighting back means staying behind. We can’t all be reckless teenage runaways.”
You snort-laugh. “You don’t make a compelling case for staying put and taking it without complaint. It’s not the stuff of a dime comic, is it?”
“It’s certainly not as exciting as starting a brand new life somewhere across the country, but our Nanna kicks ass! She chose to stay and live all by herself with a dangerous homicidal alien, all so she could study her and learn her weaknesses and destroy her from the inside out. That’s not a boring old meemaw, that’s a stone cold badass. In another universe,” Jade shouts with her hands thrown up in the air, “you totally rocked!”
Exciting enough to make a good story – but a good story needs a happily ever after. At some point you have to stop fighting aliens and settle down with a husband and a house and a yard, right? That’s supposed to be the reward, right? And if it isn’t, if the trophy at the end isn’t safety and security and a man in an apron who will take your coat at the door when you come home from a long day at the office – which, granted, Roxy did do for you once after a long day of hunting for Hemera, but that hardly counts, does it? – why exactly were you fighting aliens in the first place? You aren’t convinced you’ve reached that page yet. Somewhere along the line, you got stuck on the adventure part. When do you finally get to the punchline?
“You really love the Nannas, don’t you?”
Jade bats her eyelashes, giving you those big, confused puppy eyes. “Yeah, I do. Nanna was the first adult to sit down and properly raise me after years of raising myself. She was my only companion for a long time. I think both versions of them are awesome, and I think you’re very lucky to share a genetic code with her.”
You reluctantly smile. “Duly noted.”
Nanna Crocker didn’t feel very badass when she woke up one morning to the servants in disarray and the phone ringing off the hook, no stepmother in sight. Vanished in the dead of night, they said, with nary a trace. She didn’t feel badass, either, when she toed through the house in her stocking feet, maids zipping through the halls in search of the Baroness, their eyes always glossing right over her. A mounted buck’s head upon the wall, or a priceless vase on the shelf – she was another one of Betty Crocker’s possessions left behind.
“Also… I don’t know where you get off thinking you didn’t fight back,” Jade teases. “Am I misremembering, or did you not fight the Condesce before we beat the game? I seem to recall stories of you hitting her very hard with your big pitchfork thing.”
“I did hit her very hard with my big pitchfork thing, and it was so cool. You should have been there, Jade, you should’ve seen the triumphant and magnificent arc of her tyrian blood spilling in an aerial arc. It was trulypoetic.”
“While I wholeheartedly agree, I was busy being punched by a chess dog. Seriously though, even Nanna got to bash the Batterwitch with a fridge in the final battle. Why do you think you’re still having stress dreams about it if you were able to fight her with your bare hands?”
“Simple.” You stare at her. “I didn’t get to kill her.”
You didn’t realize it at the time, not when the memory of Crockertier was still a vermillion haze. The Queen of Derse was just a monster with a fish face. You didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation of what it really, truly meant when you faced Her Imperious Condescension. You didn’t see your fight with Betty the way she saw it – the Empress standing off against her final Heiress. You should’ve been the one to pierce her heart, to feel the fuchsia blood seep from the trident’s mark in her chest, to hear the crunching of her ancient flesh. It should’ve been you. Where does Roxy get off, stealing your kill? She didn’t understand the half of it. She didn’t understand what it was to be one of Betty’s children.
Oh, no. You didn’t want to swallow this pill. You didn’t want to think it, because if you kept it in a box and never peeped inside, you’d never have to deal with the consequences. Yes, it’s all very clear to you now. You resent Roxy for killing the Condesce.
“Lord English’s servants carry a heavy burden,” Jade remarks. “The curse of immortality is passed down from the murdered to the murderer, and to this day I couldn’t tell you why Roxy didn’t inherit Betty’s curse. She took on a very real, very serious risk for you, Jane. For all you know, she was saving your life.”
This does not impress you.
No, Janey didn’t get to kill her big bad monster-mother – try as she might, she swung and missed two timelines in a row. Jane Crocker the Elder didn’t feel very heroic as she invited lawyers into the house with their briefcases and wide-brimmed fedoras. She listened and nodded to words she didn’t understand about wills and inheritance, saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to questions she didn’t know the answers to. Nanna didn’t feel like she kicked much ass when they told her that no, she was not the executor of Betty’s estate, nor was she the inheritor of much at all. A mother of pearl hairbrush, a jewelry box with gilded edges – that was all she left her.
“It’s pathetic, isn’t it,” you relent. You shrug, your shoulders slumping. “I’m mad at my best friend for killing an alien dictator who would’ve wiped the floors with our fannies if she hadn’t swooped in to save us. How I even begin to broach that topic with her if it’s six years in my rearview?”
(Is she your best friend, chimes the whispering voice in your head, or have you squandered what little patience Lalonde has left for you? )
Jade sighs in a resigned sort of way, like she’s trying and failing to conjure anything that might set you at ease. One of her ears flicks. “I mean… no one said it’s not okay to harbor some resentment now and again. Hell, Betty made us both do awful things, but I never even got to land a punch. I’m just happy that anyone was able to beat her at all.”
“You’re right. I know, you’re right. Still, Jade, you’ve no idea what it’s like. I can’t breathe even a peep of this to any of them. For years, I confided everything to them – hopes, dreams, fears. Those four were my whole world, and even when the future was unclear and destiny weighed upon me, I knew I could turn to them for solace. It’s not the same anymore. None of them could understand, especially not him.”
Jade’s eyebrow quirks upward. “Who?”
“Jake.” You spit the name out. “He didn’t understand the Batterwitch back then, and he sure as hell wouldn’t get it now.”
Jane Crocker did not inherit diddly squat. In clinical terms laid out across the dining room table in crisp typewriter letters, the lawyers explained that Betty Crocker’s assets would be merged with Skaianet Industries. The estate she spent her entire life in would be divvied up by acting CEO Jacob Harley. Her heart shot a straight trajectory into her throat when she heard his name. Jacob Harley, however, never came home.
He sent his employees to box up Betty’s treasures. Furniture was packed into crates and shipped away in pieces. The things in her bedroom were the last to go. When Crocker Manor was an empty expanse of blank walls and clean floors, she put her personal trunks into the back of a car and drove away with what meager allowance Skaianet relinquished to her. She made a mental note to get a job before stooping to receive their charity again.
Where is Jacob Harley, she wondered, when he finds out their mother has taken her leave of this world? Perhaps out in the Serengeti on another lionhearted entrada, with his cavalcade of loyal devotees and hangers-on to take his coat and drive his cars and snap photos of his slaughtered spoils. Jacob Harley who has never had to lift a finger, who took off with the damn dog and has skipped through life on the backs of fortune and fortuity. You’ll be okay Janey, he said, I believe in you, and just where is this belief when he sent his goons to take the house apart and leave you with no plan and no closure and no family, huh?
He was the one who ran away. It shouldn’t have been him who was trailed by men and women in red who granted him anything he wanted, it shouldn’t have been him to whom Betty gave everything. He abandoned you, and the Baroness rewarded him with opportunity and chance around every corner, she gifted him the bootstraps by which he could pull himself up, up, up into a first-rate charlatan who never checked up on you, never responded to any letters, never acknowledged that you were anything to him at all. Good old Jake Crocker, classic Jake, who ate his fill of her handouts until he was convinced he had accomplished it all on his own.
Jade’s ears swivel back as she furrows her eyebrows. “Are you talking about my grandpa?”
“What’s the difference,” you mutter.
“Jesus, Jane, I don’t wanna sound mean, but you seriously need to get a grip.”
A short, sharp pulse of anger flits through you. “Excuse me?”
“I didn’t think this needed to be said, Jane, but Jake and my grandpa are two totally different people. There’s always the potential for patterns to repeat themselves, I’m not denying that – but if you’re seriously mad at Jake because of the stories the Nannas’ have been filling your head with, then you need to pull yourself together.”
“That’s rich coming from the one who just confessed to receiving psychic visions of her past life,” you hiss. “Am I meant to slap sense into you for reminiscing about your time with the Baroness?”
“Haha, oh man.” Jade’s fake laugh has a sharp edge that leaves a stinging cut in its wake. Her ears are flat against her hair now, so you can tell what her face looks like even if she’s hastened in front of you. “I have a life, Jane. If I tried to juggle my feelings alongside hers, my brain would pop like a balloon.”
Your jaw clenches, and in the frosty weight of your anger you ball up your fists and squeeze them. Your sisterhood has not started off on the right foot.
“Jake has been worried sick about you,” Jade snips after a moment of tense silence. The volume of her voice implies that she’s been chewing on this line for a while. She flicks the map out in front of her with a whap. “And I know you’re sick of me beating you over the head with this, but the fact remains that Roxy and Callie have no idea why you keep going off on the grid on them. They’re all trying very hard to keep you in their lives, and it’s like you’re not interested at all.”
“That’s not true.”
“That’s not true,” you repeat a little louder. “It’s not – I don’t –”
“What, so you don’t have Crockercorp anymore. Big whoop, Jane, you’ve had six years to make peace with that.”
“We’re merely a fraction of a fraction of the way through our expected life spans. Isn’t that what you said before?”
“It’s true, and I stand by it. It doesn’t mean you have to spend over half a decade sulking because you don’t like the way things turned out. You still have your dad, and you still have your life. Chalk up your losses and snap out of it.”
You wonder if she’s still speaking entirely to you.
“The only person more eager to stew in his own sadness is Dirk,” Jade sighs. Her ears relax, and she rubs the back of her neck. She doesn’t sound so angry anymore, just tired. “You don’t want your only friend to be Dirk, do you?”
You smile sadly. “Heavens, no.”
“Okay. So text Jake back once you get reception, and try not to make the next Prospit movie night awkward.”
“Any sinful deed the Baroness directed me to commit would pale in comparison to souring a night of Prospitian antics,” you acquiesce. “I can’t promise I’ll succeed, but I can promise to try.”
Jade turns just enough to give you small, close-mouthed grin. To her credit, she’s as slow to anger as she’s quick to patch things up. “Trying is enough.”
The taut tension in this increasingly claustrophobic tunnel has dissolved, but your heart is still pounding. You have found that you quite like arguing, but only if it’s in your head and the target of your ire can’t bite back. You are very good at dishing it out, but you haven’t acquired the talent for taking it.
“I think we’re walking along a curve now,” Jade notes. She points to a spot on the map where the tunnel follows an underground river. Now that you’re paying attention, you hear the hollow, faraway sound of rushing water somewhere in the cave walls. You motion for Jade to hand you the map so you can study it for yourself.
“We’re passing under Mount Eagleton.”
“That’s its formal name?”
“Yes, and Hemera’s chamber lies beyond it. Should be less than half a kilometer now.”
“If we’re lucky.”
“If we’re lucky, indeed.” You study the snakey Hemera doodle you drew past Eagleton. One big question mark lurking under the ground.
You’re still studying the map when Jade gasps aloud. In a split second, she seizes your collar and yanks you backward. You fall flat on your ass.
“Jade! What in Sam Hill are you–”
“You’re welcome,” she pants, “you were about to take a hell of a fall.”
Ahead of you, just past your boots, the hallway crumbles into the hellmouth of a vast, black pit. Below you are vague suggestions of an ancient booby trap, oxidized spikes with decrepit skeletons staked upon them like kebabs. It’s possible that the long, long tunnel you’ve taken was one of many dead ends intended to ensnare the player. Jade was able to spot a few of these decoy paths from her analysis of the planet’s surface. Each tunnel could theoretically lead to the prize in the center – if you busted through the deathtrap at the end – with only one providing the true exit. Every branch of the maze formed part of a larger, intricate pattern. Paisley shapes and mandalas are elaborately pieced together underground. With Jade’s powers, you’re now able to appreciate the many sophisticated ways that LOCAH is trying to kill you.
“My guess is that some hapless underlings wandered off where they didn’t belong,” Jade says, “and tripped the booby trap at the end of the tunnel. We should probably thank them. It could’ve been us.”
You’re less grateful to be alive and more disappointed that this entire walk has led to nothing. Jade pulls you upright, and you wipe the dust off your butt. “Have we wasted our time, then?”
“Not quite.” Jade jerks her chin forward. “Check that out.”
Following her gaze, you notice a dim halo of light on the other end of the pit. If you somehow succeed in forming a theory that’s correct, then what you’re looking at is the center of this nervous system of trick-tunnels. It would have been impossible to cross at fifteen years old, even if you had a rope, but as a twenty-something god tier with no weekend plans, bridging the gap is a piece of cake. You step off the edge of the rock, kicking pebbles down into the black. And then you drift across the dark lacuna, ecto-sister in tow.
Past the pit and onto the other side of the rainbow, there is something that reminds you of what it might be like to stand at the bottom of a well. A very big and ornate well, at that. Stones are carved into the paisley-mandalas endemic to LOCAH, and in the cracks between them are teensy, eensy flower buds smaller than your fingernail, tiny white blooms still waiting for something big to happen. The floor is wet, and past Jade is the big, iron door that you assume was supposed to be the exit of the correct path. All other directions, like the one you just came from, end in a sudden dropoff to a gory demise. Your feet crunch on rocks as you form a visor with your hand and look up into the endless ceiling. It’s just a haze of white up there, and some sort of grate blocking your way.
“So now what?” Jade asks.
You bend your knees, then spring from the well and up, up, up to whatever lies above you. Jade shouts something echoey and indistinct after you, but in seconds she flies up to follow your lead. With the flat end of your big pitchfork thingy, you bash the grate out of the way and emerge on the other side.
The space you’ve entered is large and domed, as though some ancient titan had carved it out long ago and gradually allowed nature to take its course. The busted grate clatters across the sloping surface of rock, the noise of it reverberating like a gunshot. The impossibly high Pantheon ceiling is marbled and gleaming with wet mineral, but stalactites have begun to sprout, forming sharp and uneven chandeliers from the ceilings. Like the tunnel of pulsing colors that you just emerged from, this chamber is alight with grand, flickering white torches that cast the shadows of stalagmites in shafts across the floor. The cave flickers with the dancing light, giving the eerie impression that the edges of everything are troublingly impermanent. You are not sure whether their white glow is warm or cool.
“Couldn’t we have theoretically busted in here from above?” Jade wonders aloud.
“Not likely.” You point above you. “Mount Eagleton, remember? Above us is layers upon layers of thick, dense rock.”
“Again, I present to you the alluring option of busting through.”
“Though one might even say that ‘bustin’ makes me feel good,’ the answer is: not without mayhem and mishaps.” Your mouth quirks into a coy grin. “And slamming your way through a mountain doesn’t include me showing off my puzzle skills.”
“Damn you Crockerberts and your prankster’s gambit,” Jade groans. “Think we’re finally at the finish line?”
“Perhaps. Take a look and see for yourself.”
You jerk your finger down to the floor, where rings upon rings of brown and gold like the bands of a tree trunk coalesce into a lavishly baroque sigil carved into the stone. It’s filled with water, but in the reflection of the lights you can still tell what the carving is meant to represent. Flanked in filigree, her sumptuous robes wrapped around her serpentine body, is the emblem of Hemera.
“Boom,” you say simply. “Bob’s your uncle.”
“Who’s my what?”
The great domed chamber slopes downward into a slick, wet staircase that looks like it’s been gradually smoothed and buffed away with time. The path downward is lit with dancing white lanterns, and you are left wondering not for the first time today how many pointlessly labyrinthine twists and turns LOCAH can throw at you before it finally relinquishes what you’ve been searching for.
Down the slippery slope you go, your hiking boots carefully treading the rock. If you were with anyone else, they might mock you for not simply floating down the path with your feet cocked backward like some lovesick cartoon character, but Jade Harley appreciates the reward of doing things manually. She, like you, is loathe to take the easy way out. So you cautiously make your way down to where the lanterns light the way, and because you’re so focused on maintaining your gravitational integrity you are completely taken aback when you receive an unexpected visitor.
“Hell- o , Moon Pie!” chimes a familiar voice. A glittery pink fenestrated window blips before you, and Cat Rose leaps out with a flourish. You scream in surprise and stumble backward – Jade clutches your forearm and yanks you upright before you can fall flat on your ass for the second time in five minutes. Jasprose takes note of you and bows her head with a hand planted to her chest. “And Cookietits.”
You shake a pebble out of your shoe. “Generally, it’s considered impolite to deliberately take someone off guard when they’re descending into a steep and treacherous cavern.”
“You thought I wouldn’t turn up here, didya? Really shirked your expectations, didn’t I, ya big pushover!” she yowls into the ceiling.
You turn around, then give Jade a confused look. “Who in God’s name are you talking to?”
Jade dismisses her feline friend with a wave of her hand. “It’s a waste of your time to wonder. Jasprose here is a master of being–”
“Mysterious? Incorrigible? Captivating?”
“Annoying!” Jade shouts, then blows a raspberry at her.
Jasprose puffs out her chest and flutters her eyelashes at your ecto-daughter. “Were you keen on my analysis of Psycho? I thought it was a particularly clever analogy.”
“Can you not do this? We’re kind of in the middle of something here,” says Jade.
“Selfish of you to collect the Harleycrockers in one room and expect me not to go digging into the cookie jar. Look at you, you adorable rascals, scrambling around the Candy Land board in search of treasure and eternal wisdom. You’ve even got your little hiking boots on! How marvelously matchy-matchy, I could just eat you up!”
With this, Jasprose’s mouth widens into a sharp Chesire grin, white teeth gleaming. You gulp. Something about her, the wildcard ups and downs of her moods, reminds you of GCat. It’s an unpredictability that makes you nervous, and you’re surprised to find that the hair on your arms is standing on end. Jade is accustomed to her antics, however. She bumps Jasprose out of the way with her shoulder and keeps heading down the steps.
“If you’ll excuse us,” you huff after her, “we’ll be on our way.”
“Cold shoulder, huh, honey?” Jasprose drifts after you, filing her claws with a purple emery board. “You got plans after this, Crock-Pot? You ever had Alternian crab stew? Leave the kid with the sitter and let’s kick it, you and me, if’n ya want.”
Your face burns indignantly. Jasprose’s aggressive affections come off as insincere as they are irritating. “I don’t think you’re nearly as cute as you believe you are.”
“And my advances are not nearly as unwelcome as you believe they are,” she says with a pointed wink.
“Why exactly are you taking up our time?”
“Relax, Cupcake, you oughtta thank me. I’m here to be the bearer of good mews.” She zips through a fenestrated pane and comes out right back in front of you.
“Enlighten me,” you say with your hand on your hip.
“Congrats, Mario! You made it to the Princess’ castle!”
A pink and purple party popper materializes in her paw-hand – pop! A cloud of glitter and confetti explodes in both your faces.
You and Jade stand stock still. Eyes closed and fists clenched, Jade shudders with barely contained rage as she says, “We know that, Jasprose.”
“Doubtful, coming from the non-and-formerly-omnipotent. You’ve been bumbling about blind as bats for hours now.”
“We know,” you grumble, “because the door is right there . ”
Jasprose turns to look where you’re pointing, where the giant bronze doors stretch high into the roof of the cavern. The golden sigil of Hemera is emblazoned upon them.
“Ah. Yes. Hm.” Jasprose blinks at you with wide saucer eyes. “Of course I knew that. Omnipotence and all.” She summons a window and falls into it like she’s jumping off a diving board, only to reappear from another one behind you. “That’s a classic prankster’s gambit. Woulda expected you to know that one, Sprinkles.” She snaps her fingers, and the glitter dissolves from your faces. Jade brushes a few errant flakes from the coils of her hair. “Ready for your journey into Tartarus, Orpheus?”
“Shut your trap, pussycat,” you mutter. You brush Jasprose’s hand from your shoulder and trudge down into the clearing, holding onto wet stalagmites for balance. “This business stays within the family.”
“That’s my grouchy old Cream Pie. You tell ‘em!” she croons.
Jade hisses at Jasprose in a low whisper to not call her shit like that it makes her uncomfortable you insensitive buffoon, but it all echoes against the cave walls and reaches your ears just the same. Jasprose snaps back in a sassy sing-song that Jade can’t tell her what to do just because you’re screwing my sibling and besides – you shudder and decide to pointedly ignore their bickering.
Blue lantern light renders the doors to Hemera cold and frosty. The door knockers have yet to be tarnished by time like the other underwhelming passageways you picked clean all those months ago. It’s still slick and smooth, with a shiny and glittery sheen to it. There’s an inscription upon the metal that’s boldly embossed and encircled by scarab beetles. Beneath it, a keyhole the size of your fist.
“Nyx and Hemera draw to the threshold, and greet each other as they have before,” you read aloud, “and while the one goes down into the house, the other comes out at the door.”
“What?” Jade calls. It echoes loudly and reverberates, which makes you clench your teeth.
“The riddle on the door,” you shout back. “It’s… suspiciously easy.”
Nyx and Hemera, Hemera and Nyx. Night and day, dual goddesses pushing and pulling against one another. As one crosses the sky the other retreats, the two never meeting save for the sparse, fleeting kisses of dusk and dawn. Roxy met Nyx once – just the once. Cloaked in her heavy robe of twinkling stars, swimming in the dark and burbling sea of night deep underground, where the sky was reversed and to approach her meant walking among constellations and shooting stars. In your fervor, you insisted that Roxy mark the spot in which she sought her denizen for a bit of parting advice. She did not mention any esoteric plaque-riddles. Isn’t is always so much harder to get through the day than the night?
“What’s so easy about it?” Jade asks when she comes up behind you. She reads and rereads the inscription, her eyebrows knitting together.
“As goddesses of the day and night respectively, Hemera and Nyx align with much of the real-world mythos they’re based upon. They mirror each other as opposites. Even the location of Nyx on LOPAN is the polar opposite of where we are now. This passage seems to be implying that the two denizens reflect each other in the locations of their nests, which we already knew. It’s less of a riddle and more of a statement of the obvious.”
Jasprose blips in front of you and squints at the door. “That’s Hesiod’s Theogony, sloppily retranslated to introduce rhyme. Poorly, I might add. Lacks even a basic sense of iambic pentameter. Whoever paraphrased this is dumb as a bag of ro–”
Jade shoves her out of the way. “Shoo, pesky thing.”
“Your performative disdain merely lights the fires of my passion, Harley.”
“Anyway,” you cut in, “the reference is clear enough, but I’m not sure what to make of the keyhole. Clearly, entrance to the inner sanctum is not granted merely by the answer to a riddle, but the possession of a physical object. I just don’t remember swiping any artifacts that fit the bill.”
Jade peers through the keyhole, and seeing nothing, straightens up. “Oh, I have just the thing!”
She flicks open her sylladex and pulls out a big, purple key that looks like it’s been roughly hewn from amethyst. “This!”
“Jade, where on earth did you get that?”
“I’d be interested to know that as well,” Jasprose purrs, floating on her stomach with her chin resting on her arms.
“I got it from Roxy!”
Your brain comes dangerously close to short circuiting. “ Huh ?”
She rubs the back of her neck. “Uh, you see, Roxy told me she found this a really long time ago inside her own planet, in one of the pyramid crypts I think? But it never led anywhere, so she had kinda the same revelation you had about your opposing denizens. She remembered you picking up some sort of golden key in your tomb raiding adventures, and since it was about the same size as the purple one she found, she decided to take it. She gave me this one when I told her our plans to search for Hemera.”
Realization hits you. “The gold key! Why of course I remember that one, it was as big as my arm! I can’t believe I forgot that one, I had it for barely a day before it disappeared!” You punch your palm. “Roxy, that dastardly thief! Leave it to a Rogue to burgle every poor maiden like some kind of highwayman!”
Jasprose has gone back to filing her claws. “You qualify as a maiden?”
“Anyway,” Jade says, “the golden key ended up being what unlocked Nyx’s lair. So unless we run into a case of stupidly bad luck, I’m pretty sure this has to be our answer.” She presents it forward. “I’ll let you do the honors.”
Jasprose reaches for it. “Why thank y–”
“Bad kitty,” you snap, clapping your hands in her face the way you used to do when you thought it would make GCat go away. Jasprose hisses and spits, her tenta-whiskers standing on end.
The amethyst key thunks awkwardly into place. You have to jiggle it up and down, finding the spot where it’s actually supposed to rest. Sharp bits of crystal dig into your arm as you twist the key. The cylinders inside groan in complaint, clearly having given up the idea years ago of being expected to do any sort of work at all. There’s a loud, hollow thunk that resounds from the inside of the lock and reverberates up the length of bronze. The sound echoes in the ceiling and rolls back upon you in a wave.
Slowly, the doors to Hemera’s lair creak open.
Leave it to Roxy to silently slide you the answer without telling you directly. The only thing more convenient she could’ve done is prop it up against the door, wrapped with a bow. You don’t know whether the emotion you’re feeling is affection or irritation. Lately, the two feelings haven’t felt very distinct from one another.
“After you, ladies,” Jasprose purrs.
“I don’t know where you think you’re going.” You stare at her down the length of your nose. “I told you once, and I’ll tell you again – this is a family matter.”
“Oh, blah blah blah with the phony Prospit unity shtick. Fine, if you’re committed to the bit, I’ll buzz off.”
“Thank you!” Jade calls over her shoulder as the two of you leave her behind in the threshold.
“Whatever, Harley, I’m gonna be family sooner or later! I’m gonna take your mom out to dinner and there’s nothing you can do about it! And then I’ll be your mom, and I’m gonna ground you for life!”
“Whatever you say!”
Behind you, the doors to Hemera shut. And because they cut off Jasprose in the middle of some muffled and echoing sass, you’re guessing they shut themselves. The two of you are alone in the darkness.
You look down at your feet to see if you can get your bearings. All you can see are the dark, multicolored ripples from each of your steps. The colors that emerge are dull and dim, resembling the faded rainbow of a gas station puddle. As you walk aimlessly into the black, sketchy pigments begin to scratch themselves across the walls. Soft yellows and oranges, rose golds and pinks. Like watching a time lapse of a toddlers scribbling across a wall, the swirling pastels quickly bleed across the black and overcome it. The floor, the walls, the ceiling – everything’s become a gloomy shade of sunrise. Thin, wispy clouds trundle under your feet. You are walking across the morning sky.
Without hoping for much, and without really knowing why, you call out, “Hello?”
Silence. Water splashes under your boots.
Jade points to the horizon, where copper and gold is oozing together. It froths and spills and eats itself, churning like ocean spray and bubbling like foam. It hiccups and burbles until the great, milky mass of a leviathan breaches the surface. It happens as silently and as underwhelmingly as a pet goldfish taking its last breath and rising to the surface of the bowl. The soft, gentle hues of dawn ripple over her to pool in the crevices of her massive body. Your white whale, your Moby Dick – Hemera sloughs off the water and emerges before her Maid.
Your breath catches in your throat.
Big as a sea beast, your denizen’s twin tails stretch so far that you cannot tell where they taper. Her skin is soft and see-through, with pinkish veins as thick as your legs running in spiderwebs through her forehead, her cheeks, the wrists of her hands that are cradled so delicately under her chin, clasped to her neck like a prayer. They’re glittering with fish scales, like the ones that sparkle and shine under her eyes and her mouth, which gapes open to let gusting exhales escape. Her face is serene, smooth, as though someone had started to sculpt her from wet clay but had to stop before they could etch out all the sharp details. It gives her a rounded, amphibian appearance. A light, feathery down forms a widow’s peak at her forehead and runs down her neck, her shoulders, and her spine. Your heart jumps – you want to see the color of her eyes, what fabulous golden irises flicker and shine under the pearly, slick eyelids. But she doesn’t open them. She lies still in the water, dripping with the colors of morning.
“Her face….” Jade muses. “It’s different, in a lot of ways, but she reminds me of Echidna.”
To the boys, SBURB allotted the monsters. Beasts with writhing tails and scales and claws, beasts with teeth and beasts whose faces burned with hellfire. Beasts that gave ultimatums, beasts that stamped their feet and crawed for bloodshed. To the girls, SBURB presented the deities. True goddesses, women who sprouted quills and breathed ice and magic. Goddesses who devoured the sea and conquered oceans, goddesses who curled their great, beastly mouths and told you kill me if you can. Is Hemera beast or god?
You straighten your lapels. “Well, Echidna was the mother of all monsters. Maybe the same is true in the game as well.”
Jade gives you a strange look.
“What? I did make it halfway through high school.” You consider what you just said, then hide your face in your hands. “Oh, god, I’m a high school dropout.”
“Yup, and I’m a feral child with no formal schooling. Join the club.” Jade shoves her hands in her pockets. “So what’s the next step? Your denizen looks like she’s enjoying her rest.”
An exhale shudders through Hemera. Her nostrils, thin as slits, expand and contract as warm air rushes out of them. It blasts you with humidity. You wipe the fog from your glasses and clear your throat.
“Hemera?” you ask.
Nothing. Hemera curls in on herself, sluggish and fetal.
“Hemera,” you ask again with your voice trembling, “my name is Jane Crocker. I am the Maid of Life, and I – I’ve, come to see you, to receive your quest.”
Nothing still. You can hear Jade shuffling uncomfortably behind you and elect to ignore it.
“Hemera, I’m going to approach you now.”
You wade through the shallow water, kicking up ripples of scarlet and dandelion yellow. Your denizen does not flinch as you come closer, but her breath does grow warmer. Its dampness fogs your lenses and makes your hair stick to your forehead. When you are close enough to touch her, your hand curls in hesitation. It shakes, and you’re suddenly very unsure of yourself. You’re afraid her eyes will snap open, that she’ll open that maw and cleave your arm in twain. You flatten your palm and press it to her flesh.
It’s chilly. There’s grooves in her skin like fish scales, and when your hand presses more firmly you can feel that it’s coated in some sort of film – a viscous membrane that keeps her cool.
“Hemera, can you hear me?”
She exhales. The smell of it washes over you, like morning grass and the crisp, autumn scent of running across the schoolyard at eight in the morning, nearly late for first period.
“Hemera.” Your chest heaves, something sour like disappointment pooling there. Something like the sting of grief. “Hemera, I am the Maid of Life, and I demand an audience with my denizen.”
“Jane, I don’t think she’s going to wake up,” Jade says. “It’s been a long time, and we’re not in the session anymore.”
“That’s uncharacteristically cynical of you,” you snap. “Did your personal quest not entail bringing your denizens along for the ride into the new universe? Why bother transplanting them if they were destined for an eternal slumber on the other side?”
“Echidna was more concerned with the next session, your Medium, being functional enough to prepare the tadpole’s launch. She wanted to be a part of a working session, but not necessarily to live for eons more in another universe. That’s simply not what she was built for.”
“I’m sorry, Jade, but I have trouble swallowing that pill. We brought them all the way here, they have to be good for something.”
Later, you will look back on this moment and think yourself a horse’s ass. But at the time, you simply can’t help it. You ball your hand into a fist and hit Hemera very hard on the side of her nose.
“Jane!” Jade cries, “Are you insane!”
“I’m not insane! How is it insane to want just a modicum of what’s expected for me?” You bop Hemera again, harder this time. “Well, here I am, O Great Goddess of LOCAH! I played your stupid game and ransacked your stupid planet until fuckall was left! I got you out of the Medium, you’re fucking welcome!”
“Oh, my god.” You hear the smack of Jade hiding her face in her hands.
“It’s okay, Jade, it’s fine, we’re in a royal court after all. I’ve simply forgotten my manners. Of course, when addressing royalty you have to be in your best uniform. Maybe all Hemera needs is a reminder that she’s in the presence of a god tier.”
It’s not anything you’ve done for years and years, and you do not go about it in that self-congratulatory Sailor Moon kind of way with the rainbow backdrop and the leitmotif. You think of it, just bring it to mind, and your Maid robes fall upon you. A familiar, minty vine sprouts across your chest. You feel like you’ve donned an old sports uniform that doesn’t fit you anymore.
“I’m here!” you shout. “I’m right here, god damn you, you giant fucking monster! Open your stupid eyes!”
You kick her, your cleet landing squarely in her cheek. The gasp that comes out of Jade is the tiny squeak of a surprised lapdog. You pant with the wave of rolling anger that splashes over you, your face burning hot.
A dark, gray shape passes under Hemera’s eyelids – the twitching of her eyeballs in the midst of her eternal sleep. This can’t be it. This can’t truly be the result of coming all this way. Your entire world was wrenched away from you, you didn’t want this supernatural action film called your life, and now that you’re finally embracing it you get nothing? What was the point of any of this if she doesn’t know you’re here at all? It would be easier for you if she was dead. Then you could just mourn instead of being so sickeningly, overwhelmingly angry.
“You stupid fucking lizard!” You wipe your face, surprised when tears come away on your fingers. “I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t take my quest seriously, and I never had time to find you because I had all these excuses and so much was going on and I – I didn’t try hard enough. But I won anyway. And I’m here now, so wake up. Just say something.”
Nothing but the even breaths from her parted lips. Her skin glistens with rose gold droplets. It leaks down her face, already obscuring the dirty marks that your shoe left behind. In moments you can’t even tell where your foot made contact. You hang your head.
“I’m sorry for wasting your time,” you tell Jade flatly. “You were a very big help today, Jade. I couldn’t have made it this far without you.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Her words are slow and faltering. She rubs the back of her neck, and you’re embarrassed that your sudden outburst has made her feel so awkward. “I’m really just glad that we got to hang out together. We don’t do this enough.”
“We don’t have disastrous, anticlimactic encounters with serpent monsters often enough?”
“Uh, I mean, the adventure was an added bonus. Maybe next time we can go to the city or something.”
You sigh. What are you, a child pitching a fit that they didn’t get what they wanted for Christmas? It’s been six years, Janey. Even if Hemera were alive, she has no interest in tossing out puzzles and quests to bored twenty-somethings who live with their dads and don’t have jobs. Who the hell are you kidding anyway? This feeling of yours you would never peep to another soul, but you’re just as sure that Jade already knows. It’s embarrassing, and humiliating, and pathetic. You sigh.
“You’re right. I should just be happy I found her, yeah? Clearly she needs her beauty sleep, so let’s just throw in the towel.”
“Whoa. Jane, what the hell?”
“This – whatever this is. How are you doing that?”
You turn in the direction of her finger. “I’m not….”
A crick-cracking surges under your feet. Silvery roots are sprouting from the ground’s glassy surface, undulating and quavering as they swell up, up, up into thick and twisted trunks. White trees unfurl their branches and shake them out, tossing loose leaves to the ground. Pink and orange and yellow leaves drift, ballerina-like, until they land to float on the water’s surface. There’s a series of crunches as the new, unfolding life undergoes its growing pains. Flowers bud and bloom. Fat, round fruits grow ripe and are tugged to to earth by gravity. The trees grow tall and begin to loom over Hemera, casting their shadows across her pearlescent body. Flowering vines creep across her back and settle in the creases.
“Don’t you think this kind of looks like –”
“It looks like what I caused to happen on my birthday,” you murmur, awed. “All that life that sprang forth on the surface and died. I was supposed to make it grow by myself, but I couldn’t do it. Not without cheating.”
“What’s different this time?”
You gape at her. “I don’t know.”
In her sleep, Hemera breathes a magnanimous sigh. Your Moby Dick, beached on land for the final time. How did Moby Dick die? You don’t know. You didn’t finish high school.
“Thanks, Jade. For uh, coming all this way. I think we’d better leave.”
“No problem, Jane. Thanks for bringing me with you. Though, are you sure you’re ready to go? We haven’t been here all that long.”
You turn to watch Hemera again. There is a tiny, foolish part of you that hopes her eyes will flutter open, that she’ll look benignly upon her Maid and congratulate you for coming such a long way. Maybe she’ll speak a prophecy into your ear, or tell you what the hell it is that you’re supposed to do now that you’ve won. But her eyes are still twitching under their lids, lost in a deep and celestial dream. Pink flower petals drift from a tree branch that shadows her face, and they collect in the crook of her wrist. It smells sweet in here now, you think.
“Yeah,” you sigh. “Yeah, I think we’d better go.”
On the other side of the door, Jasprose has vanished. She’s never been a very patient creature, and you’re relieved that she isn’t waiting on the other side to annoy you with some insensitive barb. While you’re relieved that the manic catgirl is gone, you’re equally surprised that the sudden explosion of life that just occurred behind the door has also happened out here. The dark, wet cavern is now bursting with trees, their branches twisted into curlicues in the limited space that the cave provides. Wet leaves and petals float across the shallow puddles on the ground.
“It’s beautiful,” Jade says.
You stoop to pick up a fat, pink-and-green fruit that’s fallen from a branch. Then you set it aside in your sylladex. Maybe you’ll plant the seeds in your front lawn. You think your dad would like it.
When you stand up, your god tier garb feels tight. It’s supposed to grow along with you, so you know it’s not the wrong size. It just doesn’t feel right to wear it anymore. You will it to vanish, and you’re back in your sweaty, water-speckled hiking clothes again.
“I think….” you trail. “I think I’m going to sign up for classes after all.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” says Jade. “Though, what are you going to put on your application if you’re a high school dropout?”
“Good question. I don’t know, part-time driving instructor? Amateur baker?”
“Aspiring puzzle extraordinaire?”
“Former heiress and Maid?” you laugh. “That’s plenty. They’d be lucky to have me.”
“She told me not to tell you this, but Roxy is keeping a paper application at their apartment. If you ask me, that’s a pretty good excuse to head over.”
“Miss Harley, I will never cease to be amazed by the lengths you’ll go to play platonic matchmaker.”
She shrugs and grins at you. “What are sisters for?”
Despite yourself, you can’t help but smile back. Jade starts to laugh at you, and in moments you’ve both got tears in your eyes. You wipe them away with the heel of your palm, just in time to see Jade doing the same.
She looks a little bit like you, you think. Just enough to pass as sisters.
You never got very good at playing Egyptian rat screw.
There’s something very decisive and violent about it that always makes you fall behind. You’re too slow to slap the pile, and you take too long to place your cards down. John has never stopped being patient with you about it – nevertheless, it’s not his first choice when you decide to break the cards out. You’re only playing now because the Nannas insisted on it.
Low, staticy music rumbles out of the radio on the windowsill. The Nannas have cracked all the windows to let the late summer breeze in, and your ears swivel and flick at the sound of songbirds outside. Their house is deep in the trees, off a hidden path that shifts from gravel to dirt, with barely enough room in front to park. It’s exactly what you might imagine the witch’s cottage from Hansel and Gretel to look like, except its structural integrity doesn’t rely on cinnamon sticks and taffy. Inside the house, house plants are hanging from the ceiling. Their leaves fidget in the breath of air that blows in from outside. Somewhere, their two cats are lounging in the sunlight that coasts in, and the annoying pet parakeet bobs in its cage to the music. A windchime clinks outside, where the Nannas strung it up on the porch among ivy and bird feeders. As a quiet, tinny trumpet plays from the radio, John sits next to you and pulls his battered Bicycle box from his sylladex.
“Are we playing with Jokers this time?” you ask, your foot bobbing under the table.
“No, fuck that.”
“John, honey, don’t use those raggedy old things,” your Nanna clucks. “Now, why don’t you use the nice cards your Nanna got you?”
“Jade, pass your brother the nice cards,” John’s Nanna says.
You pass your brother the nice cards. They’re slick and shiny, with a red lattice design on the back. John doesn’t like them because they’re too short, making the deck hard to shuffle with his big hands. He lines them up very carefully under his thumbs, biting his bottom lip in concentration. John gives up after a couple of haphazard shuffles and starts dealing them out to the four of you before he gets the chance to spray them across the table.
The oven beeps its one minute warning – a sound you’re so used to that you don’t register it anymore. The parakeet they keep in a hanging birdcage screams something that sounds vaguely obscene, then gnaws its beak on the bars. John’s Nanna rises from her seat.
“Hold on, hold on, pie’s ready!”
“Aw, Nanna, what the heck? You’re the one who wanted to play,” John gripes.
“We can play while we eat,” she says over her shoulder, drifting over the divider that separates the dining room table from the kitchen. The wispy blue curlicue of her tail trails behind her.
“We can’t eat while we’re playing rat slap.”
“I’d like to,” you pipe up. Having a shared distraction might alleviate your delayed reaction time.
“Man, Jade, don’t encourage her.”
“What? It smells good.”
John never touches the cake that the Nannas put out, and this blatant passive-aggression towards frosted baked goods has not gone unnoticed. So, the two sprites have elected to branch out. There’s a sweet, fruity smell that washes over the room when the oven opens.
“Nanna Two, a hand, please?”
“Coming right up, Nanna One!”
John’s Nanna uses her slime hand to reach across into the dining area, and with a pop like snapping two magnets apart, she yoinks her counterpart’s limb. Then she smacks it into place on her own body, wiggling her fingers into the right places. She has two arms now, but your Nanna has none. Nanna Two hums while her pre-retcon self shakes a can of whipped cream to adorn the top of the lemon pie. Your eyes fall on a framed picture of John’s father, dappled in the light that filters in through the tree branch outside the window. It’s easier than looking at your Nanna resemble a geriatric snake.
“So,” Nanna Two, Noodle Boogaloo asks, “how was movie night at the Haus of Harley?”
John finishes dealing the cards and straightens his hand into a neat pile. “Man, this one totally bombed. I knew it would be bad, but this was bad bad.”
“I liked it,” you say simply.
“Whatever, I’m glad our society crapped itself before we could be responsible for creating such a horrendous dog pile. I don’t know if I could handle that much second hand guilt.”
“Jake liked it.”
“All right, okay, hold on there, Jade. Jake had the terrible misfortune of being alive when this thing hit theaters, okay? He’s seen it a million times, the poor guy’s gotten desensitized. I bet he only said he liked it because Jane did, too.”
“Jane said she enjoyed it because she was texting Roxy the entire time,” you correct. “She wasn’t actually paying attention. Jake liked it because he is unpretentious, and not everything needs to follow the source material to a T, okay?”
The detail you neglect to mention is that Jake also thinks it’s horseshit, and only gassed it up before monthly Prospit movie night because he knew John’s reaction would be funny. Your night was spent with Jane tick-tick-ticking away at her pesterlog windows between Roxy and Callie, John clutching his face in abject horror, and Jake stifling his snickering at John’s ghoulish sounds of despair.
“I like Jake,” Nanna One says, “he’s a funny young fellow. Much more lackadaisical than our Jacob was.
“I heartily agree,” Nanna Two nods. “He yells so much less. What a refreshing change of pace.”
“I’m afraid we got off track,” says Nanna One. “What film did you say you kids watched?”
You nearly choke on your tea as you’re sipping it. “Tell her, John.”
John lets go of a sigh so dramatic, so dejected, so utterly hopeless, that you have to bite back laughter. Miserably, he says, “The Last Airbender.”
“What is that?” a Nanna asks.
“It’s based on a fantasy cartoon,” you say with a dismissive hand wave.
“Jade, it’s so much more than that.” John gesticulates in such a manner that it looks like he’s strangling someone invisible. “It’s an unfaithful adaption of a landmark work of animation, and more importantly, it’s the worst dumpster fire M. Night Shyamalan ever shat out! What happened after Lady in the Water ? He had so much promise.”
You shrug. “It seemed pretty accurate to me. I never really got into Avatar , I thought it was kind of boring.”
“You don’t have to – okay. I will admit that it is kind of silly to watch a bald kid whoosh around on his big furry cow, but you have to respect the–”
“Oh my god, are we playing rat screw or what?”
Nanna One returns to the dining room table with a stack of plates and the pie already cut into slices. You reach over and plop a thin piece of it onto a plate with red checkers ‘round the rim.
“All right, game’s on!” she says as she settles into her chair.
“I’ll be taking that , thank you!” Nanna Two swipes her borrowed arm from Nanna One’s torso and pops it back into place on her own body.
“Man, Nanna, I hope you don’t do that in public,” says John.
“Heavens, no. Could you imagine? We’re documented in Rose’s giant diary, after all. We can’t have people recognizing us as the celestial celebrities we are,” Nanna One replies, pushing her spectacles up her nose. “That’s why we wear the skirts outside. It hides those pesky sprite tails very well.”
“And that’s why we have you to bring us our groceries,” Nanna Two hoots. “Having children is very useful.”
She slaps an eight of diamonds onto the center of the table, and with that, the four of you begin going in a circle. You throw down cards half-heartedly as you busy yourself with the dish in front of you. John is the first to slap down a Queen, and Nanna One is just barely able to lay down a face card before John can swipe the pile.
“Did you have fun otherwise?” a Nanna asks.
“Twisted my ankle,” John says matter-of-factly.
“What !” cry the Nannas in unison.
“We went out on the beach afterward to throw the light-up frisbee around, and he ran and tripped into some hole that a kid had dug in the sand,” you explain through a mouthful of lemon pie. “I told them the beach is dangerous at night. You can barely see a thing.”
“Jane patched me up in no time,” your brother says. “It hurt like a son of a bitch, though.”
“I know what you should watch for your next get-together,” Nanna Two suggests, her face lighting up in a way that tells you she only just remembered to say this long after the moment has passed. “You should watch North by Northwest.”
“Really? I thought it was dry. Much too long for a film of its caliber,” her counterpart says.
“You’re the same person,” John intersects, “shouldn’t you have the same opinion?”
“John, I’m surprised at you! Just because we originated at a mutual point in time, it is perfectly natural for alternate versions of one another to have discreet and evolving tastes in cinema,” says Nanna One.
“Yeah John, don’t be a dick.”
John shoots you a withering look.
“Anywho, I preferred The Birds,” she continues. “You kids need more challenging films in your repertoire. Romantic comedies are all well and good, but sometimes you need a good scare. Horror and comedy are but two sides of the same coin. They appeal to basic human instinct!”
“I already watched that one with Rose and Kanaya,” you reply. “It was fine. I thought the blonde woman should have gotten with the teacher, though. There was a lot of romantic tension.”
That's about as close to scientific fact as you can get, three lesbians all agreeing in no uncertain terms that the movie about insane avians was also incredibly homoerotic. You don't babysit wigglers for Rose and Kanaya as much as you used to, so now your get-togethers are a little more laid back. Before you started hanging out with them outside the pretext of brood duties, you hadn't had the pleasure of hearing Kanaya's deep belly laugh when you or Rose crack a joke. It's been a long time now, but you're still learning new things about your friends every day.
You lay down a four of clubs atop Nanna Two’s four of hearts, but with your fork raised to your mouth, you’re too slow. Nanna One slams her ghost hand down so hard that your plates rattle, and she claims the deck for herself.
“I never viewed it through that lens,” John’s Nanna says thoughtfully.
Your Nanna nods. “Jade is such a perceptive young lady.”
“Isn’t the teacher in that one a girl?” asks John.
“Yeah, so? The women in those movies always seem to have more chemistry with each other than whatever guys they’re supposed to end up with. It’s very obvious, John. You would see it too if you put thought into it.”
“He’s kinda old school, but there’s nothing wrong with the Cary Grants in his movies. Like, I guess as a hero and a love interest he’s… adequate? He just does an okay job of being a protagonist, I don’t know. I’m not saying I wish he’d be replaced by ladies, but maybe it’d be cooler if those kinds of movies had more heroines.”
“Sounds like something someone who wants to be a girl would say.”
John blinks hard. “Jade, please. You are only saying so because you’re a lesbian, and you think the world would be a better place if everyone was girl, and then they all kissed each other.”
“Nanna,” you complain.
“John, don’t disrespect your sister,” your Nanna scolds as she flicks her hard onto the pile.
“Yes, John, we swore a solemn oath to respect lesbians under this roof,” John’s Nanna chimes in.
“I’m not disrespecting her,” John says, slamming his card down a little too forcefully, “I’m just stating the cold, hard facts. Jade knows I’m an ally to all lesbians. Tell them, Jade.”
“Jade, tell them!”
“I don’t know, John, I don’t think you’re being very woke right now.”
“There’s that word again,” John’s Nanna murmurs to your Nanna. “What do the kids mean when they say they’re ‘awake?’”
“Now, John,” your Nanna says, clearing her throat, “don’t act as though being a girl is something to turn your nose up at. You’re in a room full of them, mister.”
“Yes, John, there’s many different ways to be a girl. For example, you could be a lesbian like your beautiful, intelligent sister here–”
“You could be like Roxy,” you add, “you know, with how they’ve been switching up her pronouns lately?”
“Or you could be a charming and spry harlequin with a talent for baking that boggles the mind–”
“– Or a cat girl, like that adorable version of Rose whose genetic material is all gobbledygooked with Jaspers.”’
“Wait, Cat Rose visits you?” John asks.
“Oh, yes. She’s very pleasant. Jasprose remembers how well we treated Jaspers,” his Nanna says, slowly nodding.
“I miss that kitty,” your Nanna sighs. Her eyeglass chains clink.
You remember that Jasprose has referred to your Nanna as a milf on multiple occasions, then make the executive decision to box that thought away in a dark attic where you will never have to look at it again.
“I’m only saying,” John’s Nanna says with her hand to her chest, “don’t knock it till you try it.”
“Don’t… knock… being a girl?”
Both Nannas shrug. Yours says simply, “Stranger things have happened.”
“I’d love to have twin girls, wouldn’t that be fabulous?”
You take another stab at your plate. “If John was a girl I’d be able to do something about the way he dresses.”
“What’s wrong with the way I dress?”
He looks attacked on all sides now, his fidgety hands busy at work building up the Egbertian Trojan walls. You were only needling him, but it seems like you’ve genuinely struck a nerve. You feel a pang of sympathy and decide to withdraw from this battle. Maybe he’ll text you about it later, and you’ll have an opportunity to apologize that doesn’t embarrass him.
While you’re busy fretting over you’ve caused a psychological crisis in your brother, Nanna One tosses a two of spades onto John’s two of hearts. He lunges forward and smacks his palm on the pile. The Nannas tsk in disappointment, and John tucks the deck neatly under his hand of cards.
“Looks like I could still win,” he says, the tense furrow of his brow dissolved. You allow yourself to stop worrying.
Later, when the sink is full of dishes and Nanna Two has claimed victory over you all, you join your brother and your ecto-mothers in the living room. There’s an aged, comforting smell that rises from the old furniture when you sit in it.
“Oh, Jane, look,” Nanna Two says, nudging her counterpart in the side. She points to the TV, where a violet-blooded news anchor is exchanging pleasantries with the light-haired human sitting beside him. “It’s that seadweller boy you like so much.”
“Would you look at that face? He’s such an endearing young fellow.”
“I prefer her,” your Nanna says as the camera shifts to the light-haired woman, identified as Dido Harlish by the name card that slides on-screen underneath her. “Her opinions are very progressive, and her freckles are adorable.”
The Nannas perch on a Victorian-style settee couch with a faded, blue and green pastel pattern. John has claimed the wingback chair beside them, whose legs were scratched up long ago by someone else’s pet. He throws his legs up to drape them over the chair’s arm.
“You’re comfortable down there, dear?” your Nanna asks, looking at you down the length of her nose.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
You don’t like how lumpy the chairs are – it reminds you of the horsehair furniture in your foyer, the sofas and armchairs that accumulated an odor of dust from the distinguished houseguests that sat, neatly taxidermied, in polite pairs. So you yanked a fluffy pillow from the sofa and tossed it on the floor in front of John’s chair, sitting on that instead.
The news keeps playing, loud enough for the Nannas to hear over the tinnitus that followed them all the way into SBURB. John’s Nanna crochets one-handed, and yours scribbles away at a Sudoku booklet.
“And it looks like this hot spell isn’t going away any time soon, ” reports the seadweller. One of his horns catches the studio light as he adjusts a cufflink. “Isn’t that right, Dido? ”
“Yes, Favier, from Mother’s Mount all the way to Thief’s Triangle, we can expect high temperatures into next week. So keep the wigglers and the kids at home! Have you taken your lusus to the pool yet, Favier? Certainly a great time for it. ”
“Dido, my lusus lives in a pool,” he laughs. “Now, moving on to local news. If you’re one of our friends in East Belfry, you probably already know about the giant sloth lusus who’s gone viral for his remarkable skills at – get this, ice cream making! Reporting live from Perigee Court is our very own Dignified Scrivener. D.S., give us the rundown about– ”
You jump, startled, when something out on the front porch falls over. There’s a sound like a bunch of marbles bouncing and rolling across the floor, and Nanna Two springs into action.
“Jane, it’s the damn kangarat again!” she shouts.
Nanna One jumps up and throws aside her crocheting. “Curse that blasted rodent! Jane, do you have your baseball bat?”
Nanna Two wields a bright blue bat with a faint glow to it that she summons into her hand. “I’ve got my bat, Janey, you better blast that thing with your eyeball laser!”
“You already know I will. Sorry kids, this’ll only take but a moment.”
The Nannas phase through the wall and into the front yard, where you can hear their muffled shouting past the window. The kangarat, or whatever it is, makes a throaty sound like a deer. Nanna Two’s bat hits and breaks something, and they both start to curse.
“What the hell is a kangarat?” you ask John.
“Some kind of troll animal. It’s like, a kangaroo, but it’s kind of ratty?”
“Wow, John, I could have never figured that out myself.”
“I don’t know, it’s a weird lusus thing, okay? It’s a kangaroo with a rat tail and buck teeth. I’ve never seen one, but the Nannas insist that it’s been foraging through their garden and scaring off the birds. Like, my Nanna swears up and down that it stared the cats down through the window until they were scared shitless.”
“Those cats don’t fear a thing,” you say.
You snap your fingers and make a psk-psk-psk sound at their fluffy white cat, Morty, who has a boy name because they named her before they knew she was pregnant. Morty slowly blinks her eyes at you. Beside her, her kitten Harry yawns and covers his face with his paw. The sound you make excites the parakeet, who starts honking in his cage.
“Hey,” you ask suddenly, “I didn’t put you on the spot earlier, did I?”
“Huh. With what?”
“I mean, with the girl comment? The Nannas kind of got carried away, and you seemed kind of bothered about it, so….”
“No, no, no,” John interrupts. He shakes his head emphatically and waves his hand in a motion that would be very effective in wiping a window. “No, why would you think that? I–”
“You just looked like you might’ve–”
“Like it really got to you, and I didn’t want–”
“So dumb, ugh, why are you making this such a thing–”
“Just making sure I wasn’t hitting a nerve–”
“A nerve? Jade, why would you be hitting a nerve?”
You throw your hands up in a don’t-shoot-the-messenger kind of way. “All right, okay, forget I asked. Forgive me for being considerate.”
“Forgiven, I guess.”
“Okay, I’ll be less considerate in the future. I’ll be downright rude, okay?”
For a while you watch TV as the Nannas cause further raucous outside. The kangarat brays again, and one of the Nannas yelps. John grabs the remote and turns the volume up. The Dignified Scrivener interviews a lime-blooded girl with a pixie cut about her giant sloth lusus who became Internet famous for his delicious Rocky Road ice cream. The camera cuts to a shot of the great, towering animal slowly, slowly placing a cherry upon someone’s dish.
“If you’d rather not talk to me about it, you could talk to Davepeta. They have a lot of thoughts on gender that I think are very insightful.”
John groans so loudly that he throws his head back. “Jesus, Jade, why are you making this into such a big deal?”
“You seem mad about it!”
“Maybe I’m mad because you’re haranguing me over something that definitely doesn’t matter and that I have never thought about for even a second, and even if I did, it was totally a one-time thing and wasn’t even serious!”
You just stare at him. John meets your eye and quickly looks away, his eyebrows knitted together as he scowls at the screen. His ears are burning in the way they do when he’s not angry, but merely embarrassed. Whatever you’re trying to force out of him, you’re obviously not the right person for him to have this conversation with. This hurts your feelings – especially after the mental anguish you went through before coming out to him. He doesn’t owe you a soul-wrenching discussion of identity, though, not even when your grandmothers are outside yelling at a wild animal to put that down this instant and fight me like a man .
You make a mental note to ask Davepeta to text John later.
“All right. Sorry, I’ll stop.” Your fingers fidget in your lap. “We’re okay, right?”
“What? Yeah, dude, of course we’re okay.”
John lowers his fist down, and you bump it. “Okay.”
The news switches to a segment about a new college of biochemistry being built in New Vienna. A correspondent interviews some girls about the department of ectobiology, so you sit back and watch that for a while.
“Why did Roxy change her pronouns?” John asks. “Or uh, their pronouns.”
“They go by both.”
“Right, yes. That’s what I thought. Didn’t they start doing that around June?”
“Hm, yeah, June sounds about right. To answer your question, we haven’t really talked about it. Callie and Jane know more about it than I do – Roxy and Callie are kind of going through the same stuff, I think.”
“Makes sense, since they’re glued at the hip.” John messes with his phone. “Wait, you said Jane knows more about it?”
“She’s talking to them again?”
You scratch behind one of your Bec ears. “Uh… not ‘again,’ they’re just finally starting to hang out more.”
John nods, gnawing on the corner of his bottom lip. “That’s good. She needs to get out of the house more.”
“True.” You shrug. “So yeah, if you want to know more about Roxy’s whole evolving gender epiphany, you should talk to them directly. Or, you know, any of her friends. I think even Jake has had more of a detailed discussion with her than I have.”
“That whole group is such a god damned enigma,” John laughs. “But I guess we’re not much better, huh?”
You lean against his armchair. “We have our moments.”
John’s Nanna throws the storm door open so hard that it bashes against the wall and wobbles back. The parakeet screeches in surprise from its cage.
“We have established dominance over nature !” she yells.
Your Nanna phases through the wall. Her hat is askew, and her glasses are hanging ‘round her neck by their chain. “Never again shall the Crocker household be terrorized by ruffians passing themselves off as mere beasts!”
“You got the kangarat?” asks John.
“Well… we chased it into the woods,” Nanna One replies sheepishly. She pushes up her spectacles.
“I feel we sent a very clear message,” Nanna Two tacks on. She adjusts her harlequin hat and wipes off the smear of dirt across her face. “Now, what did we miss?”
“Not much,” you answer.
“Well, now that that’s over with, who’s up for some pink lemonade?” Nanna One asks.
Both of you raise your hands, and she drifts off into the kitchen. Morty and Harry get up from their perches, stretching their legs out like ballerinas, and amble over to you for head scratches and pets. Morty will shed her white fur all over John’s hoodie, but you know he doesn’t mind. Even if he complains about it, he’ll still end up holding her like a baby and calling her his favorite as if you can’t hear him.
Nanna Two settles onto the couch with a sigh, changing the channel to the same Prospitian historical drama you’ve seen a hundred times. You yawn and lean your head back against John’s chair.
You’ll have the hard conversations later. For now, you’re just happy to be with your family.
There is a growing number of stray cats congregating around your porch, and Davepeta is wholly to blame.
You swing your legs and try to write in your journal, but the sound of meowing and the sprinkling of cat treats against the floorboards is getting distracting. Years ago, but not many, Davepeta hooked the deadliest monster to ever live upon their claws – “Like a kebab!” they said – and dumped him into the maw of a black hole to be devoured by what remained of his sister. Now, your birdfriend-slash-growlfriend (depending on their mood) is cooing to a crowd of kitties in a frequency inaudible to humans. It’s very cute, and it makes them seem smaller than the fluffed-up, proud-chested, preening personality they display otherwise. For a while they stop being a pompously strutting bird-of-paradise and lower their defenses. You like to watch them out of the corner of your eye when they’re like this.
The noise wouldn’t bother you if you were trying to do some sneaky gesture drawing, but you’ve picked up on a previously abandoned work of writing, and the revision process has been brutal.
“ Pssk pssk, oh, you are such a rowdy man, San Juan Pawtista. You have no manners! None to speak of!” Davepeta scratches a skinny tabby behind the ears. “Why don’t you take your cues from Miss Purrsula and act like a gentleman?”
A stout tortoiseshell with wide eyes like an owl swats Miss Purrsula out of the way so she can horn in on some major treats. Davepeta picks her up, and the tortie makes a sound that’s less of a meow and more of a quack.
“You must needs be a polite girl, Ingrid, my extra special diva princess! My most favoritest of babies!” they scold before giving Ingrid a rapidfire barrage of forehead kisses.
You set your pen down. “I think I want to adopt a dog.”
The shape of Davepeta’s surprised mouth is a perfect circle. “And chase away my mounting army of minions?”
“There are dogs that get along just fine with cats.”
“Just like us,” Davepeta purrs in a tone that makes you roll your eyes.
“I don’t think they’re technically your cats either, Dee. They’ll go wherever they smell food.”
“That is a low blow, Harley. My minions love me. They are my gentle subjects and I am their benign empurror.”
“They definitely love whatever’s in that bag.”
“It’s dried shrimp!” they chirp.
Davepeta pops a piece into their mouth before dumping a handful of it onto the porch. The flurry of cat tails that shoot northward resemble a twitching field of excited reeds. Davepeta pets a fluffy tuxedo cat along the back.
“I think I really, really want a dog.”
“What’s stoppin’ ya?”
“I don’t….” Your mouth presses to a thin line. “I don’t know if I can take care of a real dog.”
Davepeta bursts into squawking laughter that makes a few of the strays flinch. “Yeah, no shit, Jade, real dogs don’t eat irradiated kibble.”
“And they don’t have the clawtesy to lay their shits way out in the Australian outback so you don’t have to bother with pooper-scooping.”
“You’re trying to sway me into giving up and letting all these cats into the house, aren’t you?”
“Lies and slander! You should do whatever your pump biscuit tells ya. It’s mad cute whenever we see dog walkers and you get so juiced about how darn adorable all the widdle puppies are.” They say this last part with their hands smushing their cheeks.
“They are adorable, dang it!” you groan, kicking your feet.
Their wings flutter, shedding feathers onto the porch. An older kitten with blue-green mismatched eyes swats at them when they drift to earth. Davepeta is about to pick it up and set it in their lap when rustling from the reeds makes you jerk your heads up. People walk past your yard often – troll couples with beach balls and umbrellas, carapacians with their porcelain feet clunking against the boardwalk. They set up camp on the beach, and you can watch them from your greenhouse window as you spritz your ferns with water, the joggers and the children building sandcastles and all those dog walkers of which you’re so exceedingly envious. If you saw a family walking out of the bowing trees just now, you wouldn’t be surprised. But instead, the group that comes down the boardwalk is a cloister of Witch cultists.
“Look,” points Davepeta, “there’s your clout chasers.”
It’s like seeing a mall goth at the public pool, platform boots and all. They’re dressed as they always are, which is to say not very much at all. A woman in wolf’s pelts looks like she’s sweating very hard, and the girls who trail her are wearing more silver jewelry than fabric. A man is wearing the top half of a canine’s skull atop his head like a crown.
“I wish they wouldn’t parade themselves out in the open like that,” you say with a sneer.
“How come? It’s dope. You’re pretty much a secret celebrity, and they have no idea that their literal god is just chillin’ out here drawin’ furry pinups and eatin’ chips.”
Your face burns. “ Dee , only like, two people ever commissioned that kind of thing.”
“Yeah, but you did it, ‘cause if you went public as the Devilwitch Fuckwolf you’d never have to chase that FurAffinity cheddar efur again, and we all know that ain’t happenin’.”
You set your notebook aside. “I don’t want those kinds of people pounding down my door.”
The cultists are setting up their druid circle now – assembling the collapsible May poles, unrolling the swaths of silk rolled up into tote bags. Once, for a few months, they didn’t show their faces as much. A new batch of old SBURB server beacons had been decoded, and along with them a swath of Wikipedia articles regarding ancient human religions. Conversations on the street and at the market always went somewhere along the lines of Yeah, I’m pretty into Zoroastrianism right now, doubt you’ve heard of it though. The fad only lasted so long, though. The civilians of Earth C have moved on and returned to the tried and true model of worshiping the Originators. So the cultists are back with a vengeance.
You like it better when they hide their howling in the dead of night. When the only thing that can bear witness to their theatrics is you, your plants, and the strange new constellations of this world – the twin stars Hemera and Nyx, the Quills of Echidna and Abraxas’ Mask, the line of stars that makes up Zillyhoo’s handle. There is a family halfway down the beach that appears to be considering whether they should pack up and leave before the kids are exposed to women smearing black chalk on their chests.
“Such a humble, clawdest creature. She turns up her nose at the undulating waves of purrostrated buttocks and does a sick skate move off the sloping spines of the starstruck.”
“That’s easy for you to say! It must be so much easier to be the local famed cryptid. When’s the last time a blurry Polaroid of you showed up in a grocery store magazine?”
“Children find my ‘costume’ delightful, Jade, and I’ll have you know I’ve been compurrmented many a time on my dedication to ‘body modifurcation.’” They twitch their kitty mouth at you.
“Aren’t you glad Rose didn’t find the time to write about you before relinquishing her book to the masses? You get to fly under the radar.”
Davepeta scoots themself across the porch on hands and knees, braving splinters and all, to wrap their arms ‘round you from behind, their chin resting on your shoulder. The bag of dried shrimp is forgotten on the porch. The cats are batting it around, poking their noses inside and swiping at each other over the morsels they can paw from it.
“Ain’t no shame in havin’ kids think you’re cosplaying a winsome anime bird princess. And ain’t no shame in letting the hippies trip over themselves in their cringey FLARPy attempt at idolatry. Pawnestly, I think they got great taste. They had their pick of the litter and chose the most OP of the bunch.” They are fully aware that this kind of talk embarrasses you, and they poke your cheek when it burns a darker color. “Let ‘em have their fun. How would you do it, if you were them?”
You lean back and settle into their chest. “Simple! I wouldn’t worship me to begin with.”
“Typical answer. Don’t know what I expected.” Davepeta hugs you, and a brown tabby sniffs your pocket cautiously for signs of snacks. “Put yourself in their paws. All those sweaty shirt-spurning commune-dwellers started off as wee babies learning about the young gods who made their world from nothin’. Their parents probably read them fairy tales about LOFAF and Echidna and how the Witch made a pact with a monster to give birth to a mewniverse.” They describe the scene as they sweep their hand through the air, like they’re reading across an invisible banner. “If I was a wee scamp on this Earth, hell, I’d worship the girl who vored a demon, too.”
“Nooo, don’t call it that, we banned the v-word in this house!” you squawk. Davepeta erupts in a fit of high-pitched cackling that sounds like a cockatoo chittering.
“You banned the vore-word, I never signed an agreement!”
And now the cultists have begun their vocal warmups. Women chirp and trill, the two men among them belting out low, throaty tones. Davepeta starts laughing their ass off, and you hide your face in your hands.
“I think I know why they got bolder,” they snicker, “it’s ‘cause of that new cartoon flick that came out about Old Prospit.”
“Oh, yeah, the one where the White Queen is wearing the–”
“The dress that makes her look like she’s shoplifting a purrasma TV! The critical remews for that thing were very pawsitive. You looked very cute in the trailer.”
Davepeta pinches your cheek, so you smack their hand. “Not as cute as the real deal, though!”
“I wonder why they drew her as a redhead.”
“It looked nice with all the golds ‘n stuff. Let’s sneak into a theater and heckle the screen when they get shit wrong.”
“Thanks! I think I’d rather die!”
At the same time Davepeta says “You’re no fun,” you say the same thing in a high-pitched, mocking voice. Davepeta gasps and chomps your shoulder lightly with their little fangs.
The women are wailing, the men are whooping, and the family down the beach has begun scuttling away. Lately, your worshippers have been leaving garbage behind. For a while you thought they were forgetful, that they were neglecting their possessions on accident. Until one night when they finally left – and at long last, when you felt free to walk along the beach, you came across the bones half-buried in wet and glistening sand. They were etched with the icon of the Devilbeast – offerings for the Witch that she might reclaim. Animal fat burning on the altar, an ema hanging in a shrine, a votive candle lit in a cathedral. You wonder what blessings they wished to receive in return.
“I discovered some new Lore about the Witch the last time I eavesdropped on them. Do you want to know what it is?”
“What’s the rumor mill churnin’ out this time?”
“They say the Witch kills herself ritually in order to see glimpses of the future.” You cross your ankles and bob your foot. “She can’t peer into the Prospitian eclipse any longer, and because she isn’t a Seer she has to consult outside powers to receive her prophecies.”
“Outside powers like a toaster in the bathtub?”
“They say that in times when the future is uncertain, she’ll throw herself on a blade, leap from a high tower, even walk through fire, all to suffer the impermanent death of a god tier. The Witch consults with spirits of the distant past and future, and when she rises from the dead she speaks of that which has yet to unfold.” You yawn. “What a load of bullshit.”
“Uh-uh, you can’t debunk a hypawthesis without no experiment. I can help ya test it out.” They wiggle their sharp cat claws in your face, and you’re reminded of the sudden, painful sting when they Wolverined you into wakefulness. You wonder where you would go if you died again.
“Let’s table that experiment for now.”
A skinny girl takes a fistful of black dust from a mason jar and throws it in the air, but the direction of the wind blows it back in her face. You throw your head back and start laughing harder than you have in weeks.
“Look how much they love you,” Davepeta says. “They’re willing to look like such asses.”
Look how much they love you. They want you on Olympus, they want you on a faraway star watching the planet turn benignly. They want the original Gods in the four corners of the earth, protectors in an invisible palace. And the Witch sat vigil in her southern eastmost realm, looking down upon her descendants, and saw that it was good. You do not have an Olympus. You have a house with under 1,100 square feet that smells like burnt toast, because Davepeta did just that only an hour ago.
“Wouldn’t it be fun if I invited them in for dinner?” you ask suddenly. “How long do you think it would take them to put all the pieces together?”
“Harley, those dweebs think you’re knitting constellations together in some chrome-coated star-palace lightyears away. They think you’re hunting alien enemies with spectral hounds. Ain’t no one gonna think the girl who wears a Princess Tutu shirt to bed is the Witch of Space. Not even if you tell ‘em point blank.”
You pick up your moleskin from the floor and cradle it in your lap. “Doesn’t that make it more fun?”
“That’s m’girl. Hey, what’s in the book?”
Instinctively, you clutch it tighter to your chest, and this just makes your birdfriend-slash-growlfriend-slash-pawrtner make a low trilling noise in the back of their throat that means – scientifically and objectively – that they will not relent until you tell them.
“Whatcha writin’ today, Wordsworth? Huh? Tell me tell me tell me tell me tell me –”
“No, it’s messy!”
“You regularly let me sit and watch you draw your furry pinups from sketch to glossy-motherfucking-PNG-export, I demand you rel-wing-quish the goods.”
All at once, Davepeta flips the lights on, and you’re blinded by a visual assault of neon flashing. The stray cats jump up and hiss, their backs arched like Halloween drawings. They scramble down the stairs and out of sight.
“Dee, oh my god , someone is gonna see y–”
“Then lemme look!” they crow.
You squeeze your eyes shut, but orange and lime are still flickering behind your eyelids. You hate it when they do this. The sickening, migraine-inducing hues are enough to strong-arm you into pretty much anything. It’s not like when Kanaya turns her vampire glow on. She’s tasteful and courteous about it, and she saves it for emergencies – like when someone’s phone has been dropped behind a couch.
“Okay, okay, you get a little bit, and don’t say a peep!”
Davepeta turns their lights off so quickly that blobs of neon whirl across your field of vision. “But peeping is all I’m good at!”
“Hush your mouth, Tweety Bird. This is a rough-rough-rough- rough draft, and it’s kind of got some heavy personal stuff in it, and–”
“Yeah, hun, I kinda infurred that when you were all hunched over it peering at me out the corner of your eye like you thought I was gonna snatch it outta your hand.”
“It’s just…! Stuff that I don’t like to talk about, and I don’t really know who I would even be comfortable sharing it with.”
“Then share it with me. Not a single peep outta my beak. I zip m’lips shut. See?” They zip their kitty mouth and pucker it at you.
“Okay.” Your hands are trembling as you crack your notebook open. “Just don’t say anything, all right?”
“Jaaaaade,” sighs Davepeta.
Your finger skims to the point where you stopped writing. There’s more scratched-out lines than you remember. You’re suddenly very embarrassed, and you would like to pretend that Davepeta isn’t here, that you’re proofreading alone by muttering the lines out loud, but it’s hard to do that when you’re leaning against their weight and they’re drumming their claws on your leg.
You clear your throat and read what you’ve managed to write:
Dr. Harley, do you fret over flies and rigor mortis when you pluck her from
her tomb on the battlefield? Was it difficult, Dr. Harley, to stitch the laceration along the frontal lobe, where skin split and the sinew of pink muscle peeked out? When you screwed the soles of her feet to the shelaqued mahogany, what did the drill sound like as it drove through bone and leather, foam and muscle?
Dr. Harley, the wildebeest will smell of embalming fluid
before it leaves your work table . You prefer the needle injector, a conical thing like a kazoo that you string with wires the way you pack tobacco into a pipe. Dr. Harley, do you like hear the sound it makes when the pin tears through gum and punctures the maxilla? The needle injector is a handy thing, but sometimes it isn’t enough. Sometimes with children, the skin can’t hold itself together. The pins may pop out, the mouth may slump open. The doctor does not fear that this will happen, because the doctor is careful, and the doctor has never been wrong yet.
Getting this far has exhausted you. You set the book down and exhale, a resigned sound like a balloon deflating. Davepeta nudges you, and the tone of their voice gives you pause.
They sound so… you don’t know – genuine? This is not to say that Davepeta has ever said anything not meant with one hundred percent authenticity – because irony is for twerps who haven’t become fully self-actualized – but what you’re picking up on is something different. You don’t allow yourself the vanity of thinking that Davepeta finds your writing to be sincerely interesting. Regardless, you keep going.
When you are finished with her, Dr. Harley, when she smells of ammonia and formaldehyde, you will massage the rigor mortis from her joints and arrange her hands so that they are folded and neat. When you are finished with the wildebeest you will put the eyes in last, the final touch, beady black marbles shining in its face of dull brown bristles.
You will fashion these eyes from glass, because acrylic can melt and you think it is tacky to cheapen the beast’s lost life with something so disposable. There is a cabinet full of drawers that rattles when you unlock it. Sorted by color and size, eyes for big cats and eyes for livestock. Eyes for rabbits and caribou, eyes for fish and eyes for humans. The green glass in the bottom drawer is not quite the right color, but you think it will do just fine.
Dr. Harley, you will set up the tripod carefully,
and perhaps it will take you a while to find the right angle. You might adjust the angle of the mount, finding the point where the light will not bounce so much off her spectacles, because you still use a flash bulb camera and it casts the foyer in yellow light . There will not be a man who only speaks Swahili to help you take this portrait, Dr. Harley, and perhaps you will be frustrated that you cannot stand beside your work and place a triumphant hand upon its shoulder.
s a trophy a martyr, Dr. Harley? What does a trophy die for if not to be beautiful, to furnish the background of your life? What fine work you’ve done, Dr. Harley, and wouldn’t it be nice to display in the parlor? You think so – how the golden cloth survived the fire, what little wax you needed to reconstruct what was missing from her face. But then there is the issue of the child sleeping upstairs. Don’t you think this is different from a wildebeest, Dr. Harley? Don’t you think this is more than a trophy? Think hard, Dr. Harley: is a trophy a martyr? And who would die for the wildebeest, who would die for the girl on the mahogany mount? No one is willing to die for her, but her life, held here in front of you, in tangible form, will make a wonderful bargaining chip someday. It will turn out, Dr. Harley, that it’s quite useful.
So there is only one place for her. You will find a spot for her among the obsolete computers, the suits of armor that you always meant to oil and repair if you ever found the time, the dead dog you couldn’t bear to look at anymore. She will stand vigil by the door with her hands folded ,
and the mahogany stain on her mount will still smell fresh when its model comes face to face with it.
Dr. Harley, don’t you find it interesting how many ways there are to love, how subjective it is? It isn’t something that you can hypothesize and pontificate over, it’s not a result that can be proved in a lab. When you take out her organs and reconstruct the fractured zygomatic bone, you may go about it in the name of preservation, in the name of science, f
or future study, a specimen to be kept on a shelf. But if that was all, why go to the trouble with the flash bulb? Why take a portrait at all? The picture of the hunting party is lost in garbage and storage, the wildebeest stored in sagging cardboard boxes. What made this trophy different? You do not have to answer this question, Dr. Harley. I already know.
A shaking exhale comes out of you. “That’s as far as I got.”
Davepeta whistles lowly. “Holy shit.”
“It’s not awesome, is it?”
“I think it’s fucking metal. Wow, like, the parallels, dude, the fuckin’... like, I can smell ammonia right now, is that fucked up or what?”
“I’m serious! There’s tears in my eyes!” Davepeta fans their face and sniffles. “We stan a multitalented lesbian queen! You were seriously just gonna keep this to yourself?”
“I mean….” You shrug. “It’s a total bummer. I thought about showing it to Jake when we were visiting my old house, but….”
“He’d take it as a purrsonal insult and flee with his tail between his legs. All ‘I gotta ignore my gram for the rest of my natural life ‘cause the sight of my very visage will catastrophically retraumatize her. Woe is me, who must live out my days in hermitage under this boulder where my purrescence may neither offend nor trigger.’”
You wince. “Yeah, kinda.”
“Here, I can think of a whole laundry list of folks who’d love to get their grubby hands on this fine literature.” They begin counting on their fingers. “Rose….”
“She’d have a field day, notating and analyzing...”
“Again: I’d rather die.”
“Roxy loves this kind of introspective shit. Not shit shit, shoot, you know what I mean by sh– she’d really like it, all right? Oh, and their gal pal would lap it up, you know how bonkers they’d go for these scrumptious fuckin’ visuals? They would both just eat it out the palm of your hand, and Callie would say something so wittily observant, and Roxy would bat her big ole eyelashes at them, and don’t you just love love?”
Your face has ascended to the tier of Rufescent Rube: Fifty Shades of Flushed. “All right, all right, I get it, you’re being very compurrmentary.” You blink. “Compurr- complimentary.”
“Ha! You’re so cute.”
“You’re reasonably charming yourself.”
Davepeta hugs you. “In all pawnesty, thank you for reading it for me. That was really cool of you.”
You tuck your forehead into the crook of their shoulder. “Thanks for not having anything smart-assy to say.”
It’s nice to have them here with you, right now, the way things are, and your chest pangs when you remember that today marks a month since Davepeta came home. If they stick around for a week longer, they will break their previous record. This is not to say that they know this – you keep track of these things privately, ticking marks in your calendar to record their comings and goings. A few days from now they’ll be due to pick some new spot on the map – a new city to explore, a jungle to get lost in, people to meet and sights to see – and you will set their things aside in neat stacks until they come scratching at the screen door once again. Davepeta is not an indoor cat, and you are happy just knowing that they’re having fun, that they’re exploring this unfamiliar world with a keen and curious mind. One day you’ll join them for the ride. For now, though, you’d like to see what it’s like to settle in a permanent home without feeling squeezed tight between its walls. Becoming comfortable with being alone is its own subtle art.
You think you are doing a fine job. Harley Bungalow, for all of its limitations, is blessedly free of mummified carcasses.
Davepeta winds their arms around you in the way that they do, like the way you’d hug a pillow, and it’s a comforting weight that you let yourself sink into. The rumbling purr in the back of their throat just sounds like wheezing. Why didn’t you show them this stuff before? You don’t know. You’ve let them laze across the couch and watch your screen as you sketch away on your tablet, you’ve let them point out silly mistakes and spitball ideas when you’re stuck in the middle of a drawing. You never showed them this , though. They’ve been living in your house and eating your food and sleeping in your bed on and off for over a year and the thought had never crossed your mind. For perhaps the first time in your life, you wonder if maybe you might have issues with vulnerability.
This sort of thing has probably never happened to Rose and Kanaya. If Rose wrote something in this vein about her mother, Kanaya would have it propped on her lap before the ink was dry, suggesting edits in the margins. If Dave ever expressed anything outside the form of a grainy JPEG file, you’re sure Karkat would do the same.
No, no, no! Why do you keep doing this to yourself? Why do you keep comparing yourselves to them? You are not Rose and Kanaya, you are not Dave and Karkat. Your love was not written in the stars, it wasn’t foreshadowed, you have bumbled and fumbled your way around each other across timelines and universes. At the end of a long three years you crawled out of your chrysalis small and sad, a slump to your shoulders and a bow to your head, like time had weighed down on you for so long that you had begun to fold in on yourself. And at the end of all things, when you were told you didn’t matter, that relevance is a thing earned, that you should be quiet, little girl, and accept your lot, this strange and curious creature popped out of the void just to tell you that they were–
“I’m proud of ya, Harley,” chirps Davepeta. They peck the side of your mouth and nudge their forehead against yours.
“Psh, you’re askin’ me why? Uh, I don’t know, maybe ‘cause you and your bro are neck-and-neck for the World Repression Championships, and you previously held the gold title?”
“It’s a compurrment!” they tease. “Remember back when I’d always ask ya what you were thinkin’ about and you’d always say ‘nothing’ all sullen-like?”
“I might recall something like that.”
“Yeah, exactly. So just take my word for it, ‘kay? You’re doin’ so great, Jade. I’m glad you’re lettin’ me stick around to see it.”
Your chest feels warm. “Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”
“So coy. That’s why I like-like you.”
“I like-like you, too.”
Some sort of lizard scrabbles through the sand that dusts your porch, and a black kitten chases it with its stumpy tail shot upward. The cats are creeping back out of the woodwork now that Davepeta isn’t flickering fluorescent. You allow the stout tortie they refer to as Ingrid to settle in your lap. She sets to work making biscuits, piercing your skin with her sharp little claws. You hope she doesn’t have fleas.
“You wanna go to an animal shelter this week?” they ask. “We could look at all the puppies.”
“That’d be really nice.”
It’s hard to hear the cultists now that the wind has begun roaring across the water’s surface. High tide will be coming soon, washing away the sandcastles and reclaiming the bones and charms and tokens that they’ll leave behind.
You wonder what you’ll unearth from the sand when they’re gone.