You knew it was a real party when the first song playing was from Hair. “Aquarius” was probably the least appropriate choice for a party thrown to celebrate the winter solstice, but it was also an undisputed masterpiece, so really, no one should complain. When Graham had suggested that he host this one, as he hadn’t yet and very much wanted to, he was given three rules: one, that Stanley not be invited due to the risk of fire, and two, that he check the expiration dates on everything he planned to serve because the last gathering had resulted in three people coming down with terrible cases of food poisoning. So it was the day, and he was ready. Stanley was not coming (he was visiting his in-laws anyway, Harry had said) and all the food, as far as he could tell, was not to expire for a few months. The cashier had given him the strangest look when he had asked if any of it contained salmonella and shrugged, so there was a chance there, but still. Probably not. Hopefully not.
Someone knocked on the door, and Sheila stopped washing her paw and stood up on the couch to look through the window. When she saw who it was she meowed loudly and began to scratch the glass. Graham put her down on the floor to stop her from damaging it, and the very second he opened the door, a black blur shot across the room. “Satan Lucifer, slow down!” George yelled, but the cat was already investigating under the table. “Sorry. He doesn’t like car rides.” (In addition to this being a winter solstice party, it was also a cat party. Nearly everyone in his group of friends had a cat and Graham thought they should all get to know each other. Silna had promised that Tuunbaq would be on his best behavior.)
“I can tell. And before you ask, John, I checked. You won’t get food poisoning again.”
“You’re sure?” John asked.
“There’s nothing in there that will kill me?”
“Why would I put razor blades in food?”
“Not you, the manufacturers. Arsenic?”
“Isn’t that the same thing as snake venom?”
“No, but it’s basically rat poison.”
“It’s not real,” Edward said. John shook his head.
“You don’t know that. Someone could have made it somewhere.”
“And whoever did is probably dead.” Their heads all turned when a yowl came from the dining area. Satan Lucifer had tried to insert himself into a game that Sheila was playing by herself and had gotten swiped at for it. He wasn’t hurt, but even so. That meant war, or it would have if George hadn’t picked him up and taken him away at once.
“What did we say?” he sternly asked the pitifully mewling cat. “No fighting.”
“Who wants Snake Juice?” someone asked brightly from the still-open doorway. Cornelius stood on the threshold, holding not a cat (for he had none) but an enormous bottle. Billy stood next to him, eyeing the bottle suspiciously. “It’s perfectly safe.”
‘“It’s not,” Billy said. “You almost blew up the kitchen making it.”
“Okay, so I started a tiny fire--”
“The entire stove was burning up!”
“You made that on the stove?” Graham asked, peering at the bottle. He couldn’t see what was inside, and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know.
“Yeah, I had to melt the sugar somehow.”
“What else is in this?”
“Alcohol, sugar, coffee… I don’t know, I just threw in a bunch of stuff. Here.” Cornelius shoved the bottle into Graham’s hands and walked in, Billy following with an apologetic look. Satan Lucifer had reapproached Sheila more carefully and had properly joined her game. Edward stared at the bottle in horror.
“Seriously. Snake Juice?!”
“Yep.” Graham set down the bottle with the rest of the snacks. “I don’t think anyone should be touching this.”
“All it did in the show was make people drunk,” George said. “Super drunk, sure, but just drunk. No one died from it.” Graham looked him dead in the eye.
“Cornelius made this, and sometimes he looks at me like he’s wondering how my flesh would taste. No one is drinking this. From this moment on, this bottle is decoration.”
Within the next half-hour, more people (and cats) filed in: Harry and Silna with Tuunbaq (whose best behavior turned out to be trying to maul Sheila and almost getting mauled himself; Graham was so proud of her); Thomas, and Tom, who had come with his younger sister Mary Ann, since she was in town and had a cat named Ben. The conversation and music was stimulating and the cats were adorable, but it wasn’t long at all before everyone was circled around the bottle of so-called Snake Juice, fascinated by its contents. (Well, not the cats. The cats were far too interested in how high Tuunbaq could climb up the curtains to care about something as simple as a bottle they couldn’t drink from.)
“Someone should drink it,” George said. “Just a sip, to try.”
“Even a sip might kill you,” Thomas said, shaking his head. Cornelius groaned.
“It’s amazing how much you don’t trust me. I swear, it’s completely fine to drink it.”
“You don’t even know what you put in there except for coffee, sugar, and alcohol,” Graham said. “How do you know you didn’t poison it?”
“I don’t keep poison in my kitchen.”
“Okay, that’s fair. But like I said. This bottle is now decoration, for our own safety, and our cats’ safety.”
“I’ll drink it,” Mary Ann said, grinning. “I just got off school. Grad school,” she clarified. “I’m studying at Durham and I’m of legal drinking age. Now give it. Oh, don’t look like your best friend just got murdered,” she said to Tom, who was gaping at her incredulously. “Mum and Dad didn’t tell you to look after me, did they?”
“Not exactly,” Tom said, the terrified expression not leaving his face. Mary Ann shrugged and opened the bottle. Immediately a strong, sweet, horrible smell wafted upwards towards the ceiling, and everyone wrinkled their noses. Nevertheless, she poured herself a glass and swallowed it.
“Oh. Oh, that’s… that’s… how much sugar did you put in here?”
“Four cups,” Cornelius said, and Mary Ann grimaced.
“That’ll do it.”
“Screw it.” Cornelius snatched the bottle. “I’ll drink it myself and prove it’s fine.” And he did, straight from the bottle.
The next half-hour found Mary Ann perfectly stable, but Cornelius kept tripping over the cats and walking into walls. “I do this normally,” he shouted. “I’m not used to this many cats. Don’t worry,” but when he started singing along to “White Boys” and replaced most of the lyrics with his own, more explicit ones they knew he was far too drunk. Mary Ann, on the other hand, remained her normal self, which prompted George to try it. Unfortunately, he did not have as high a threshold as she did, and soon joined Cornelius in a half-sung-half-slurred rendition of “Walking in Space” (which was terribly fitting considering the situation). By midnight, Tuunbaq had made it up to the curtain rod and no matter how many times Harry and Silna called him he just wouldn’t leave, and Silna had to stand on a chair to take him down, whereupon he jumped out of her arms and started tussling with Sheila again. Like her namesake, Sheila was a true firecracker, and then Ben joined in, and once Thomas finally managed to pry them apart, a cushion had been shredded and stuffing was strewn everywhere. It was one-thirty in the morning when people started leaving: Edward and John supporting a still-singing George (he was now singing “Let the Sun Shine In” loud enough for half of London to hear, and Satan Lucifer was mewing along just as loudly); Billy with a passed out Cornelius in his arms (how he was able to carry Cornelius when he was thin as a corpse Graham didn’t understand, but then again Cornelius was quite short); Silna and Harry, Tuunbaq hissing from two scratches across his face; Mary Ann, Ben curled around her shoulders and still lucid, insisting to Tom that she was perfectly fine, stop worrying; and Thomas, throwing a thank-you over his shoulder as he went.
Graham surveyed the scene. Sheila was sitting on the couch in the remains of the cushion, proudly tending to her wounds. The bottle of Snake Juice was half-empty, and the food completely untouched. The curtain Tuunbaq had climbed was hanging by a thread. The cast recording had played itself through, and “Aquarius” was back on. Graham hummed along as he poured the bottle out into the sink and watched it to make sure it didn’t curdle the metal. Mary Ann had been weirdly unaffected, but he had decided it was entirely possible that she was a superhuman.
“Sheila Franklin, second semester, NYU, and she’s a protestor,” he sang softly to Sheila as he sat down beside her and she climbed into his lap, purring. Now was this a success or a disaster? The answer, Graham knew, with his group of friends, was both. It was always both.