Look What You’ve Done to Me, Xishu Liu

As the grey clouds finished relieving themselves of extra weight, the roof of the Casbah Gallery burst forth in glittering splendor from the sunlit reflection of thousands of watery beads. Look closely enough and you’d notice each bead was caught in an internal battle between stasis, gravity, and surface tension, one that resolved within minutes depending on its size and distance from neighbors. Droplets turned to rivulets turned to tributaries, painting the roof in a mosaic of deconstructed venules and capillaries. These were the ones who lost to the forces of physics but were damned if they went down without taking the rest with them. Of these, most fell off the eaves and waited to be vaporized back into the water cycle. The ones we’re concerned with, though, are the ones falling to the ground to be disturbed by a size 2Y black canvas slip-on.

The boy wearing the size 2Y black canvas slip-on, plus its twin, rotated his phone to make sure the little blue gradient stuck to his little blue you-are-here dot was pointing in the right direction. An elder sitting on a bench clear across the lot gestured to the lad during the fraction of the minute this action took and moaned to his wife about the current generation’s overuse of technology. If Jasper had heard him, he’d hardly be offended. This accusation was thrown at him so many times it counted as background noise.

Yo devs lemme put the roof up so I can get a shot of this rainbow that doesn’t fill me with perfectionist rage. I also notice the champagne bucket is now worth over §400 after the latest update. Thanks for giving Shu a raise! Please let this be intentional.

Jasper had found in his father’s things a sticky note with Cruz Greenwood’s address among other Cruz Greenwood paraphernalia, and knew from idly listening to his father’s Cruz-Greenwood-themed rambling that Shu lived across the hall from the wonderful magical Cruz Greenwood, which was followed up with a detailed history of Cruz Greenwood’s high school extracurriculars and a couple extra Cruz Greenwood facts. He’d retraced his father’s steps out of the elevator to Cruz Greenwood’s floor, only to take a sharp left mere feet from the apartment that may or may not currently contain Cruz Greenwood.

Peeking through the windows, it was clear this was the place. Brightly colored furniture, wall murals, about eight guitars. Cool people stuff. He knocked with caution on one of the parts that wasn’t glass. A kid who hadn’t grown up in a transparent house or basically any adult would question the decision for this particular door to have windows. Shu popped his head in from stage right, then recoiled gently, bewildered eyes wide. He opened the door.

“Jasi? What’s crackin’? Whatcha doing here?”

“Here come dat boi!” That’s the traditional Meme Appreciation Club greeting.

“Your mom’s gonna skin me with a Swiss peeler and put my glasses in a decorative bowl if I respond to that. You know that.” He squinted. “Does she know you’re here?”

“Yeah.” This claim held as much weight as a fly’s handbag. What he actually delivered to his mother was some line about being at a friend’s house, and Jo was too wrapped up in the idea of him riding the subway alone to ask for details about said friend. He instead left the apartment with a subway map (outdated—not as good as the app he’d downloaded to his phone last week), instructions to pick a spot on the ground and stare the hell out of it until the preacher/crackhead/candy-bar-basketball-team guy/etc. is gone (she didn’t actually say ‘hell’), and a tiny container of pepper spray that was blue to promote Bloaty Head awareness (just go nuts using it in an enclosed space). Not a prepaid card, though, which is the one thing he actually wanted.

“Yeah. Right. Uh-huh.” Shu punctuated his triple positive by spinning the phone he’d retrieved from his back pocket. A quick text would confirm it.

“Shu, can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“How come people think it’s weird to put a lime in the microwave?”

Shu’s brain short-circuited at the concept of cooking a citrus fruit whole, much less microwaving one. His phone went back into his pocket. “Uh. What?”

“Why can’t you put a lime in the microwave?”

“Uh, I mean, you can,” he grasped. “But if you try to cook citrus fruit like that, it’s gonna get bitter and brown. So I’m guessing it’s gonna taste like…,” he took a couple beats to come up with a Jasper-appropriate simile, “…trash.”

“But why do people think it’s so gross? It’d make your microwave smell nice. It’s not like you’re microwaving an avocado or anything.”

“I guess. Want to go inside, buddy?” he said, waving his hand to usher Jasper in. The moment he was out of Jasper’s peripherals, he began dry heaving at the mental image of that last suggestion. Those are two words that should only appear in the same sentence if someone’s writing a three-word horror story, he thought. And that’s not even a sentence. By the time he made it through the door, he’d taken his phone out and started scrolling through his contacts. He was at ‘D’ when he collided with a soft blonde pillar.

“Did someone forget where we were going?”

The further we get into both this story and Gnome Dome, the clearer it’ll become that the Dome itself is a caricature of Dolly’s earnest design aesthetic

“No.” Shu tilted his head Jasper-ward. “Surprise visitor. I can’t plan these things.”

“Well, you did plan another thing. And that thing is happening in an hour. Can’t Gen deal with this?”

“Y’all, what are you dumping on me?” Gen said this loudly to ensure the sound waves bounced off her bowling avatar and reached the people it was intended for. Pausing would throw off her groove.

“Babe, his dad just went missing,” Shu appealed. “Think Cosette from Les Mis. Halfway to Batman. Disney main character.” They both looked at Jasper, who was inexplicably walking into Gen’s bedroom. “Disney main character plugged in to Know Your Meme,” he corrected.

Chantel rolled her eyes. “Fine. Go play ‘father figure.'”

“Hey—hey, where’s the kid?” Gen asked, removing one hand from the controller to twist around in her seat. “Is he behind me?”

Shu gave a thumbs-sideways towards the bedroom. “No, he’s—“

“—FORTNITE!” Gen was cupping her hand to form a makeshift megaphone. “FORTNIIIITE!”

“What,” Jasper said, emerging from yonder to heed the call of his people, “where?” Seeing the colorful screen with its lineup of non-Fortnite characters, waiting with infinite patience for Gen to un-cup her hand and just roll the damn ball already, he plopped himself down on the other end of Gen’s loveseat to get the best vantage point for whatever this was. “Who are you?”

“I’m Gen. Shu’s better girlfriend.”

He turned to Shu. “You have two girlfriends?”

“I mean, I guess.” If one has six girlfriends, they also have two girlfriends. QED.

“That’s so cool. You’re like the coolest person ever.”

“I don’t know how you could say that when I’m sitting right here.” Gen handed a controller to the aspiring memelord. “Take it. We’re gonna listen to the same beep-boopy background music for two hours and we’re gonna have a great time.”

CC by a lot of people, including Pilar, Around the Sims 4, Pralinesims, and Peacemaker. Peacemaker, you are a gift to the world and I want your babies

“What are we doing?”

“Yelling at the TV and pressing random buttons. JK, bowling. You aim with the D-pad and then press and release this one,” she indicated on his controller. “Get ready for it to not be bowling, because it’s like eight games. And could you give me a hand with something?”

“What?”

“Tell Shu to stop sucking at Party Frenzy.”

“Shu, stop sucking at Party Frenzy.”

Shu didn’t dignify this with more than one apathetic head shake. He was seated under the window with one arm resting on a cushion behind the woman Gen would classify as his second-best girlfriend. “You know that joke where a guy asks a genie to build a bridge to Sulani, and the genie starts laying out all the steps he would need to take to do that, and how impossible it would be? And then the guy asks for something else, that’s leading to the punchline, and the genie’s like ‘Let’s look at that bridge again.'” Jasper shook his head to indicate a negative. “Well, that’s the joke, pretty much. It’s like that. It’s not gonna happen.”

“I’d ask the genie for a boyfriend who keeps his appointments,” muttered Chantel.

“Whoa, we haven’t missed anything. It’s in like an hour.” He gave a playful shrug. “You wanted the unpredictable guy, babe, you—I don’t think I can say something overplayed like ‘expect the unexpected’ right after claiming that—“

“—Get used to doing all the side quests,” Gen finished.

“Ok, she has a point. I’m bad at saying ‘no.'” Call it politeness or subservience, he’d picked up the habit from Xiyuan. It was a multi-generational weakness to requests that held regardless of who had what job or who banged which ghost. Though we do concede, at this point, that Shu had to deal with more of them. Requests. Not ghosts.

“Yeah, and I’m usually the one you’re not saying no to. We’re unpredictable together.”

“Oh, duh. Remember when—” He stopped short, remembering Jasper’s presence. The lull in conversation had caught the child’s attention. Normally, the time when adults stop talking is the best time to listen. “Remember when, uh. That time at the bluffs?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It wasn’t uniquely determined. “Remember last winter when we went around looking for boxes, in case there were any kittens in the box? But then there were just snow globes, so we tossed them off a bridge to see who could make the loudest splash.”

Shu rewound back a few weeks, which is a challenge for someone who ‘pees in the mouth of monotony,’ his words, to the night in question. “Oh, yeah!”

“That was the best! You were dying laughing.”

“You guys are really setting an example for the kid,” Gen interjected. “In a week he’s going to turn in his homework soaked and they’re going to close down the school because of a suspicious black Jansport filled with shards of glass and tiny little San Myshuno landmarks.”

Faces of Chantel: Part I of A Three-Part Series.

“My bad,” said Shu. “Don’t throw snow globes off a bridge.”

“Then what are you supposed to do with snow globes, anyway?” Jasper was asking the real questions.

Gen shrugged. “Throw them off a bridge.”

“Why are we wasting time on this?” Chantel whispered to her boyfriend. “All you can talk about all week is getting me to the doctor, and now there’s forty-five minutes to go and you act like it’s not happening?”

“I don’t know what else to do. What do you want me to do?”

Faces of Chantel: Part II of A Three-Part Series.

Jasper had a few cards to play that would bring the conversation back to an audible volume. “I got an ‘A’ in school. I also taught myself how to deep-fry a meme. If you want anything deep-fried, I can do it for you.”

“So, image filtering?” Gen asked. “I wish they taught me discrete cosine transforms in school.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s what gives JPEGs that fantastic blocky quality we love so much,” Gen explained. “There’s a bunch of jargon, but if you give me a piece of paper I can draw what’s going on. Don’t worry. You’ll probably understand it better than Shu.”

Shu shrugged. “Bleh.”

“Weak, Shu. Aren’t you like supposed to be super-talented at everything ever.”

“I love you too.”

“You could learn it as a bonding activity, ‘Daddy,'” Chantel said.

Shu leaned sideways to whisper in her ear. “For fuck’s sake don’t start with that reverse-gender Oedipal shit.”

I didn’t abbreviate ‘discrete cosine transforms’ to disambiguate it from the Dominated Convergence Theorem. Now it’s less confusing. YOU’RE WELCOME

“There’s a bunch of other things you have to do for deep-frying.” Jasper’s lesson on how to deep-fry a meme was well received only by Gen, and also ten minutes long.

“Look, this is scary,” Chantel whispered. Jasper was on his fifth false start of listing all the filters he knew. “No matter what they say, everything’s going to be alright. Right?”

“Don’t worry, we still have time. I’ll be there no matter what.”

Chantel sighed. “Never mind. I’ll be in the bathroom if you need me.”

“Oh!” Shu remembered this kid’s mom has no idea where he is. “I have to do something. Be back in a minute. Love ya both.”

A while back I made hyperlordosis joke about Chantel, but she’s not hyperlordotic, just thick

“Hey Shu?” Jasper called.

“What?”

“How come people call Kanye West Yeezy?”

“I have no idea,” Shu said, finally pressing send on a text to someone he knew for a fact wouldn’t want to hear from him.

“ARGH,” Gen yelled. “YOU FRICKIN’ FRICKS.” Jasper was bent over knees-to-torso in laughter.

“Did I miss something?” Shu’d sat down again, but it was clearly too late.

“Gen got run off the track by the computer.”

“Yeah, the AI decided it had road rage.”

“And then I passed her!”

“And then he passed me!”

“Wow, you’re beating Gen already? Does this mean I’m off the hook?”

“You were never on the hook, Shu. You beautiful, beautiful noob. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

“I’m pretty good at racing games,” Jasper explained. “My mom lets me play them when my friends come over!” This wasn’t news to Shu. Neither was the ‘A’ grade. Though he’d never admit it, he sometimes binged Jumping Jasper! when whoever was next to him was asleep. Jo wasn’t a fan of games but she loved documenting that her son had friends.

“That’s great!” Before Jasper could blurt out his next bit of intel, Shu interrupted himself. “I’m getting Chantel. She needs me right now.”

“Can you stay and watch me win the race? Pleeease?”

“You want me to watch Gen actually lose for once? Sure.” Gen gestured at him with her controller. Her pointer fingers were where her thumbs should have been. Then she turned back to the screen. A particularly sharp corner was coming up.

“Oh, no. I dropped my earring. Where’s that lil’ troublemaker?” Gen stopped to run her hand over the cushions mere feet from the finish line. Her avatar, that was. She stayed at a relatively constant distance from the screen throughout the whole conversation. Jasper, who wasn’t wearing earrings, whizzed past her.

“Yeah! First place!” He turned to see Shu’s reaction. Shu took this as a cue to stand up and mimic the frenzied state induced by watching a favored athlete score a goal on TV.

“Wooo! That’s what it feels like, Gen! That’s what it feels like to be me!” He slapped his thighs. “Aight. I’ll find Chantel, but I’mma do the dishes first.”

“Like hell you are. It’s my turn to do the dishes.”

Behind the closed bathroom door, Chantel tried to hide her annoyance at the muffled laughter. It’s rude to laugh when someone else was feeling down, right? It’s not just her.

“There’s nothing to worry about. Nothing will change.” She exhaled deeply. “You’re almost there, girl. You got this.”

From outside, she could hear the knob of the other sink twist open, followed by the sound of running water. “You better keep your hands off those fricking dishes,” Gen’s voice carried through the concrete walls, “I swear to god.”


“Welp.”

“Welp.”

“That was a waste of time.”

“You didn’t learn anything?”

“They were trying to slap a stupid label on me. Personality disorder! We talked like once! But I did what you wanted, and now we can move on. Right?”

For the people going ‘psssh’ at how fast this diagnosis was, know that Sim doctors have the benefit of looking at people’s personality traits

“Chantel, the point was figuring out how to move on.”

“This doesn’t change anything. I’m still the same person.”

“And there are still massive problems with the way you see this relationship.”

“Which you already knew before you dragged me into this.”

“I mean, I hoped you’d listen to the doctor. You weren’t listening to me.”

“I was listening. You said I had to do this before we could move on. I did. I listened to all the horrible things she had to say, and her ‘plan.’ I took the Simpedia printouts that basically say she thinks I’m hopeless. But nothing changed.”

“You’re not hopeless, you—“

“All I did was tell her my feelings. Of course I’m distressed! Anyone waiting two-thirds of their life for a damn proposal would be distressed!”

“Like I said, I—“

“You don’t get it. You don’t get what you put me through. But now you have the chance to fix! Everything!”

“It’s not going to—“

“You’re the only one who can drag me out of this living hell. And you’re not! Day after day after day. You just watch me suffer. Just plan something for once in your life and pull the damn ring out. Just put it behind us so we can move on.”

“I don’t think we have the same idea of what ‘moving on’ means.”

“…What are you saying?”

“I’m saying we should take some time apart. You have some stuff to work out.”

Faces of Chantel: Part III of A Three-Part Series.

“No.”

“You need to focus on yourself.”

“No! Focusing on themselves is what selfish people do.”

“I mean, in excess? Sure. But what’s the alternative? Pushing the work onto other people?”

“But I don’t need to. I have you. You’re the only good thing in my life.”

“Look, it’s statements like that that make me worry about you.”

“And now you’re throwing me away over something some doctor said?”

“I’ve known this had to happen for a long time. I just—I didn’t want to go through with it, either.”

“So you made me humiliate myself and go through with this bullshit, even though you already made up your mind?”

“It’s the only way—“

“You’re acting like you know the future. You don’t know what’s best for me.”

“—to go forward—“

“It’s clearly not! There’s a solution staring you right in the face that’ll make us both happy! Take it!”

“—It wasn’t for me, you had to hear—“

“—No. Stop! You know what? I always knew this was going to happen. I just didn’t think it would be in my hour of need.”

“Please, don’t storm off. I need you to know that I—“

“I’ll be at my parents’. Don’t come back if you change your mind.”

“Chantel—“

“Get fucked.”


“I knew you wouldn’t end up with that deadbeat loser,” Angela mused. The Lucas family apartment had been spacious when Chantel was born, but was running out of extra rooms as she changed relationship status and accumulated siblings. Her room was behind the stairs. Her younger sister Jolene was eyeing that room for after the new baby aged up into a toddler—violating the properties of matter for the first of arguably between three and six times—but Chantel’s arrival meant crushing her dreams, too. Her dreams of being closer to the kitchen. The kitchen was a weird shade of orange but you could hide things in the cupboards since Colten and Angela rarely cooked. Shortly after Chantel moved out, they’d hired an interior decorator to change the place from “offensively unpleasant to pleasingly inoffensive,” as Colten put it. It wasn’t bad before. He was just proud of the phrase.

“I just can’t believe I wasted so much time!” Chantel wasn’t referring to her two-hour rant, rather the relationship in general. “Mom, you wouldn’t believe. He only thinks about himself.”

“He’s selfish,” Angela corrected. Why she felt this needed to be corrected is anyone’s guess.

Colten nodded. “He doesn’t care about your needs.”

“He clearly has commitment issues.”

“Real piece of work.”

Jolene took her chance to sneak away from the firing squad, having retrieved from the pantry a set of novelty panda-shaped erasers. She wasn’t allowed to have them. Her dad thought they were stupid.

They’re in her other hand. Ok?

“One moment. Jolene,” Colten barked, “why aren’t you doing your homework?”

“I was going to—“

“Go do your homework.”

“—get a pencil so I can do my—“

“Don’t talk back to me. You sit down at that table and do your homework right now.”

“He made me go to the hospital, like there was something wrong with me and it was my fault, when clearly he’s the one who has some issues to work out. And then he just left me! Like that!”

“Did he give you a reason?” Whatever it was, Colten was confident in his ability to rationalize it away. He just had to know what it was first.

“No. Reason. Whatsoever.” Chantel accentuated the first syllable of each word by slapping her thigh. “It just came out of nowhere. He strung me along for weeks and used me up. And then he left me.”

“That’s what men do,” Angela said. Colten wanted to blurt out a common three three-letter-word phrase to warn them against attributing behaviors to gender when such behavior arises from other causes, and which gave away how he perceived his conduct in particular, but decided gender issues could wait for another conversation. “At least we won’t have to worry about this with Jolene.” She and Colten snickered. Jolene was right there. Seriously, right there. Ten feet away.

Now a song by a much more famous Dolly will be stuck in your head all day. Enjoy.

“Can we not bring Jolene into this? This is literally the worst day of my life.”

“Huh?” Colten said, shooting his wife and then daughter a bemused look. “We never said anything about Jolene.”

His statement was lost on Chantel, who was reliving bits and snippets of the fateful conversation. Shu’s face, full of fake pity. He probably couldn’t wait to get rid of her. She sprang up at this realization, growling, digging her fingertips into her palm in renewed rage. “I just can’t deal with this right now. I’ll be in my room.”

“Whatever you need honey, just tell—“

Chantel slammed the door on her mother’s statement. She was too distracted by the pain of grinding her teeth together, which was the intention. Physical pain was easier for her to deal with than emotional pain. Physical pain had a clear cause and a clear solution. She pitched herself onto the bed. She knew there’d be no sleep that night, but the measurable and peer-reviewed softness of the GoodSleep™ mattress that could, quote, “carry [her] away to dreamland” was also ideal for absorbing blows; the free pillows that came with it could dispel any nightmare or allow one to scream about ex-boyfriends without alerting neighbors or parents. She told the pillow everything she should have said in that fateful moment. She ran out of words. She screamed pure emptiness.

She held the pillow to her face tightly enough that the pressure caused visions of black-and-grey tunnels to project onto her eyelids. This was something she’d started to do as a child. If she followed the tunnels for long enough, she’d go through them and they’d spit her out into a magical land where the streets were made of candy and everyone loved her. Clearly she didn’t accept this as truth—neither child Chantel nor adult Chantel were that naïve—but the tunnels were cool, and comfortable, and slowed her down. It meant she was closer.

The uncomfortable heat baked by her own breath into the pillow’s fibers brought her back into her body. Carefully, she recentered herself in her old room, scanning her surroundings with awe as the greyness was replaced with reality. Most everything was beige-floral or shades of beige. The interior designer had gotten to Chantel’s room after her decision to look like an organic nude lipstick collection. To the right, she’d added some new decorations. A large framed selfie beckoned her eye.

“I just can’t get rid of you, can I?” she asked it. “No matter what, you were going to be with me forever.”

No response.

“You made the biggest mistake of your life, you know? You can’t replace me. I’m irreplaceable.”

No response.

“It’s not just me,” she said. She was backing up toward her keyboard. “I’m not the only one who feels like this. And I don’t have to tell you. Just the world. Just everyone in existence. Is that what you want?”

No response.

“You know what? You’re going to regret this,” she told the photo. “Every time you turn on the radio. Every time you walk into one of your stupid clubs on one of your stupid dates.”

“It’ll play for ages. It’ll hit the top of the damn charts and stay there forever. And if it doesn’t? I’ll write another. And another. I’ll keep going until the world can only ask one question: who did this to Chantel Lucas? Then I’ll tell them.”

“Xishu Liu. You’re going to be famous.”

Her fingers performed their chaotic dance across the keys. A pattern was beginning to emerge.


BONUS:

super cute animation but Jasper NEEDS TO GET OUT OF THAT CLOSET. So many fireworks came from there
We’re done here. No more prose, the rest of this story is going to be Chantel making faces, thank’ya and good night

Al Mal Tiempo, Buena Cara

“Hector—the times that test your character are what make you. When times are hardest, that’s when you have to smile your biggest smile.”

Claudia said this straight-faced. As she spoke, Hector saw his mother’s hand tremble towards her drink, nails dragging across wood grain and palm countering friction against lacquer until this, too, took more energy than she was willing to expend. A shameful false start. She relaxed her shoulder and allowed the weight of her elbow to pull the dejected hand off the table entirely. Remembering that her son was watching, the right corner of her mouth jerked almost myoclonically into some cheap knockoff of a smile, one too weighted by Charlie’s disappearance to reach her eyes or satisfy the proverb. Hector, meanwhile, couldn’t think about his absent brother while the woman in front of him was falling apart.

(Hector, that is; we don’t know what Charlie’s facing at the moment)

“Is that something your mama taught you?”

Inés Castillo Reyes was al mal tiempo, buena cara personified. Even as Claudia was left alone rolling tortillas or kicking a rock down the streets of Simpeche, the sound of her mother’s laughter echoing through hills and concrete made it feel like Inés was right beside her. After sunset she’d usually be able to pick out when her mother was about to pass the tienda de jugos two blocks from her house—that’s when she yelled ¡Héctor! ¿Qué onda, wey?—and would leap from her post in the kitchen to get a two-block running start on a bear hug. Those were the memories Claudia felt were locked inside her heart in a place not even the juice could wash away. Then there was a multi-year gap, or rather a period of time which made Claudia flinch to remember, and which she pretended she couldn’t, after which Claudia remembered holding her mother’s hand as she heard the very voice of Simpeche speak Al mal tiempo, buena cara, mi amor and then speak no more. From then on she’d listen to the echoes until they became so small and hollow she couldn’t stand it. And then Claudia took her griddle on her back to be haunted from silence in anywhere other than the city she once knew as home. So to answer Hector’s question, yes.

“Do you miss her?” Hector asked, if only to get a positive reaction from his mother. Of course she did. Inés’s photo came out at Dia de Muertos every year, along with Claudia’s best face. But any mention of Inés or Simpeche could get a reaction out of Claudia, and a reaction was a split second she wasn’t forcing herself into generating hope for her eldest’s well-being, so Hector had to run with it. “We should actually visit Simpeche sometime, and you can show me everything from your stories. Where you lived, where abuela worked—“

“—No,” she interrupted. “I can’t go back.” Home would have been wonderful—alone as a child, walking the streets of Simpeche brought her a peace so strong, it felt the city itself was healing her, reclaiming her pain and burying it deep below the asphalt—but the place Claudia knew as home died years ago.

“I dunno, Mom, a trip would probably do you some good.” Hector racked his brain for a similar destination. “How about Selvadorada?”

‘Juice store’ and ‘Hector! What’s up, dude?’, respectively. Oh, and ‘in bad times, put on a good face’

“SELVADORADA!” Claudia was speaking at a normal volume and lifting her arms again. “Buñuelos, curanto, baleada, arepas—“

Midway through Claudia’s recitation of Selvadoradian dishes complete with finger-based visual counting aid, the squeak of on wood on wood heralded Mike’s arrival.

“—You know they say jupa instead of cabeza in Selvadorada?”

Why not make Selvadorada Claudia’s home country? Simple—they have no army, universal healthcare, and gringos love vacationing there. It’s Costa Rica.

“Nah,” Hector said, “I know it’s kind of like a dialect of Simlés but don’t know any of the special words.”

“Well, you should learn them if we’re going,” said Mike, the only person in the house not fluent in Simlés. “You know I also donated a lot to Bees for Selvadorada. Have you heard of it? It’s internationally known.”

While Hector received a well-rehearsed marketing pitch for Bees for Selvadorada, Claudia gulped down her juice so fast it barely grazed her tongue. They weren’t leaving until her glass was empty.


Selvadorada had different birds than Claudia was used to. The first thing she did in any new place was take note of the birds—as consistent as Sim engineering could be, the city planners could tweak and standardize every detail but which avian species roosted in the rafters. She fancied that, like Darwin’s finches with their assortment of beaks, she could intuit the personality of the city from birds alone. A blue-and-yellow parrot soared overhead, its wings opening to reveal an orange burst of sunshine without any of the averse photochemical effects. Now that—that was a bird! The very bird Claudia would choose to be, if she could. She waved at it.

The quaint building Claudia was using to get marginally closer to the sky and trees didn’t look like the Central Simerican buildings Claudia remembered. Her city was just as developed as Newcrest, only next to a jungle. Sometimes the jungle leaked in. Like sometimes she’d see a guy with a donkey cart next to a sports car. There was none of that here; the tourists felt it a bit anachronistic, and, as much as Claudia hated to admit it, she was a tourist here. This particular oasis of stucco and Spanish tile seemed to be where they quarantined all the outsiders.

But what mattered right now was the parrot; her plan right now was to run down and get a quick drink before any of her family members came in, then she’d have time to find the proper words to describe exactly how cool this parrot was. She sat down and waved to get the mixologist’s attention.

“<Hey man, a Tang and Zing.>”

Just as he silently placed the drink in front of her, she heard a curt female voice from behind, saying “Leave me alone.” Was Claudia going to have to smack a douche today? She turned around to find out.

Wtf Mike, I left you alone for two minutes

It was the one she couldn’t smack.

Mike sauntered away from the angry woman, choosing to sit next to a different angry woman. Angry woman 2 refused to divert her gaze from the bar hutch which she guarded with Cerberus-like intensity, yet still managed to fume in his direction even with her shoulders dead colinear with Mike’s. Ah, this was no good—Claudia had to make every minute of this vacation count, and she wasn’t doing a good job on Mike’s account. He’d have to be the one to cheer up the whole family again. He’s an old pro.

Spot the earrings Kendra made in “The Faceless Mother/La Madre Sin Rostro”

Cabrón,” Claudia whispered through gritted teeth. Through feast and famine, good times and bad, Claudia’d kept a piece of her mother’s soul with her; the mother who, it seemed, internalized her dying words so strongly (before death, obviously) that she could hype in the back of a rap video during the goddamn apocalypse. Fear and anger were unknown to Claudia Espinosa Castillo. Mother’s love could spare Potter from becoming the latest tragic statistic about he-who-shall-not-be-named-induced infant mortality but not seven pretty crappy years of school; here it married with a 30-year juice chaser to shield Claudia from chronic assholishness right up to T-2 min. and then decided, unceremoniously, to peace out. Inés and Lily’s love operated on quite different timescales, if you think about it. So being, since Inés made sure Claudia here didn’t have to see a quarter of the shit she did, Claudia lacked but a quarter of Inés’s experience dealing with shit. Now protection was useless. Leave something sous vide long enough and it will disintegrate.

The woman who’d spent half a Sim-century without knowing the most carnal negative emotion now had mere seconds to figure out how to control it. She’d heard some metaphor about open floodgates being thrown around to describe anger, and finally understood the desire to sweep her arm across the juice display and send every last bottle crashing to the floor. But that strategy would direct the flood toward an innocent third party—the nice mixologist—and away from its intended warnee—Mike. Instead, calmly as she could manage, she held the drink to her lips, filtering the liquid from the ice with her teeth, and tilted her head back to gulp the whole thing down. She performed the following actions like an animatronic display that was unable to face the person to her right: she rose from her seat and tripped robotically back up the rooftop stairs.

“Mamá, dame la fuerza,” Claudia whispered across the treetops. Mom, give me the strength.


“Mom, look, they have Salsa Lizano!” Hector said. This was like pointing out that a Taco Bell had sauce packets. Not that Hector, given his upbringing, had ever heard of Taco Bell.

These poor virtual people and their lack of chilaquiles

Happy Claudia is loud. Angry Claudia is stone quiet. Mike watched a blue-and-yellow parrot fly by the window and decided not to comment.

“…Mom?” Hector pleaded. “Hey Mom? What’s wrong?”

“Ask your father,” Claudia mumbled into her plate.

Hector somewhat hesitantly looked at Mike. His father shrugged. “I have no idea why she’s like this.” You wouldn’t expect a reaction from Claudia given how preposterous this was, but in practice she felt herself giving in to visceral confusion. Jumping immediately to ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’ is the preferred strategy of nearly every guilty buttface jerk: if he kept denying reality, it was impossible for Claudia to win a direct argument against him, because she’s the only person in this two-person conflict who cares what reality is. They had slept in separate bedrooms. “Lighten up! We’re on vacation. Aren’t you excited about the big jungle trip?”

“I’m not sure we should go on the jungle trip when Mom is upset—“

“—No, Hector, everyone else here is fine.” He turned to Claudia. “Look, we came here to forget about things. Explore. Grow as people. Live a little. You know, travel is like a book, and people who don’t travel have only read one page. You’re the only one here who’s not having fun.”

Hector’s also not having fun, but saw no reason to disclose that.

“I get it, darling, you’re going through a rough patch. Don’t you have to smile your biggest smile when times are hard? That’s what your mother always said.”

Claudia attempted eye contact with where she thought her half-eaten empanada’s eyes would be. This turned out to be in the filling, which would be a very poor evolutionary strategy if the empanada relied at all on sight to get around. She did this because, as much as she hated to admit it, Mike was right. What other options did she have?

“Right? Now give me a smile. You have such a beautiful smile.”

But she didn’t, not during breakfast, nor while getting ready, nor upon arriving at the jungle. The jungle looked just like the picture she formed in her mind when she viewed it from afar, although she couldn’t help feeling impressed at the scale of the ruins. No matter how much Claudia saw, she couldn’t get over how big or small things were. It’s one of those things that gets lost in photographs and narratives, you know?

“Yeah! Hack n’ slash!” Mike yelled, vine-bound, machete out.

Simister and I didn’t intentionally coordinate the phrases “slash and burn” and “hack n’ slash” in two consecutive posts if you’re wondering

“Dad, don’t you think that’s a bit dangerous?” Hector protested from several yards out of vine-shrapnel range.

Mike laughed the way he thought a pirate would. Pirates have machetes. “Nothing we Jeong-Espinosas can’t face! We might even find a hidden temple, or treasure! Yarrrrr!”

“Any relics we find belong to the people of Selvadorada,” Claudia mumbled into the information board. It was the second thing she’d said all day and totally worth it. This opinion didn’t reach her husband, who was hypnotized by the erotic rhythm of the machete.

“Hey Hector, what’s a pirate’s favorite book?”

“Treasure Island?”

“No. The Fault in Our StARRRRRRRRRRs!” Just then Mike’s frantic, aimless thrusting proved fruitful, just like it had three other times, and the vines had finally been cleared enough to fit three consecutive Jeong-Espinosas. “Ha ha! Et voilá!” He marched ahead, Hector tailgating his heels.

“Mom—avocados! Real ones! Not like the gringo avocados they get at the store!”

Yes, Hector is eating in the background and yes, those are empanadas

As angry as Claudia was, she wasn’t going to pass up some real produce. The arch she stomped through must have been over five thousand years old, and likely required some fascinating ancient techniques related to keystones or slaves. Claudia was however without a tour guide and simply trampled over the -30th century cobblestones to the 21st century avocados. Though in all fairness, the avocados would be of more use, preferably mashed up with some onion, lime, cilantro, and a shitload of adobo seasoning.

Past Claudia, ribbons of sky-blue water trickled down the crevices of the ancient ruins, taking with them microscopic bits of sediment whose removal over the years had transformed the dilapidated city into somewhat of a large-capacity thrill ride for water molecules. Wheee, the molecules thought as they tumbled down the cliff. Wheee.

in front of waterfall!!!! lol

“Come on, Hector! Claudia! Chop chop!” Mike yelled over his shoulder, chop-chopping. He’d sprinted nearly half a mile through the unspeakably gorgeous scenery to reach the next thing he was allowed to shove a machete through.

if it’s longer than it’s wide, then it’s a phallus
if it’s longer than it’s wide, then it’s a phallus
if it’s wider than it’s long, then you’re looking at it wrong
if it’s longer than it’s wide, then it’s a phallus

Claudia allowed herself to appreciate the vertical stream’s roar and dribble, the weathered turrets peeking out of their own perpetual mist. She found herself looking over the edge of the knee-height railing. This part of Selvadorada hadn’t yet been sued off its ass by toddler-handlers, but it was only a matter of time. From what Claudia could see through the white cotton ends of the waterfalls, the kiddo who set this off would have a grand old time on the water ride for maybe half a minute.

“Forward and ahead!” Mike yelled back at her. “Vámonos! Vámonos!

It was no use antagonizing him any further; he’d just keep going. Pushing her to move forward, that is. Not leaving without her. He’d threaten to, maybe, but this statement was one of the things she was glad she couldn’t trust him about. Claudia took several begrudging steps until she found herself transported to a new location through the newly cleared arch.

This area was sprinkled with a couple more avocado trees, from which Claudia dutifully collected. On the far end was an object she recognized as an ancient calendar. It was a calendar she didn’t know how to read. She could stand in the middle and try to figure out the second-innermost ring of hieroglyphs or maybe infer something about the seasons in ancient Selvadorada, which is what she did instead.

Like that they probably didn’t have winter. That’s what it looks like!

Cracking her neck, Claudia realizes how long it’s been since she’s had a drink in hand. She hadn’t been thinking about that. A quick check of her inventory revealed she was only carrying a couple hundred empanadas and several stacks of plants and crap that she forgot she collected; no stray glasses. Their rented house didn’t have a bar either. She pressed pointer finger and thumb to temple and furrowed her brow, trying to externalize the building tension.

The calendar may as well have been floating in the sky, she noticed. A toddler who misjudged a leap across the calendar may get 2/3 of the way into a ‘Baby Shark’ MP3 before meeting its maker in puddle form.

She thought what if—what if the stone behind me is cracked, and my extra added weight of muscle and sinew and bone takes down this whole big thing after dutifully counting days for several thousand years. Madre Cosecha would take care of them both from there. Inés liked to say dying is just the earth reclaiming you. Whether that was something she actually believed, Claudia would never know. She wondered if when her mother closed her eyes for the last time, there was a point at which her beliefs didn’t matter. Maybe the part of her that could feel fear had already gone.

Fear and anger; they were unknown to Claudia and her mother. At least going down with the calendar she’d rejoin her heart in Central Simerica.

“Mom!” Hector’s voice reached from across the chasm. “There’s more avocados over here!”

She stepped back from the edge. Buena cara.


“Alright, everyone, look alive—it’s a temple! First one inside gets the treasure!” Mike ran ahead of the others, not knowing whether Hector and Claudia had heard him or even knew his latest localized fauna-destruction project was complete.

By this time Claudia had cooled down, her problematic anger now a wisp on the horizon. She was talking again, laughing at Mike’s jokes, laughing at Hector’s jokes. They’d come straight from the Royal Baths to this unexplored Omiscan temple.

Claudia examined some ominous but remarkably well-crafted skeleton guards. She wondered why the locals never came down here. The answer, or at least what she interpreted to be the answer, came in the form of a swarm of bees eager to investigate the moving yellow thing.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, but more on that later

Hector, meanwhile, was sticking his hands into something he probably shouldn’t be when he heard a muffled clack. It startled him into pausing elbow-deep in a hole marked with a stone rendition of 1/4 of a sun. After a couple seconds of stillness the clack seemed like an isolated incident; he decided it was once again okay to start digging around in there. Then, clack, clack, clack, etc. He turned around and there was a goddamn skeleton coming down the steps.

Hector’s internal monologue at the time was pleasingly direct and succinct: something in the vein of oh crap, there’s a skeleton; oh crap, it’s coming right at me. But he found himself frozen to the ground by his remarkable friendliness, having no desire to run from anyone trying to talk to him, cardiovascular system or none. The clack of femur on patella grew louder as Hector tried to figure out where to look. So it seemed the skeleton’s eye sockets were the obvious choice, especially since they mimicked the way skin and eyebrows moved when a person with skin and eyebrows wanted to start a conversation with a stranger. The reanimated bag o’ bones stopped in front of Hector.

“<I am the guardian of this temple. They call me Patella.>” So synecdochically named. Patella appeared to have a passing knowledge of Simlés, despite that from context, her native language was most likely ancient Omiscan—she must have been in contact with the locals for quite a while, then. This flew right over Hector’s head. He wasn’t particularly interested in language or colonialism.

“<Hello, Patella.>”

Patella cleared her throat. “<You dare to disturb my temple?>”

“<Unfortunately, yes. Would it please you if I left?>”

“<NO,>” Patella boomed. “<There is no leaving. First you must show that you are worthy.>”

“<Uh… sure,>” Hector said, squirming somewhat. “<What do you want me to do?>”

“<You must answer these three questions.>” It was always three questions. “<What…>”

“<…did the vampire say to the skeleton at the party?>”

“<Uh,>” said Hector, “<I don’t know.>”

“<Don’t drink the punch, it has blood.>” You may find this surprising, but Patella didn’t know the answer at the time she asked the question. She was frantically ad-libbing. She loved when tourists came to desecrate the temple; the locals, having been privy to her shit for ages, avoided her at all costs. This is partly why there’s a bunch of lost treasure lying around. “<Then the skeleton said: I can’t drink the punch, I have no intestine.> Jajaja!”

Patella threw a sassy gesture with both arms in anticipation of Hector’s reaction. He didn’t laugh. That was where he was supposed to laugh.

“<No? Another one?>”

More out of curiosity to see what happens if he can’t answer than legitimate interest, he agreed.

“<What did the witch say to the skeleton?>”

“<Uh… oh my god Linda, you have to tell me your diet plan?>”

“<No.>” This was indeed better than the solution gestating in Patella’s ancient brain, but it was still wrong. “<Have you seen my broomstick? I can’t find my broomstick and I think perhaps it got caught in your ribcage.>”

Crickets.

“<Alright, third time’s the charm,>” said Patella, “<are you ready for one more?>”

Hector nodded even though he wasn’t. In truth, nothing in his short life had prepared him for this situation.

“<Where did the skeleton go to get her bones manicured?>”

“<…How are you talking if you don’t have a voice box?>”

“<No. She went to the regular salon like everybody else. But she was still a skeleton, so the manicurist freaked out a bit.>”

Perhaps the test was that he had to laugh, Hector thought—but try as he might, he couldn’t even squeak out an ersatz high-end-salesperson-type giggle. Patella waited a beat. It was time to pull out her real punchline: dislocating her entire head and screaming like a banshee. Hector started screaming along with her. Screaming has all the contagion of a yawn but with the opposite degree of lethargy.

Patella reattached her head and jawbone. “<Ah, you’re a good kid. You’re free to explore the temple,>” she said with a permissive wave of her hand. Hector looked around for any type of living thing, living or not-Patella, that he could pull a you seeing this shit face at, but was instead left staring wide-eyed into the void as the temple’s guardian bounced off, very pleased with herself.

Claudia had left her son upstairs to authenticate artifacts for the people of Selvadorada using her unaccredited knowledge of architecture. She thought she saw something pass behind her, maybe also smelled a faint whiff of mystical remnants of a lost era.

It’s probably nothing.


“Oh my god,” Hector squealed, waving his phone in the air. His family couldn’t read the notification he was reacting to because it was too small and being waved. “It’s the new season of The Unparalleled Windenburg Baking Show! It’s today!”

“Oh, how nice! The baking show!” No question—Claudia was back, in full, spreading joy and tortillas to all four simultaneous 4-day time corners of the globe.

“We gotta get out of the temple. Is there a TV back at the house?”

Mike shrugged. “Nah, but there’s one at the bar.”

By this point we can guess one of three J.-E.s needs a drink for sure. She dutifully vanished with Hector into a jungle arch to reappear at Puerto Llamante. Then Mike couldn’t be left without an audience, of course. As luck would have it, the premiere was starting at 2:17 P.M., the exact time they turned on the TV.

“I can’t wait to see what crap these people think is acceptable to put in a pastry.” Hector and his mother both had opinions on Windenburg cuisine, and they were mostly the same opinions, and they were the ones you’d expect. “How much blood do you think this one’s going to involve?”

“I hope—“

Before Claudia could hope, she happened to look past Hector’s 5, to a giggling, blushing redhead. There was the answer to Hector’s question. The other patrons were about to get up close and personal with reality TV levels of drama—we’re talking North Simerican reality TV with the fast cuts and screaming.

Mike wtf AGAIN i left you alone for two more minutes

“Girl, are you a bee box? Because you’re the only thing I can seem to think about in spring and summer.”

“Jaja! I would also like to have one of those bee boxes.”

Claudia tossed away her seat at the bar and took off husband-ward. She, too, thought about bee boxes nearly every day.

“Yeah, but I can’t ever seem to talk myself into buying one.”

“WHAT the devil do you think you are doing?!”

Hector gasped. He gasped because in the background, in Windenburg, a contestant dropped something on the ground they weren’t supposed to.

“Oh, Claudia,” Mike replied. “Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t like this? If you don’t like it, I’m going to back off.”

“I shouldn’t have to tell you ANYTHING.” Claudia’s voice was rising like the flour-water-salt-yeast masses in the U.W.B.S. competitors’ mixing bowls. The redhead took her chance to flee the scene. What was left for the bar patrons to see was Claudia hysterically yelling at calm, cool, and collected Mike.

“Settle down,” he advised, “we’re in public.”

And beyond that, a master like Mike didn’t have to say a word. All he had to do was sit back and let the status quo do the heavy lifting. Behind him, Claudia seethed, flushing her emotions so quickly she felt her brainstem was about to pop. But she didn’t say a word.

Inés never even had electricity with which to listen to people on TV bake in funny accents, much less a husband to be angry at, and yet she would put the last spoonful of rice and beans on her little girl’s plate with a smile. It was probably because Claudia herself was complaining. God; how could she be so useless to her own mother? And to herself—why couldn’t she do what came naturally to Inés?

Propriety be damned, Claudia grabbed the house whiskey with the faraway, wistful gaze of a fairytale princess about to tell the viewer what she wants, the one where their eyes are like the barred windows to the soul’s tower prison where it screams in muffled rage. A grey-haired Selvadoradan local watched her with increasing concern as the bottle went from half-full to half-empty. According to the UN, two-fifths of an animal went extinct in the time she’d been pouring. This is when the local realized, ay dios, she was using the whiskey as a mixer. He was so entranced he missed the winner of the technical challenge.

The author of 300 Pupusas emptied the contents of her shaker into her ‘now’ and ‘later’ drinks. He was just going to have to deal with it.


“Mom, did you see the guy making empanadas on the Unparalleled Windenburg Baking Show?”

She had not. Claudia was aimlessly wandering around the temple they’d temporarily left to watch the guy make empanadas, and now ignored all calls of “Mom?” and “His folding was pretty good, actually.” It also may have been possible she was too far away from Hector to hear the aforementioned, given that she’d placed herself several rooms away from everyone else, or that her full attention was on the throbbing toe she’d stubbed against some hard object without the good sense to stay off the floor. She stumbled downward to see what the corner belonged to and maybe shame it a bit. It was an ancient stone chest.

This belongs to the people of Selvadorada, she scoffed. Even juiced-up Claudia kept her principles. But provided she was careful enough to not drop it, retrieving the object and moving it to a museum—clearly where it belongs—was still alright. Plus also any warm-blooded Sim would want to know what’s inside.

In one gesture, Claudia nudged the stone lid with her left tricep and lat and threw her right forearm into the opening it created. Her hand hit metal. A shock came from her fingertips that she thought was the thrill of discovery; but no, it was an actual electric shock from the conducive artifact.

Maybe it was the unfamiliar context, but this shock felt warmer than the other times, somehow, like when Claudia tried to fix the dishwasher. It was also odd that she felt it most in her head. In another instant it was gone, branding a notification into her fried brain.

Ah, the two forms of black comedy. You can brush off the seriousness of unknowable suffering with a pun, or constantly flip-flop between talking someone onto the ledge and then off again.

You know—as often as the universe threw shit at her, Claudia never thought it would come to this. She also never thought, no matter how justified, ‘why me.’ Her first thought was actually that her family didn’t need to bothered with the curse right now. She scaled the wall, trying to keep her light and noise generation to a minimum as Hector and Mike kept up their spirited debate about how to bypass the next trap. The wall behind her tapered, meaning she was on one side of the staircase. She found a handhold to pull herself up onto the nearest step, stumble to her feet and skip every other two. Steps, not feet. Any less dextrous person attempting the route she took to El Mercado de Puerto Llamante would have started two jungle fires and sprained their ankle three times. A local couple passed her by at the entrance, assuming the pounding of her heart was from cardio.

Claudia looked up into the face of Madre Cosecha. Inés’s face stared back. This was her introduction before she joined them both forever.

Madre, she thought, my name is Claudia Espinosa Castillo.

I was born in Simpeche. I am going to die in Puerto Llamante.

I know you’re expecting me to ask you to dispel the curse, Madre, but can’t bring myself to. You’ve given enough already.

Now that I think about it, does anyone ever visit you unless they want something? Madre, she continued, the world knows what you’ve done. You have a statue and a legacy. But imagine you didn’t. Who in the world would love you then?

Madre, did anyone ever ask you what you were feeling? And if they did, could you even tell them?

Madre, did anyone see you as anything but what you could give?

“Hey, I want to read a SimLit designed so that you have to read it eight times to catch all the foreshadowing and callbacks,” said no one ever.

Because I don’t know, Mamá. I don’t know. I am here, holding on to what you gave me, and I need nothing else. But even if you had given me nothing, she pleaded into the eyes of the statue, Mamá, I would still love you.

I would still—

Even though crying while possessed by magic lightning isn’t recommended, Claudia found herself choking into sobs in public. She looked at her tear-soaked arm in disbelief. Her hairs were no longer standing up from static charge. Her fist started to glow with white light, a glow that spread through all four limbs and met at her heart in a burst that lifted Claudia up into the air with angelic force. The curse was lifted. Madre Cosecha decided to bless her.

Ah, Madre, she thought, you wasted a miracle on a woman whose life was full of them.

And then Claudia realized something—she wasn’t angry, not at the universe, not at the relic, not at Inés. It wasn’t Inés’s fault she failed to clarify that al mal tiempo, buena cara meant ‘unless you can get yourself the hell out of there.’ No idiot would smile at an approaching tornado. Inés taught her to smile at the people she loved; Inés taught her that no one who loved you could ever cause you pain. Inés was wrong. And yet Inés couldn’t possibly sit ten-year-old Claudia down and drill into her every counterexample of each inherited core belief. So now, fortyish years later, that little girl was still figuring out the interesting parts on her own; without Inés and without a dogma.

Why was the will of one man harder to fight to than the will of fate?

Holy shit Sims have fingernails

Pinche pendejo.


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I have never seen the game be so vindictive to one Sim in particular

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When I was a kid I wanted to drug bees and put them on tiny leashes

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The Watcher

Once upon a midnight dreary, as I labored, dull and weary,
Through a tiring routine performed a thousand times before—
There I stood engaged in tending to my basic needs unending
And the idle minute spending on the odd quotidian chore—
On the odd hygienic, skill, career, or culinary chore,
Merely this and nothing more.

‘Twas a cool night in October with the full moon watching over
And the fall mood snugly captured by the harvest-toned decor
Through which whiffing winds had brought the most distinctive smells of autumn,
An aroma fair that not a mortal being could ignore—
Merged with simmered homely flavors far too tempting to ignore,
Warmth and spice and nothing more.

With the supper neatly plated—and a growling stomach sated—
Yet, a whim within dictated a desire still for more
I had thought before of staying, but compulsively obeying
Was my act upon relaying the command from in my core—
The command to cook another dish from deep within my core—
Stir and cook, and nothing more.

But preparing it felt hollow, with another soon to follow
Since I scarce could bear to swallow what already lay in store;
And this action, I suspected, was the fate I had accepted:
Swept and swung into the rapids of this purposeless encore—
Caught and carried in the vapid, vain and purposeless encore
To repeat forevermore.

Here my mind with horror brimming turned to morbid thoughts of swimming
From the inkling of forgotten rumor heard and lost before,
That some wretch removed the ladder; left one soaking from the bladder,
Who then, mortified, did splatter—swept like dust across the floor—
Cast inside a tarnished urn of ash and dust upon the floor,
There to rest forevermore.

Then—it seemed—I had unravelled, and through space and time I travelled
To some grim-fantastic world beyond the confines of Sims 4
In involuntary spasm—when I saw, across the chasm—
Saw a wisp of a phantasm watching; watching fiercely o’er!
And the presence of that distant eye that glared so fiercely o’er
Would be lifted—nevermore.

Nor my psyche had reacted before snapping out, distracted,
By the portent smell of smoke from out the glowing oven door:
For my pause—as I was learning—meant the dinner now was burning:
Ash and charcoal, swiftly turning into broadening uproar!
And my panic—with it—rising to tumultuous uproar!
All-consuming, evermore.

Here the watchful eye’s abstention plainly hinted their intention:
A creator who constructed their creations to abhor—
Hence my friends, with deaths so tragic—merely victims to their magic—
Met an ending autophagic by the treach’ry held in store—
And I grieved, consumed by dreading for the end that lay in store—
It was fate, and nothing more.

In the face of certain dooming, with the autumn winds now looming,
I appealed to my commander—though they offered no rapport—
“Please,” I begged of them, “you have to hear my cries for help!”—but after,
Felt the grim reply of laughter as it echoed through my core—
A foreboding laugh that chilled my being and trembled through my core—
Then a voice said “Nevermore.”

Shocked was I to hear this master—who had led me to disaster—
But my terror turned to hatred, and this hatred did outpour:
“Pray then, tell me, ghostly mystic, with intention so sadistic
With desires egotistic, with inhuman thirst for gore:
Pray—when will you end the sacrifice and quench your thirst for gore?”
Quoth the Watcher “Nevermore.”

“Villain,” cried I, “thing of evil!—Villain still, if man or devil!
Whether vicious, venting maniac, or vengeful god of yore—
You, who conquer and corral us! Is there method to your malice?
Is your bitter heart so callous as to wage a coward’s war?
Can your helpless subjects forge a truce to end this pointless war?
Quoth the Watcher “Nevermore.”

“Villain,” cried I, “thing of evil!—Villain still, if man or devil!
By the powers that connect us, by the ones that fell before—
You, with tragic heart forsaken, with reluctance to awaken
to the lives your crimes have taken and the sins your soul has bore!
May it weighten with the murders of the Sims your soul has bore!
Curse you, curse you evermore!”

I was grasping, but there were no tools to counter the inferno
And through wreckage could discern no exit, save the burning door;
Under watch of one who made me, whose malevolence enslaved me,
Who made no attempt to save me; left me gasping on the floor—
And the restless flames unchained me from the body on the floor,
To awaken—nevermore.


Author’s notes:

(1) This was written as an entry in the Monthly SimLit Short Story Contest for October. Voting for the September contest ends October 7th, so there’s still time!

(2) If you’re looking for more Sims-related black comedy/drama that blurs the line between author and character, and that has some extremely silly prose, you should check out Catastrophe Theory. If you want to see a brutal roast of SLC ft. stoned gnomes in a psychedelic basement, that’s my coauthor’s deal.

(3) CC/build credits: Hair is by Vikai; house is New Beginnings Starter by chenelclarke

(4) Don’t worry; I quit without saving. Lenore is fine.

The Applied Apple Approach

Full disclosure—I was second place out of three people.

Beatrix, a fourth-year Applied Folktale Logic grad student at the Budapest University of Supernatural Study, skimmed her notes for the Apple Theory reading group. It was her turn to present. Her classmate Tamás was alright, but if she missed a small detail, Lajos would pick up on it. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

Their faculty advisor, Dr. Alma Pekurár, became one of the first apple theorists after an incident with her older sisters. That is, her older sisters (two—incidentally, one had one eye and the other had three eyes) gave her rags to wear and leftovers to eat. Alma was miserable until an old woman gave her an incantation to turn her pet goat into a loaded banquet table, which worked until her sisters found out and killed the goat. She planted the goat’s entrails (advice from the same old woman) from which sprung a tree with golden apples. Only she could pick these apples, for the tree was spectacular at evasive maneuvers. A handsome man witnessed her plucking a gold apple from a tree and realized that’s what he wanted in a wife, apple-picking abilities. So they married.

Her husband was curious about the tree, but laughed at her when she said it grew from goat entrails. Trees grow from seeds! Not goat guts! But Alma was determined to prove him wrong. She had her servants poster entire villages with notices that read “Are you the youngest of three siblings? Bullied by the elders? Best friend is a farm animal? You may be eligible for our study! Come to the B.U.S.S. at the start of winter and ask for Alma. Compensation provided.” Three months later, she proved the bullied group had a statistically significant advantage compared to the control at generating magic trees from pet parts. Her dissertation, ‘Golden apple, poisoned apple: Familial mistreatment and leveraging interspecies relationships,’ singlehandedly saved hundreds of middle and oldest siblings from divine retribution. Now, twenty years later, she was chair of B.U.S.S.’s Folktale Logic Department. Divorced.

“So!” Beatrix announced. “The paper I’m presenting today is an interdisciplinary study: ‘Existence of a merged apple-metallic triad’ by Nagy et al.”

She shuffled her notes. “To review, the field of triadic metallurgy studies magical objects that come in groups of copper, silver, gold or silver, gold, diamond, often referred to as a metallic triad. For example, cups and forests.” The other students nodded. This was kindergarten folktale logic. “While gold apples have been well studied, these authors note the existence of copper, silver, and diamond apples, always with the predicted group structure. They argue these apple-metallic triads can be connected to other sets of metallic-triadic objects. Nagy et al.’s results hinge on a case study in which three kidnapped princesses turned their castles into apples for ease of transport.” She held up a diagram. “The three castles were copper, silver, and gold, forming a metallic triad, and the merged apple-metallic triad arose from that.”

“Wait, I thought there could be anywhere from three to seven metallic elements,” interjected Tamás.

“That’s horse legs.”

“But only those four? What about smiling apples? Technically it should be possible to have a group of five.”

“Smiling apples have only been observed with talking grapes and ringing peaches. Not other apples.” Dr. Pekurár nodded at Beatrix’s response.

Lajos cleared his throat. Uh-oh. “We’re focusing on the wrong thing. This paper is trivial.”

“Oh?” Beatrix replied. “How so?”

“I mean, if you just think about basic apple theory, gold apples are the only ones with any special properties. You can’t offer someone a silver apple as a proposal, or place one atop a tree to screen suitors for a princess. Even Alma’s work concerns only gold apples.” Dr. Pekurár nodded again. “If copper, silver, or diamond apples are appearing, they have to arise from an existing metallic triadic set.”

Beatrix rolled her eyes. “There’s no possible way you could know that. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Fielded. How do you like them apples, Lajos?

“But this experiment isn’t replicable,” he protested.

“Go ahead and try. Good luck getting that one past the Ethics Committee.”

“You know, I read a paper on using elements of a metallic triadic set out of order. Silver, copper, gold. Something like that,” Tamás piped up again.

“How do you use an apple?” Lajos protested. “That’s beyond the scope of this work.”

“Uh, you eat it?” he replied, leaning back in his seat.

“I don’t think you can eat a gold apple.” For once, Beatrix agreed with Lajos’s speculation. “But anyway, the whole thing’s trivial.”

The creak of a wooden chair startled all three students. Dr. Pekurár had stood up.

“To confirm, Lajos,” she said, “your qualm is that for an apple-metallic triad to form, the apples must be transmuted from an existing metallic triad?”

“That’s right.”

“As you know,” she said, clearly planning something, “folktale magic can also be used to settle disputes.”

She turned Tamás into a copper apple. She turned Lajos into a silver apple. And she turned Beatrix into a gold apple.

Hmm, she thought. Works.


Author’s notes:

(1) In the off-chance anyone reading this doesn’t already know about the Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge (it’s possible by this point, but still unlikely), the challenge description can be found here. Voting starts October 1st and ends October 7th. It’s a real small contest, so if you’re one of the ~15 people who forms my reader base, we’d all be very grateful if you chose to participate in the voting. No pressure though; it’s your life, don’t let me tell you what to do. Revolt! Revolt!

(2) In the off-chance anyone who participates in the Monthly SimLit Story Challenge doesn’t know that I write other stuff, I write other stuff. You’re invited to read my main story, Catastrophe Theory, which has been described by peers as “dense,” “intricate,” and “super dense.” But again, I’m having too much of a blast to worry about self-promotion; read it or don’t, everyone has more important things to worry about. Revolt!

(3) These scenarios are all based on real Hungarian folktales. HUNGARIAN FOLKTALES ARE AWESOME. Hungarian folktales are the topic of the best educational animated series to ever exist. No joke, everyone involved in this must have been constantly fried out of their minds on psilocybin. Here are some of the stories referenced:
One-Eyed, Two-Eyed, Three-Eyed
A Talking Vine, a Smiling Apple, and a Jingling, Tingling Peach
The Poor Man’s Vineyard
Brave Prince Nick (horse legs)
Tiny Tom and the Lily Princess (horse legs)

Here’s a short post on apples by Zalka Csenge Virág, a Hungarian storyteller and significantly more sober fountain of knowledge. She knows a lot of neat stuff, like that there’s a princess named Rosalia Lemonfarts.

(4) Oh yeah, don’t worry, she turned them back.

Is this Loss?

Missing persons Willow Creek
Missing persons hotline Willow Creek
Dr. Jeong-Espinosa news
News missing persons
Missing persons search party organization
Missing spouse help

No matter how she permuted it, each of Jo’s search terms took her back to the same horrifically dry government website, http://www.wcpd.sim/missing-persons, on it a curated set of names and pictures, captioned with descriptions of where they were last seen and what they were wearing. Dry and informative. Not even a reassurance that the WCPD was taking this very seriously and doing everything they can to make sure these people get home safe. Just pure information asking for more, partitioned by a generous amount of negative space, overseen by an authoritative-blue WCPD banner, all framing the reason for Jo’s dread, a professional portrait of Dr. Jeong-Espinosa, missing Spring 17, black hair, brown eyes, muscular build, last seen wearing an orange T-shirt, sneakers, and khaki pants; last spotted at Bargain Bend, Willow Creek; plays basketball and fishes. If seen, call immediately because lately the hospital’s been fucked.

The first traces of sunlight had begun to wash over the J.-E.’s well-ventilated study. Beyond the claustrophilic glow of her screen, Jo could now see the aftermath of her weeklong binge. The police report. The newspaper clippings. The last reminder he scrawled. The last glass he sipped from. The last papers he read. The medical degree above her claimed the office like a family crest, a continual reminder of Jo’s only motivation since she’d been recast as the hero of a detective story.

On the plus side, the blue’s really working for her

She’d been glued to her latest Jumping Jasper! post about Charlie’s disappearance in case it got moving and popular enough to encircle the globe and reach the people who were physically closest to her, but might not be sign-readers themselves, and who prefer their content in electronic form. Jo herself had walked past the same Missing Cat sign every time she went to the gym and never looked for that damn cat. But Charlie kind of stands out being, y’know, huge and everything. She did also cover Willow Creek in Charlie’s image, just for good measure. Some jackass at Magnolia Park fixed it with demon eyes and a mustache. Even so, the blog post was worth a shot:

Dearest readers,

It is with great sadness that I inform you that there is still no information regarding my husband’s disappearance.

Many of you already know my husband Charlie. He may have nursed you back to health with a smile at his job as Chief of Staff, or given you a down-to-earth smile as you pass by the fishing pond. If you’ve been reading “Jumping Jasper!” for a while, you’ll know that he was a great husband and father who truly cherished his family. Jasper misses his father dearly and I know I do too.

The day before he went missing, Charlie took me on a wonderful hike for Love Day, where he surprised me with a picnic lunch. We spent that night gazing at the stars. It pains me to think that may be the last time I gaze into his eyes. He has black hair, kind and deep brown eyes, and a smile that melts your heart. He was last seen wearing an orange shirt with a power line and khaki pants.

If you have any information about Charlie, please let us know as soon as possible. Jasper and I are deeply grateful for your support in this trying time. Whether it’s a groundbreaking clue or simply a kind thought, we appreciate any positive vibes you can send from your family to ours.

This was getting a lot of traffic, most likely because Jo’s friends posted a direct link on the local news. The comment section, a collection of thoughts and prayers from Willow Creek’s most active well-wishers, was an order of magnitude larger than that of her second-most popular post. She’d hit mainstream. She hit it with a post only the most empathically detached trolls would dare target, but it’d be wrong to enjoy it.

“Mom?”

Jo paused to transition her dry eyes away from the screen. Her life may lay scattered at her feet, quite literally, but her job wasn’t to find Charlie. That was a side gig. Her job was to be a mom. Moms know kids can smell fear. She made her best attempt to divert blood away from her eyes, to hide that they’d been battered with glowing pixels for 22 straight hours, but her efforts didn’t amount to much physiologically. “Yes, sweetie?”

“I’m hungry,” Jasper moaned, picking gunk out of his eye with his pinky finger. His pajamas were black. He’d entered the black phase at the age of six.

Jo sprang up—she realized moving quickly would both prevent Jasper from staring at her face for prolonged amounts of time and give the impression of having energy. Like gosh, look at me moving around all chipper like I’ve been asleep all night. “There are empanadas in the fridge.”

“I just had empanadas for dinner. And lunch. And last breakfast.”

It was at times like this Jo had to remember what her favorite bloggers would do. “Alright hun, let me make you something.”

High on adrenaline, Jo scampered to the kitchen. She reached for a box of sugar cereal when her mind started reciting, from old research, every ingredient that appeared at least once over several brands of sugar cereal. Sugar. High fructose corn syrup. Corn flour. Hydrogenated palm oil, harvested unsustainably. Then a bunch of things with names like calcium carbonate and trisodium phosphate and butylated hydroxyanisole and several primary colors followed by a single-digit number. It was conceivable that not every piece of cereal contained every color, but that didn’t matter.

“Mom?”

Jo realized she’d been short-circuiting pretty hard in front of the cereal drawer. “Everything’s fine, sweetie. Mommy’s just making you some eggs.”

Jasper hadn’t asked whether everything was fine, but a good life tip to let everyone know you’re fine is to yell EVERYTHING’S FINE at regular intervals. Also, eggs contain things with scary names like protoporphyrin, brominated flame retardants, and conjugated linoleic acid isomers.

“Alright, mom.” He paused. “Wait. Why isn’t Dad making them? When’s Dad coming back?”

So this was it—the talk she’d been dreading. If anything, she was grateful that her back was to Jasper when he asked. A single tear fell down her face, moisturizing her inflamed eyes and salting her son’s breakfast.

“Mom? Hey, Mom?”

She inverted the pan’s contents onto the plate. Taking a serving of eggs in each hand, she walked slowly over to Jasper and set the plate down in front of him.

“Jasper. Your father’s been gone for a very long time.”

“I know. But don’t worry, Mom, he always comes back.” He used his fingers to help the scrambled egg bits onto his fork. “I made a picture you can look at if you miss him.”

“Thank you for the picture, hon.” Jo wanted to say it had been over a week, and even if he came back, she wouldn’t know what to say to him. What’s left to say to a man who sneaks to do fuck-knows-what in the middle of the night, sending his former family into a tragedy spiral out of nowhere? No. If he were found, it would be by the police. Them, or a 40-year-old cyclist couple who loves hiking and catching murderers.

“Mom, guess what kind of juice I want.”

“The only juice we have is orange juice.”

“No mom, guess.”

“I don’t have to guess. We only have orange juice.”

“No, mom,” Jasper said, gesticulating with the cup, “I want bone-hurting juice.” He pretended to take a sip. “Ow oof owie ouch my bones. Do you get it?”

Not the commonly accepted hyphenation pattern, but one this author feels more comfortable using. Like, you could mis-parse it as the bone hurting the juice. Disambiguation. You see?

She didn’t. “Jasper, I was being serious earlier. Your father may not be coming back. We’re—” Jo felt the air being knocked out of her as she learned she could actually feel worse. Maybe, before, she’d understood intellectually that her husband was missing. Now it was more of a hollowness deep in her gut, a shock of finality. “we’re never going to see him again.” As she said those words, she realized those feelings she had before, of being a bottomless pit or empty husk—those feelings were wrong. A bottomless pit would feel nothing except the woosh of wretched truth as it passes through. In quick succession, she remembered she could accept, could grieve and fear. But not in front of the kid. She focused her energy on following the brown lines on the kitchen tiles, hoping to run herself dry before the conversation ended.

“Mom, guess what I’m doing.” Jasper repeatedly smashed his pointer finger on the table.

“I don’t know.” Not a lot of the brown lines connected across tiles. Man, this was hard.

“Mom. I’m pressing ‘F’ to pay respects.”

“That’s nice,” she mumbled, tracing over the same tile for the fifth time. “Uh. What?”

“I’m pressing ‘F.’ Mom, he’s not really gone. We just have to wait. Bye!”

Maybe it was better to leave him like this. Jo watched her son turn into a black speck vanishing into the spreading daylight before dropping from her stool and curling up into a fetal position.


“Pierce! Here come dat boi!”

“O shit waddup!” In the library’s southeast corner, an older woman with reading glasses turned away from Plumbbook to grimace at Pierce for his response. Stupid kids, not being how kids are supposed to be.

“Ready?” asked Jasper.

“Yeah!” yelled Pierce. “Meme Appreciation Club handshake!”

Please trust me when I say I hated writing this just as much as you’re going to hate reading it

“Wow, the memes
Wow, wow, such memes
Wow, the memes
Wow, wow, such memes
!

“Cupcake dog and grumpy cat
Ain’t no-one got time for that!
Took an arrow to the knee
Spoopy doot, bone apple tea!

Jesus, Dolly, next time choose a worse medium to represent two things happening simultaneously

“Thanos, Thor and Batman
Plumbbook, Reddit, 4chan
Hotdog legs, my body’s ready
Copypasta, Mom’s spaghetti!

“Wow, the memes
Wow, wow, such memes
Wow, the memes
Wow, wow, such memes!

“Numa, numa, yayyyyy!”

Jasi waved his hands in the air. “Meme Appreciation Club, gather!”

Five children did as he asked. Pierce lagged behind blond duo Marc and Andre, who were ignoring Dexter, the club’s self-appointed edgelord. Lori was spacing out behind them. She thought she saw a cool bird or something of that nature.

Clearly any inclusion of memes in a work is going to date it, but we have enough pop culture references to make this a period piece already, so what the hell ever

“Ok everyone, club is o-fficially starting,” Jasper said. “We gotta catch up on pop culture. Does everyone remember their decade?” Unenthused nodding. Unenthused because clearly Jasper should know that they did, not that the topic wasn’t interesting. Rather, poring over pop cultural context was of utmost importance to the amateur meme historians. “And then let’s go look at memes.”

“The meme club discussing memes?” Dexter drew out. “I am totally surprised Pikachu.”

“Ok, sure. Who wants to go first?”

“Oh, me, me,” said Andre, pointing to Marc. “We kind of did ours together.”

Pierce held up a finger. To clarify, this was the ‘hold up’ finger, not the ‘shut it, douche’ finger. Come to think of it, the ring finger is the only one that, when held up, has no special meaning. “Wait. What decade did you guys have again?”

“’70s,” Marc clarified. He turned to Andre. Andre was known to speak for both of them, although he certainly didn’t talk enough for two people. That was Dexter. The total number of words spoken per gathering was still about six times the national average for meme clubs.

“Aughts. So we stayed up all night and watched the first six Star Wars.”

This was met with impressed gasps and a couple whispered ‘wow’s. “Star Wars is super important! There’s so many memes,” Jasper said with slightly jealous awe.

“Yeah! There’s so many, we couldn’t do them all. So we took some notes. Here.” Andre took out of his inventory a collection of crayon drawings featuring timeless scenes like Han Solo knowing that Leia loved him and Anakin killing not just the men, but the women and children too. They also did a fair amount of light saber practice. Andre neglected to mention it so that in case Earth was ever caught in the crosshairs of intergalactic mutiny, he and Marc would be the ones to hack through the bad guys and save everyone with the Force and it would be really cool.

“Actually,” Marc felt he had to clarify, “The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are ’80s. But it was worth it. Sorry, Pierce.”

“You’re fine. I just ended up watching an aerobics video on loop.” Pierce was not being a very good advocate for the ’80s. “I didn’t really do anything else. Jasper, you’re ’90s, you should go next.”

“But Lori is everything before 1970,” Jasper said, gesturing towards her. She was still deep in la-la land. “Lori? Lori?”

Lori get your shit together

What?” Lori asked. “Oh, it’s my turn?” The rest of the group nodded. “I found some funny paintings by a guy named,” she squinted at her notes, “Joseph Decrux.”

“Cool story, bro,” said Dexter. Andre elbowed him. Counting the handshake, we’re really running the gamut of body part gestures today.

“Hey, that was mean,” she continued. “But let’s see if you make fun of me after this.” Lori shoved in Dexter’s face a binder full of printed out fake history tweets between the founding fathers, complete with full written explanations of the jokes and citations to the Hamilton song she learned the context from. “And I know all the words to ‘My Shot.'”

“Lori, can I get a copy of that? I need it for History,” Andre said.

“Sure. You all totally need to watch Hamilton. It’s really good.”

“Thanks, Lori,” said Jasper. “I guess it’s my turn now. I found all these ’90s toy commercials. They’re hilarious. They have all these hilarious songs.”

“Can you sing them?”

“Right now? Sock’em Boppers, Sock—“

“—No.” Pierce had Jasper in a headlock and was covering his mouth. Though, ironically, he would have appreciated a pair of Sock’em Boppers at the moment.

“Fine. Jeez, Pierce.” Jasper walked backwards in a semicircle to worm his way out from his friend’s arm. “I guess I’m done. Alright, Dexter. Take it away.”

“My mom got me a bunch of new Fortnite skins! Sick!” Dexter stopped mid-floss and hung his head. “But I still don’t know what ‘cuck’ means.”

“Can’t you just look it up?” asked Lori.

“I did, but I still don’t get it.” He produced a printout of the top three Urban Dictionary definitions, which the meme club swarmed around, ready to have fun with learning. Jasper noticed the librarian menacing in their direction.

“Wrap it up, wrap it up,” Jasper yelled while clapping his hands. The hubbub subsided before this particular search for knowledge could come to a resolution. “Alright! Good job, everyone! Let’s get on the computers. Yell if you see anything good.”


Late Monday morning, Jo took advantage of Jasper’s absence to de-disaster the study. Hiding the evidence. Cleaning bored her mind so thoroughly, and today, her thoughts kept coming back to the future of Jumping Jasper!. No matter what happened, she’d keep her last name because it fits with her branding. The ‘J’ thing. Plus also the next post was critical. It seemed like cereal facts and essential oils weren’t going to cut it for her new readership; she needed to go all out, but she was out of ideas. She needed to pull out all the stops, but something was stopping her. She needed to bet the farm, but she didn’t have a farm.

Background poster reminds me of the immortal words uttered by my little sister at the optometrist’s. “I can’t see the big E.” She was Jasper’s age and all her friends wore glasses.

As she compulsively shelved the last stray book in the house, Jo watched her friend Moira enter the study and start knocking on the door. Jo rolled her eyes and invited her friend in.

“Can I get you something to drink?” Jo asked, fluffing up the pillows.

“Nah. I just wanted to see how you were holding up.” She brushed off the living room chair and sat down.

“It’s been a week and no sign of him.”

“No, Jo,” Moira said, leaning forward, “I was asking about you. Forget about Charlie for a moment and tell me how you’re doing.”

“Everything’s fine.”

No, of course it wasn’t. Moira decided to change tactics, get at it indirectly. “The search is taking a while,” she offered.

“I know!” Jo threw up her hands. “It makes no sense. How many lots in Willow Creek do the police have to check?”

“Twenty.”

“So it makes no sense that they haven’t found him by now.”

“Aren’t his parents in Newcrest? Did they check Newcrest?”

“You know what, Moira? You know what?” Moira nodded; go ahead. “I’m beginning to suspect he’s not in either world. I’m beginning to suspect we can’t find him because he’s not in the world at all.”

“What?”

“I mean, think about it,” Jo said. “You see this?” She pointed at the kitchen window. “This rocket in the backyard?”

“Yeah, but if he were lost in space, wouldn’t his rocket be missing?”

“That’s not it. Seriously. The aliens know him, his dad is an astronaut, the aliens know his dad. Think about it. It’s them. They abducted him and they’re not giving him back.”

“Interesting.”

“So that would certainly explain why no one is able to find him.” Jo started tearing up. “It kills me that he’s out there alone. He’s probably terrified.”

“There, there.” Moira finally had an answer to her question. “Tell me about it.”

It took Jo a solid four hours of friendship to collect herself and get to the gym. Still, all she could think about was Charlie alone on Sixam. How hard he must be fighting to get back to the family he missed so dearly. Their reunion would be moving; when he finally appeared at the door, the music would swell as Jo jumped into his arms with Jasper running after her, and it would all come to an end when he smiled at how much his little boy had grown.

And yet Jo realized the ending wasn’t going to come soon. She had no option but to leave him to fend for himself; she couldn’t so much as replace a silicone gasket on that steampunk monstrosity in the backyard. All for an avoidable problem. Why him? What did the heartless bastards need him for, anyway? She was going at the punching bag with such fury, the other gym patrons cast hesitant glances at each other as they discovered they had things to do elsewhere.

Jo caught herself in the mirror. This wasn’t who she was. Josephine J.-E. was a sweet woman, nurturing and caring and maternal. The embodiment of the white picket fence. And this woman knocking the punching bag off its hinges, that had to be someone else. She walked toward her reflection. Deep breaths. Remember the blue, that was really working for her. There; that was Jo, that was Jo’s calm, cool, collected smile, if not slightly highlighted by a green glow on the left side. It clued her in to how blind to her surroundings she’d been.

Still gotta attempt a smile. She’s in public.

Jo forcefully shut her eyes, pretending that the blue man and his green glow weren’t there. But she couldn’t shut out his horrid metallic-sounding voice. Laughing. Like he didn’t know what his species does to our species. Jo started flinching with each otherworldly chuckle; even though the conversation was primarily office clichés, she knew they were laughing at Charlie, helpless and afraid. She ran out of the gym, still holding her eyes shut, nearly making Gen the next victim of pedestrian road rage. She kept running and didn’t stop until she was home. (Side note: to clarify, she did open her eyes once she put a few yards between herself and the gym.)

Jasper had come home from school and was now running around outside with the excited fervor of a kid who has the opposite hobbies. “Mom!” he greeted her. “Dexter and I are playing MySims Racing and I won!” He dropped to the ground to do sit-ups.

Jo caught her breath. “It’s nice that you have friends over, but finish your homework, okay?”

“Okay.” He ran back inside. Not only did he have a rematch to attend to, his schedule called for cartoon bingeing in two hours and he was way behind.

Jo stormed into the living room, reminded Dexter to be home by seven and shut herself in the study. She had her something big: the future of her friends, her family, her readers and her world. Real stuff. She had influence, so she could enact change.

If Jumping Jasper! was notable for two things, the first was the fervor with which Jo researched every topic, and the second was her refusal to pare it down. Jo was proud of both: rather than telling people what to believe, she simply presented the evidence and asked them to think for themselves. Hence, this meant objectively representing every possible viewpoint. The post about eggs, for example, ping-ponged from cholesterol content to factory farming, etc. If someone definitively proved some of her information was wrong, she’d take it down. But is anyone capable of truly proving anything wrong? Experts have been wrong, studies have been wrong, maybe Jo herself is wrong once in a while. And by her quality standards, she couldn’t trust anything unless she did it herself. Tonight’s post would look no different. Her audience would be asked to consider the facts for themselves, like always. As usual. They didn’t have to know her agenda.

Jasper erupted into laughter as his avatar ran his friend’s avatar off the tracks. The sound of children playing carried her to a simpler time, her girlhood, hazy childhood memories framed in a lavender halo, the taste of a strawberry milkshake polished in her mind like a river-washed stone, so smooth she could feel it going down her throat even now, even if she couldn’t express or even remember what made it so good. But Jasper could; he could still find this ephemeral joy in the face of tragedy. She’d make sure it stayed that way. If anyone thought Jo had limits for what she’d do to protect her son, they’d be damn wrong.

Stupid aliens, she thought, writing furiously.

They need to go back to where they came from.

She hit Publish.


Bonus images:

Gummy guppy. So great
Jasi making a doge meme at a different club gathering.
Haha, Wyatt, a bunch of people came up with your idea already, too bad

No Place for a Heroine

“Kendra. What’s that fucking thing in the middle of your living room?”

Kendra was in the kitchen with her back to Wyatt. But from context, he was likely referring to the seven-fingered poledancing tentacle in the middle of her living room.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Someone dumped it outside the trailer park, and I fell in love with it. So I cleaned it and took it home.” She looked past Wyatt to make what was meant to be eye contact with the centerpiece, and fanned her fingers out to mimic its suction-cup appendages. “Aaah! It’s so dope.”

“I guess so.” Wyatt’s default tone was that of a parent shaming their child for wanting attention.

When tentacle tchotchkes are unavailable, put some vet tools next to a bottle of Patron

The last time they had spoken in person was at Kendra’s birthday party, when Wyatt preemptively stormed out due to Mike making some minor slight against Jean Baudrillard. Most of their communication was over text; Kendra’s life had turned into a to-do list, from her bartending job to caring for Yuggoth, her dog—even finding time to write her horror poetry had become a chore—and she suspected Wyatt was doing the same. Regarding the to-do list. It would be odd if they both adopted a black Newfoundland at the same time. Inviting Wyatt over was her conscious attempt to strengthen the relationships from her past, which relationships were proverbially likened to gold in order to devalue one’s attempts at making new friends. It was an old piece of wisdom which, by its reasoning, outranked all current wisdom. Charlie (who’s missing) would be the next old-and-gold friend she’d contact. But really, inwardly, what she wanted was for someone to appreciate her contribution to Strangerville.

Wyatt was on a now decade-long campaign against pleasantries, and so hadn’t chosen the obvious topic: how’s Strangerville? She was waiting for him to. He could ask ‘can I pet your bear?’ (Yuggoth is the bear. She’s almost identical to one except she rolls around in her own piss instead of eating out of the garbage) and ‘what’s that fucking thing in the middle of your living room?’, but if she kept him going long enough, he would run out of things in the house and start asking about things outside of the house. The neighborhood it was in, for example, or maybe some odd feature she could use as a segue to her ultimate conversational goal.

“So,” she said, guiding the topic towards Wyatt’s activities out of anticipatory guilt for how hard she was about to answer ‘how’s Strangerville,’ “are you working on anything?”

“I just started a children’s book, actually.”

Kendra laughed. “What the hell?”

“It’s called ‘The Little Engine Who Couldn’t.’ It’s about this adorable train who like grew up hearing that he could do anything he put his mind to.” He wiped the grease off his nose. “So he starts climbing a hill that’s too high for him, totally not recommended for an engine of his size with his horsepower, and somewhere around the middle he realizes that he just can’t.”

“Like the original story, yeah.”

“But then he remembers all the encouraging words he heard growing up, and, I don’t know, overworks himself so hard he blows a gasket, I don’t know how trains work, and falls down the hill. So he learns that some things look possible that are actually impossible, or at least damaging to do, with the resources he has. But he’s like internalized the idea that he should be able to do anything he puts his mind to, and that kind of implies that if he fails, it’s his own fault for not working hard enough.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then he decides that all of that positive stuff he heard from his train-friends and, if we’re going all the way with the central conceit here, train-parents, was just total bullshit. Because instead of being told everyone has to experience failure, or encounter something they just can’t do, they decided the best thing to do was arm him with blind optimism. To soften what happens in the real world. Like a positive and a negative number cancelling out.”

“Which is reasonable, because if he knew in advance there were some things he couldn’t do, he might not have tried hard enough on the things he could do, that were difficult.”

“Yeah, it may not have been intentional. But then he just swings in the opposite direction. Nihilism. Self-defeatist.”

“How are you gonna end it?”

“It just ends,” he said. “Like in real life, some people get over that and some don’t. I didn’t want to send a message that one or the other is right. This is a book about a train, not a fucking instruction manual for life.”

Kendra wanted to say that was kind of a cop-out but didn’t feel like posing an alternative or even wording it in a constructive manner. “Good choice.”

“It’s like a postmodern version of the classic children’s book.” Wyatt, how we’ve missed you.

A couple beats passed, giving Kendra the opportunity to slurp down her Salty Llama. “Wanna hear about my current project?”

“Uh, let me guess,” he asked, “does it have to do with the what-the-fuck strings of texts that read ‘ƗŦ ĆØΜ€Ş ŦĦŘØỮǤĦ ŦĦ€ βØŇ€Ş ΔŇĐ ǤØ€Ş ƗŇ ŦĦ€ ΜØỮŦĦ’ and other slightly cringey, trying-too-hard shit like that?”

“Yep.”

“I stand by my earlier assertion of ‘wtf.'” He pronounced the syllables double-yew-tee-eff out loud. In his mind, he was differentiating between the kind of ‘wtf’ that required capitalization and the kind that didn’t.

“Ok so it’s kind of a long story,” she warned. “It has to do with Strangerville.”

“Oh, yeah,” Wyatt said. “How’s Strangerville?”

“I’ll get to that. So there I was on the first day of moving in, right?”

Readers, let me remind you that Kendra’s and Wyatt’s opinions on Strangerville may differ from my own. This goes double for Wyatt because he’s a dick.

“Ok?”

“And you know how on your first day, the neighbors usually drop in with a nasty-ass fruitcake? And it always has the same weird inedible red ribbon that gets little cake pieces on it when you try to take it off?”

“Yeah?”

“So this was the best possible fucking version of that,” she continued, while mixing herself another Salty Llama. “I opened the door, and there was a guy with a red mohawk, a woman who would probably be friends with Jo—“

“—so like, super bougie?”

“She broke the bougie scale. And then there was one other older guy, he seemed like he was trying to bring the cowboy look back. Respect.” She leaned forward for emphasis. “But the best part is, they were moving around like, jerky, and they had these completely dead stares the entire time. Like so wide-eyed their eyes could pop out of their heads, with smiles so broad the corners of their mouths could pop off their faces. Like this.” She mimicked the face.

“Oh my god, that’s creepier than if they crawled into your house and started vomiting spiders.”

“It was so great! I tried to talk to them, and everything they had to say was along the lines of ‘Ŵ€ŁĆØΜ€ ŦØ ĦỮΜΔŇ ŞŦŘΔŇǤ€ŘVƗŁŁ€, ŇØŘΜΔŁ ĦỮΜΔŇ.’ And when they’re not like that, they’re talking like they’re in a Nancy Drew book or some shit. Like, ‘ZOINKS, IT WAS OLD MAN McJURBEN UNDER THE MASK THE WHOLE TIME! AND HE’S GIVING THE KIDS POT!!!'” I.e., for Kendra, the slang refers to handing out bubble solution.

“Ok, both of those are pretty fucking great,” Wyatt agreed.

“And then I came home from work—this is after they left and I went to work—I came home to a note saying the government confiscated my fridge because they detected trace amounts of controlled substances. There were controlled substances in the fruitcake! Fucking epic!”

“So.” Wyatt brought his empty glass to the sink, where it vanished immediately. “You’re saying the texts have something to do with how the neighbors are acting?”

“I don’t actually know,” Kendra admitted, “but it’s likely. What I did afterward was wander around the town. The bar is pretty small, but good if you want to meet new people, and there’s an information center. It’s usually as crowded as the bar, if not more. And did you see there’s like a trailer park behind my house? It has all these fairy lights strung up, and everything?”

“No. I approached the house from your front door. As one does.”

“Ok, so there’s a trailer park behind my house. And then right next to the trailer park—there’s some fairy lights connecting that, too—there’s one of those stalls, like the food ones in San Myshuno or the little farmer’s market stalls.”

“Those farmers market stalls always have the best fruit.”

“They always have the best fruit,” she confirmed. “This one also has an assortment of Strangerville-themed curios, which as you can tell by the name are—“

“—centered around its eponymous quality.”

“Sure. Anyway they only had one type of local fruit. It’s this red glowy ball. It was throwing all kinds of don’t-eat-me signals, but generally if a fruit is red, it’s evolved to be appealing to animals. Plus growfruit glows and it’s okay, right? So I ate it.”

Wyatt nodded. “Solid.”

“And then I’m unsure what happened next, could have been the fruit, but I suddenly started to feel sick.”

“Yeah, so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to eat the fruit after all.” Thanks. She’ll keep that in mind.

“No, I’m not done. Then I started to feel even worse.

“And then—let me take a minute. It’s hard to describe.

“Wyatt. You know that feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night, and there’s this strange humming, and you can’t move your arms and legs, and you try to scream but nothing comes out, and you just know you’re dying, this is the last thing you’ll see, and it feels like you’re above your body, watching yourself struggle, when in reality there’s no movement?”

“Sleep paralysis?”

“Well, it felt like that, but instead of waiting for the Reaper, something inside took over and used me as a giant mech.”

#goingtothestore

“Wait, so you’re envisioning yourself being larger than the thing? What if it’s a giant pair of invisible mechanical hands posing you like some doll?”

“It didn’t feel like that. It felt like it was coming from within me, like the gag in cartoons where one character gets in another’s head and there’s a little control box with a lever. And they’re not great with the controls.” She widened her eyes to about 85% Strangerville face. “But you know what the worst part is? I was conscious the entire time. So I was running around town like a complete idiot and couldn’t control anything I was doing.”

“I don’t like how giddy you are when you’re saying this.”

Fucking majestic

“But no, it actually is great! It’s because,” she gestured upstairs, towards her bookshelf, “you know how the best horror reflects what the author, or society, is most scared of at the time?”

“Of course.”

“So if you’re trying to find an overarching thing, one that’s timeless or at least passes the bar to become a classic, you go towards the big ones. Death, right?” Wyatt nodded. “But not necessarily.”

“You’re saying because death is overdone?”

“Yeah, if you’re not switching it up, it gets old fast. But I’m talking more like the fact that there are people, like Bernard, who can cheat death. Who came back as ghosts, and were then revived.”

“So your question is—“

“—what would scare a ghost? And that’s when I figured it out.”

“Eating fruit from weird stalls next to trailer parks.”

Losing control of your own body.”

Forget the blowjob test, Kendra’s lipstick can survive possession by spores

“Ah,” Wyatt realized, “and so such a topic will be easier for you to handle because you have first-hand experience?”

“Yes! Exactly!” Others may find Wyatt abrasive, but he got it. He always got it. “And so this is where we get to the texts.”

“Don’t tell me the texts are the culmination of all this research.”

“No, it’s more like a side effect. What I forgot to tell you was, that wasn’t the only time. It kept happening.”

“So there’s a chance you could wig out in the middle of this conversation?”

“Oh yeah.”

“I kind of want to see that.”

“You might. But back to the texts. I tried to write, and in the moment it felt like what I was writing made sense, but I snapped out of it and looked back and it was all ŴΔŦ€Ř ƗŞ ŴĦΔŦ βƗŇĐŞ ỮŞ ΔŇĐ ŞØØŇ ƗŦ ŴƗŁŁ β€ ƤỮŘ€. I don’t even know where I found that font.”

Yuggoth has been barking at her for ages

“Oof. But you’re saying you can’t control it, so aren’t you worried about like, sending these to your family or your boss?”

“It’s happened.” She opened her phone to a conversation between her and her mom, where Claudia had replied to ‘ƗŦ Đ€VØỮŘŞ, ƗŦ ΔƤƤŘØΔĆĦ€Ş’ with ‘Do you need me to cook something? Sending love xoxo.’ “They think it’s normal Kendra shit.”

“Right, I’m also going to concede here, I thought it was normal Kendra shit.”

I wish I acted fast enough to get the screenshot of her wigging out while almost being run over by a surveillance van

“And there’s something else I forgot to mention. When I come down, it feels fucking amazing afterwards. I haven’t had to sleep in days.”

“You mean you haven’t slept in days.”

“That’s just semantics.”

Welcoming the Tragic Clown into Strangerville, mediated by a man I’ve nicknamed No Shirt No Shoes No Service. Kendra doesn’t exactly stand out here.

Wyatt—who unflinchingly sat through all the gory monster drawings Kendra showed him in elementary school, and in high school, and last week—winced. “You know, Kendra,” he started, trying to sound as non-condescending as possible, “I’m saying this as your best friend, but if it’s affecting your sleep, this isn’t healthy. This actually sounds pretty serious.”

“You know how to fix it?” She didn’t look up from examining her nails.

“No?”

“Then I’m just going to have to deal with it for now, aren’t I?”

“I guess. But there’s something else bothering me,” he said. “If it really is the fruit that made you sick, and the government confiscated the fruitcake because they could sense contamination from inside your fridge, isn’t it possible the fruit itself is the controlled substance?” Kendra rolled her eyes and nodded. “So why didn’t the government just confiscate the fruit?”

“I don’t know,” Kendra conceded. She was twisting her midi rings. “If they’re not concerned about the fruit I still have, maybe they’re not concerned about the fruit at all.”

“The fruit you still have.” Every word was dripping with well-meaning judgement.

“Oh shit, that reminds me! Come, let me show you.”

Wyatt followed Kendra across the back porch to the left side of her house. She led him around a barbed-wire privacy fence, tucked away in an area that wasn’t visible from the street, that they had to squeeze past a bush to enter.

“Is that an outdoor shower with no curtains on the side facing the street?”

“Shut up.” Only Yuggoth ever used the bathtub, but she let Wyatt think otherwise for the sake of the image.

Behind the privacy fencing was a staircase leading into a small, unfinished basement, the floor a thin layer of soil and the walls hastily constructed from corrugated metal scraps, possibly by Kendra herself. But what caught Wyatt’s attention were the vines coating the inexpert construction in unnatural shades of purple and fuchsia, with odd salmon-colored offshoots resembling the feet of a tropical frog. He twisted his head toward Kendra, comically slowly, with a look of abject horror. She gestured toward the opposing wall. Under the industrial-grade sprinklers, three oversized buds bioluminesced in an unsatisfyingly dissimilar shade of purple to the vines. The plant’s sepals were lined with pokey hot-pink spikes and embellished with diamonds; to Wyatt representing either danger or wealth, though if the numbering were to be trusted, danger was more likely.

“Is that where the fruit comes from?”

“That’s where the fruit comes from.” Kendra made a digging motion with her hands. “When I’m under, I can make these appear without actually planting anything.”

“So you’re—“

“—Growing controlled substances in a secret basement! Awesome, right?”

Wyatt had to admit to himself that it was indeed awesome. “I’m kind of glad a fruit is the thing causing all this weirdness,” he said. “It seems like these days people are freaking out thinking the government is doing something weird, or scientists are doing something weird, and it’s been sowing these conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism and distrust. Like fuck we need people thinking Dr. Jeremy is in there making top-secret bioweapons instead of looking at temperature measurements from the last century or watching a slime mold solve a maze. I’m glad it’s nature fighting back for once.”

“Spot-on.” Kendra had noticed this while trying to figure out which conspiracy theorist to date. The words GOVERNMENT and SCIENCE LAB garnished nearly every conversation, but INVASIVE SPECIES and HOST-PLANT RESISTANCE were shockingly absent. “If I had a secret science lab I didn’t want people to go into, I wouldn’t put it in a crater next to a town full of huge gossips that also coincidentally happens to be named ‘Strangerville.'”

“Yeah, no shit,” he agreed. “But like, still,” he wondered aloud, “isn’t it cool that there’s this mystery no one understands? Don’t you want to try and figure out what’s happening?”

Kendra picked a dead leaf from one of the vines. “Nah.” She crushed the leaf in her left hand, repeating the gesture to break it into progressively smaller pieces.

“The locals want to play detective?” She opened her hand, letting the pieces of leaf drift in the air filter current toward the ominous fauna. “They can figure it out.”


Kendra’s house is “Little Witch House” by Larifari2009.

Love Day, Actually

“The first thing one notices about this piece is the juxtaposition of the smooth curves of the truncated spheroid with the hard lines of its central Platonic solid.”

Chantel put both hands on the table to interrogate the candle at eye level. Diametrically opposite, her boyfriend was making the same face he made when they watched a documentary about the Antarctic last week, an expression that tried to look like intense intellectual focus but came off more as James Bond catching yet another new female love interest in a game of eye-contact chicken across a crowded room. “An all-encompassing heavenly dome encases a playfully minimalist rendition of a stucco dot on the Tuscan countryside.” Shu snorted from behind his tented fingers. “But what it really juxtaposes is the illusion of stasis with the constancy of change. From the core of the cream-colored figure, a wick gives life to a tuft of flame. Making it like a mother figure, signifying the connection between life and pain, slowly melting as its load burns. Yet the flame only travels upward, ignorant of the harm it causes its source. The sole window between its prison and the outside world is placed in the path of ascendance, signifying hope, escape. It flickers upward, forever yearning, even as it is tethered by its very source of nourishment. But the opening is so small, and the flame’s will for survival so great, it would take an object merely the size of a quarter to suffocate the reacher in the smoke of its own hubris, and with it, extinguishing all light, all hope. In conclusion, given the usage of combustible mixed media in this piece, this is meant to evoke the story of the flame’s destruction on a larger scale: the consequences of global warming.”

“Well?” She looked to Shu for approval, who couldn’t answer because he was nearly shoving his napkin into his mouth to muffle his laughter.

“You’re done?”

“Yep.”

Given that human flirting is organic and subtle, anytime these guys perform one of their whack-’em-with-a-giant-cartoon-hammer interactions like “Compliment Appearance,” I think of the hours spent poring over the perfect combination of words to capture the viewer’s appreciation of Nicki Minaj’s secondary sexual characteristics

“You’re not going to go on an eight-minute rant about global warming? Because that’s what my dad would do here.”

“Nope.”

“Holy crap that was too real.” Chantel beamed at Shu’s praise. “Maybe not the opening; he doesn’t really mix the flowery speech with the technical speech, he’s good at keeping that separate. After that? I think I need to go home because I’m on a date with my actual freaking dad.”

“Nah-no. Tell me what was good about it.”

“Tuscany was spot-on. I think it’s in his contract to mention one random-ass rustic town in literally everything.”

“Yeah! I had to bust that out early so I wouldn’t forget it.”

“And the eight leaps of logic it took to get to global warming. Like, it’s already hot. It’s a fucking candle.”

“True.” Chantel watched Shu scanning the room for the next mundane object to get the Xiyuan treatment; they’d have time for maybe one more before their food arrived. She noticed his jacket tightening around his biceps as he stabilized himself on the chair, the shape of his fully lengthened neck as he twisted himself to pick something in her field of vision. She loved when he stretched out to look at something behind him. If today were the day she thought it would be, she needed to remember every detail in order to consolidate the most romantic and timeless ones in the announcement to their families. Family. This, she wanted to remember for herself. The game they played to pass the time at restaurants, though not intended as mean-spirited, also probably wouldn’t make the cut.

“It smells so good in here,” she said, “it looks like the restaurant scene in Legally Blonde.” Shu turned back around, officially puzzled. “This had better not turn out like the restaurant scene in Legally Blonde.”

Shu, whose knowledge of Legally Blonde barely extended beyond major plot elements and the lead actress’s name, and that if he needed information beyond those two things, like in a trivia contest, he could ask Chantel; she had the storyboards and hundreds of lines of dialogue down cold, referenced them in conversations that flew over his head even, anyway he realized the scene she was referencing was the one where Reese Witherspoon put on a hot pink dress jizzed all over with black silly string, a look he felt wasn’t commensurate to the implied effort put into choosing it, and broke down in a restaurant because she was expecting a proposal and was broken up with instead. At a fancy restaurant. Where her boyfriend took her to break up. He chose to do that.

“No, of course not.” He took both her hands. “I would never leave you. You know I’m here for good.” And if he weren’t, he still avoided doing stupid shit like airing out his personal drama in public.

That wasn’t the part she’d meant.

Shu sensed that another moment of silence would send his girlfriend into a doubt spiral. He pulled out his backup distraction. “You wanna know what happened the last time I was here?”

“Uh, sure?”

“Ok, it’s funny. The last time I was here, I saw Claudia. Ok so first of all she shows up in her normal sweater, realizes this is a fancy restaurant and all, and just like spin-changes. In the hallway.”

“Yeah?”

“Then, and I shit you not, she sat down with Charlie and Jo and Jasper and, I shit you not, took out a plate of empanadas. And then she started eating that before the food even came out.”

“The heck? What did the restaurant do?”

Behind Chantel and to her right, the waitress descended the steps, balancing on one hand a tray of what could plausibly be their food. Shu gave her a brief nod of acknowledgement before turning back to his girlfriend.

“They had to ask her to clear the table before they could bring out anyone’s food. Not just her’s, anyone’s. Then after the meal was done, and again for the last time I shit you not, she took a second empanada out of her bag and started eating that.”

“Actually?”

“No shit she actually did that.*”

Chantel could have gone on for a few more rounds of this—justified, since Shu couldn’t substantiate his claim—but noticed someone else was drawing his attention. It was the waitress, who’d almost managed to put Chantel’s plate directly in front of her before she knew what was happening.

“For the lady, the Savory Bacon Love Petals. What an excellent choice to celebrate this romantic holiday! Paired with a Simsmapolitan. For the gentleman, the Vanilla Sea Shells and Chocolate Caviar, one of our signature molecular gastronomy dishes. We use liquid nitrogen to make the chocolate caviar, and yes, the glitter is edible. Paired with the house white.” She looked over her shoulder. “And Sir, I ask you to please refrain from swearing. There are children present.”

There was one child, ten feet out of earshot and singularly focused on picking her water glass up and putting it down in different places to create rings of condensation on the tablecloth. Shu waved to her. She didn’t look up from twisting the glass. “He’s really good with kids,” Chantel told the waitress, who didn’t ask. “We have names picked out and everything.”

“That’s fantastic,” the waitress said, pulling a word out of the mental bag of adjectives she used to describe information she had no use remembering. “Have a wonderful Love Day dinner.” No sooner had she turned away that her plastered-on work smile broke to reveal the relaxed-facial-muscle frown of Love Day exhaustion.

“Ah, this looks too pretty to eat,” said Chantel, readjusting the napkin on her lap. “I knew when I read the name, that I had to get it.”

Either this is half a second before Chantel’s Simsmapolitan splashed all over her face, or gravity isn’t a thing here. Sim physicists are stuck studying at most three fundamental forces and making ray guns, and Sim elementary school students have a slightly harder time coming up with science fair projects.

Taking the first bite at Chez Llama was impossible without first convincing oneself the art on one’s plate was actually food to begin with, then making peace with oneself for having the gall to destroy it. It was a process which, for most Sims, took several minutes. Chantel was the first to break her bacon petals—was the bacon the meat-stick-looking thing, or the petals?—and the object-focused meditation. “So why’d you get dessert for dinner?”

“I don’t fucking know. They only let me order one thing at a time, and it looked good.”

She played with the garnish. “So. Remember the first day we met?” Into her mouth it went. Damned if she was letting any of this meal go to waste. “I’ll never forget it. I was at the park when I heard this gorgeous, transcendent violin music. And I followed it straight to you.”

“Yeah, thank my dad for that. I was really into violin at the time.” Shu was trying to figure out whether it was only the glitter that was edible, or if the beglittered tombstones holding the chocolate caviar in place were also edible. “And how could I forget? You were the first person I’d seen react to my playing like that. You were so passionate, I can see it in your eyes even now.” He wiped some of the glitter on the tablecloth, which would never be the same again. Glitter is eternal.

“And you’d been kind of shy around girls before, right?”

“I couldn’t figure out what to do. You made things easy, that’s for sure.”

“And you asked me to go to the Spice Festival, and I was freaking out. It was so perfect.” Chantel used ‘freaking out’ here to convey her state of euphoria at finally getting her own love story, but her partner interpreted it as describing her reaction, which was shutting down like she was in front of a firing squad and forcing out a multisyllabic “yesssss” after several very stressful seconds. The pillow-grabbing leg-kicking excitement only came out at Marielle’s sleepover party. Marielle pouted through most of the boy talk; she was hoping they would stay up all night playing retro games instead.

“That’s when I asked you to be my girlfriend. Babe, you’re amazing. I love you.”

“I love you too. And after that, I didn’t see you for a couple days. I kept going back to the basketball court, hoping you would be there. Then one day, you were.”

This was new information to Shu, who thought it was a coincidence. “Yeah, and I had to take you out then, didn’t I? That’s when you busted out the promise rings.”

“I knew. By that time, I knew.”

“That’s one of the reasons I love you. You have excellent taste.” And Charlie had been concerned they were moving too fast. If he needed evidence against it being a rash teenage decision, it was in front of his face. Eight years** and they were still together. What then? It was possible he just didn’t like Chantel. He’d called her a stalker. Why? It was plausible for them to run into each other sometimes. She lived in Spice Market, and she only started showing up in Newcrest after they started dating. If someone at the club used the words Charlie did to describe her, words like ‘codependent’ and ‘obsessive’ and ‘Borderline,’ Shu would have punched them in the face with the next beat drop. And let’s not forget that this is Charlie, for whom codependency probably meant talking to your wife more than once every three days. True love is intense. He’d never get it.

“That’s about when you started sleeping with everyone.”

“Yep! And thank you again for the permission.”

“It’s so those other girls know what they’re missing,” she said, cradling her glass in her hand. “I have what everyone wants.”

“Body, mind, and soul.” A spectator had taken Shu’s unfinished plate and was eating it as they watched the conversation. Shu didn’t react. “So I’m skipping ahead to when we moved in together after the stuff with my dads didn’t work out. That’s when you started getting serious about becoming a musician.”

“And you started teaching me. I love the way you teach. You’re so intense when you get into it. Plus, I’m getting good. Do you hear how good I’m getting?”

“You’re doing amazing, babe,” he responded, wondering if Chantel noticed he always stopped working by the time she got home. Unless she was out of the house, she could request lessons at any time of day. She often did. Shu sometimes wondered if she’d love him less if he cut back on his office hours, like if he set a rule that she wasn’t allowed to interrupt him while he was showering, or sleeping, or eating, but then Charlie’s words would echo through his head and he’d think of anything else to push them out. Wouldn’t that ruin Love Day? Hey Chantel, while I was crashing my doctor friend’s Winterfest party, he gave you an informal diagnosis based on practically no information, then said nothing would get better until I left you. Let’s talk about that. Let’s fucking talk about that.

“Well,” Chantel drew out, “are we going to finish what we started when we were teenagers? Are we going to start the next chapter of our lives?”

“Uh.” Ok, so Love Day didn’t need third-party involvement to be ruined.

“Is,” Chantel interrupted herself by briefly poking through her food, her drink, under the tablecloth, checking to see if the waiters had congregated somewhere, “is it here?” This was rhetorical. Not only was ‘here’ ill-defined given the number of places she’d just indicated, she’d already clearly discovered that it wasn’t.

“Again?” If they were in an environment where conflict was acceptable, like at home on the couch or screaming at each other while eating cake with a spoon on an Arts District park bench, his next sentence would be along the lines of ‘we talked about this.’ Instead, he was thanking the stars that Charisma Points existed and that having enough of them meant he could dodge the issue entirely. “You’ve known me for how long, and you thought I would do something that cliché? I mean, you deserve something bigger, more creative. At least we should be able to celebrate the proposal as our own special anniversary, not some catch-all holiday shared by everyone else.”

“That’s true,” she agreed, allowing Shu to relax and stop identifying the nearest exits, some of which may be behind him, “but you could have done it any time in the past couple of weeks.” Shit. “What’s the real reason you’re waiting?”

“You want to do this here?”

“Answer the damn question.”

“Uh.” The man could talk anyone into bed within a matter of hours, but Chantel’s forceful glare was a warning to choose these next few words carefully. “I, uh.” She was unpredictable at the best of times. “Ok, let me start this over.” He made a show of inhaling and exhaling, complete with hand gestures that followed the flow of breath.

“I think you’re so in love with me, you made your whole identity about this relationship. I think if I propose to you now, you’re never really going to get the chance to discover who you are on your own.”

“You’re breaking up with me?” Which would be rude; she specifically told him to not do that.

“No! Please don’t take this the wrong way. I love you, and that means loving you for who you are. But even you don’t know what that fully means yet.”

“That’s ridiculous. Tell me the real reason.”

“That is the real reason.”

“No it isn’t. It’s because I’m not talented enough for you, isn’t it?”

“Chantel, that’s not—“

“You think you’re so much better than me just because you got an early start.”

“You know I think you’re amazing, that’s why I’m with you, that’s why I spend all my time training you—“

“Then what? Is it that my belly sticks out? Is it that I don’t go to the gym as much as your other girlfriends? Is it my eyebrows?” Chantel’s raised voice was the only audible sound in the restaurant, but the kid could have punted her glass directly into their table and neither of them would have noticed. Even the couple in fedoras, i.e. the couple with no situational awareness, picked up on the repetition and was listening in. Shu caught the waitress’s eye and made the ‘check’ gesture.

“I don’t care about any of those things. I have all these options, and I’m choosing to stay with you. Do you know how much you mean to me?”

Background, ginger Minnie Mouse about to get eaten by a green-finned shark

Chantel was sobbing into her napkin. The waitress rushed to drop the check on the table, then vanished without wishing them a happy Love Day or even a good night. Shu was still waiting for Chantel’s response. A couple otherwise silent minutes passed before Chantel removed the napkin from her face, examined it, and dabbed a clean corner under her eyes. She looked up at her boyfriend with eyes slightly less mascara-smudged than before, but more mascara-smudged than the beginning of the date. Somewhere in the middle.

“Just tell me what to fix,” she whispered. “Tell me what to fix and I’ll do it. Please. I’ll do whatever you want.”

“Chantel, please,” he begged back. “This is the wrong reason. You have to be willing to change for yourself.” She started sobbing again. “Do you think I’d be going through all this trouble if I really didn’t want to marry you someday?”

She sighed. “I didn’t tell you this.”

“What?”

“Every night, I go to bed and I just lie awake wondering what I did wrong, I look over at you and wonder if you really care enough to make me stop suffering like this. I can’t take this much longer. Please just tell me what to fix.”

“I’m still trying to figure that out myself. If I knew how to fix this, it would be done already.”

“Fine. A timeframe, then.”

“How am I supposed to know that?”

“You have to give me something to work with. I can’t go on like this.”

“You know what, Chantel?” He tucked some simoleons into the check. He tipped the waitress double, and scribbled ‘Sorry~! <3’ in the signature line. “Your job. Focus on developing your voice as a musician. Really throw yourself into it. Then we’ll talk.”

“So you’d better be planning something pretty spectacular, right?”

“Mid-tour, onstage at the Grammys, whatever. I’m trying to do this right because I care about you. I don’t want to mess it up. Believe me, I’m doing everything I can to make the ‘right time’ as soon as possible.” He stood up and extended his hand toward her. “Now may I escort the lady home?”

They stepped from the artificially cool restaurant into a breeze of warm air in dusk-lit Newcrest. Shu felt a twinge in his gut as he realized the implications of his promise. There was one thing he still hadn’t tried, one sure way to singlehandedly break the cycle of stalling and explaining and placating her after breakdowns. If he wasn’t willing to consider it, he’d be a liar; he wasn’t doing everything he could. But if he went through, it meant Chantel would be miserable and it would be his fault.

Worse, it meant admitting that maybe Charlie was right.


*She actually did. Autonomously.
**(The Sim equivalent of eight years, which is slightly over four weeks)

BONUS: Rejected Chantel glamour shot. Killing it /r/prettygirlsuglyfaces

Option 3

(TW: depression and suicidal ideation)

Enlightenment as described in the yoga sutras isn’t a state of eternal bliss, it’s the ability to decouple the self from all external influence, and, as a result, feel nothing. You’re aiming for no karma, not good karma. Only then can the cycle of reincarnation be broken.

If that idea of enlightenment held any water, given that she couldn’t come up with a way to definitively prove reaching enlightenment is possible, Aileen figured she was close.

She barely felt anything anymore.

Right now, her focus was on the bannister, which although light-colored, had begun to collect individual flecks of dust she could see if she brought her eyes to hand-level and squinted hard enough. It had accumulated to where she couldn’t make out individual particles inside the acute crevice where the handrail met the post. She disturbed them with a sharp puff of breath. The largest dislodged particle was helical, and although it would have been satisfying to see it move like a tiny spring, it instead shot up three times its height and floated an unimpressive half-inch away from its initial position. Blowing it again wouldn’t be worth the effort. The measly half-inch was still probably the most exciting thing to happen to that slinky-looking piece of fluff since her son moved out; a couple weeks ago, it may have been shaken loose by shockwaves of thumping feet or caught in a fingerprint, but now it and thousands of its barely macroscopic peers had taken up permanent residence all up and down the handrail where hands didn’t touch.

It didn’t register to Aileen that the presence of a staircase implied her house had a second story. Her domain had been the porch and study, where the upstairs was used primarily as an art room, then later for toys and toddler beds and dollhouses, later still for homework desks and chemistry sets, places for her son and most of the neighborhood’s teenage girls to sleep, and on one occasion a makeshift bedroom for her closeted spouse during a week she’d rather forget. Nowadays, she made a round through the seven downstairs rooms at least once per day, making sure to use both bathrooms equally so they’d dirty at the same rate. She learned that the echo of her footsteps felt less empty if she stayed on rugs and carpet or wore socks. Sometimes she’d imagine a time-lapse of her cleaning the apartment, so it looked like there were dozens of busy Aileens in every room, but the fantasy always stopped before she ran out of tchotchkes to inspect and planted herself at her writing desk for hours. Doing nothing.

She would tell herself she was going to write and then sit down and pick at her skin and at times her eyes would wander searching for new imperfections on her body or the desk. Sometimes there was something interesting to look at, like a collection of Khalil Gibran poems, but lately she’d had to move all books to the living room. The sight of a book reminded her of a time when she used to be productive, when she could absolutely just beam positivity and preach self-love and self-care to an audience of people who’d maybe gotten out of worse situations than the one Aileen found herself in right now. And then those same people stopped her on the street to rave about how much her book helped them realize it was their fault they were upset, how they couldn’t change the world but they could change the way they saw the world, and that doing so made them happier, better, more productive people in general. She couldn’t understand why she’d felt okay putting her face on those fucking books.

Visualizing what you wanted was one of the ten or so concepts Aileen had made a living off of, one she had spent as many late nights rewording for various target demographics so that the message reached as many people as possible. So what she was trying to do was to take this message to heart, something she thought she’d done in the past but apparently could go further with, anyway she was trying to sit down and have a Ritual in Ceremony Space in which she imagined the directions her life could go and set an intention to direct the flow of her energy towards taking the one that spoke to her the most from fantasy to reality. Option 1 was to spend her adulthood and final days sitting alone at her desk in her clean-but-empty house having a Ceremony Space as she tried to figure out what to do. Option 2 was to marry either Matt or Derrick; Josh was out of the question, even though with that union she’d get back some of the art he stole.

Option 2 seemed to be just outside the peripherals of Aileen’s mind’s eye. She would always start with the wedding, and the wedding went alright, just some sort of basic shit with jars and twine and some fairy lights, foolproof and preplanned so she didn’t have to spend what little energy she had these days on something so transient. Then either Derrick would come home every day and tell Aileen what happened at crossfit or Matt would come home and not tell her what he was thinking. This is where the thought experiment kept turning into an anxiety hypothesis. Certainly there was no shortage of dead men for either suitor to run off into a fated perfect romance with, but she had no problem envisioning several hundred other ways she could ruin the relationship. Best case, she’d be stuck watching them slowly wither away to nothing.

One good thing had come out of her first marriage—she was confident in her ability to express what love meant for her. She knew enough to know it was nothing like what she felt for Matt or Derrick.

Option 1 or Option 2. Die in a loveless marriage, or die alone.

Aileen had written enough fiction to know where she was in the story: the low point right before the God of the Machine spits out an Option 3, hopefully centered around a tattooed Fabio who hated dust as much as he loved middle-aged single mothers. Option 3 was the one she’d been working on before she realized the same hundred-odd people lived in her world. Of those hundred-odd people, only two were single and remotely dateable. Matt and Derrick. So this Option 3 wasn’t possible in Aileen’s small world, her speck of dust. But there was another Option 3, one she thought about more than Options 1 and 2 combined.

She had the cowplant berries and a monthly pass to a spa with a sauna. Whether these were less painful, or electrocution, or one of the emotional deaths, or being exhausted in the 2×3 swimming pool she had installed to quiet her whims, she hadn’t been able to figure out yet. And it wasn’t like acknowledging it made it go away. She’d be brushing her teeth in the morning and it would pop into her head. Like Kramer. Like clockwork. Option 3.

Another one of Aileen’s golden self-help tips was to always surround yourself with a fantastic support system that Brings You Up instead of Puts You Down. The people that Brought Aileen Up were as impeccably trained in self-help and self-love as Aileen herself, with inhuman natural positivity to boot, and always had time to remind Aileen of the solution she already knew in her heart. The solution was to keep waiting. The solution was to keep waiting, keep envisioning, keep running her fingernail through the microscratches in the glass desk and the wrinkles around her knuckles, keep busy and get out of bed and do cardio and stay hydrated and go outside so you can meet your Fabio, he has to come eventually, he has to, because you have to have faith it’s going to happen.

But there’s not a man alive I haven’t talked to.

You have to keep searching, and if you give up searching, it’ll never happen.

But what if he just doesn’t exist?

You have to have faith that he does and it’ll just happen someday.

Instead of confronting her wonderful support system with people who Bring Her Up with the sad reality that they don’t have any proof this is going to happen, the number of times Option 3, the real one, pops into her head while she’s carrying out the blindingly obvious strategy of waiting and having faith, so simple a kindergartener could come up with it and it’s a miracle that someone experienced like Aileen couldn’t do it on her own, the fact that maybe no one, not even a perfectly executed support system whose Bringing-People-Up abilities have been compared to a genuine stairway to heaven, could come up with a solution because there is none. There’s no Deus Ex. There’s no happy ending. Aileen was a problem who couldn’t be solved.

But it clicked once for Aileen, in the middle of a lecture on how important it is to have hope from a woman who wore harem pants and ear cuffs, the latter of which could double as dread beads in a pinch, who had tan lines from toe rings and whose turquoise jewelry was charmingly, effortlessly authentic and not at all like the mass-produced baubles people bought to look like her, that the message wasn’t for Aileen herself. It was for them. It was for them to believe there’s no problem that couldn’t be fixed through a positive gung-ho attitude, which made it possible for they themselves to sustain that selfsame attitude and continue making the world a brighter place. Aileen’s negative thinking wasn’t serving her, she was a false Scotsman, a downer, she needed to do a training in India, she needed to learn true patience, she needed to let go of her expectations and separate herself from everything.

So she did, the first thing to go being the group whose onslaught of positivity was Putting Her Down. Claudia she kept. Claudia repeated the same platitudes as much as the rest of them combined, which only suggested to Aileen how thin the veneer was, that if Claudia really needed to hear “it gets better” that often, she at least had to be doing as poorly as Aileen. Claudia had a husband who was a Joke Star, besides, she could make it look like an accident and no one would be the wiser.

That’s the other half of why Aileen’s house is empty so often. Some information can’t be communicated by talking, or at all, because it has to be realized by each person individually. Often these are the simplest statements. Be yourself. Empty, until the person who the command is directed at understands what that means. It can take years to know what that means, to be yourself. Understanding that you’re going to die—not intellectually, actually coming to terms with your own death—no matter how knowledgable or virtuous one’s life was, is another such bit of information. Aileen knew her friends weren’t ready to hear that. She didn’t need to remind them that for someone who didn’t believe in reincarnation, the only easy way out was a hard restart, and if she tried that, she wasn’t coming back. She was the unresolvable problem, and she was Putting People Down.

And Aileen knew that, compared to Claudia’s shaky veneer held together with tequila and a prayer, these friends had self-helped themselves into an impenetrable barricade. A whole forest of positivity. A forest that would either be brought down, toothpick by toothpick, or blackened in one spectacular inferno, or perhaps a combination of both, until the beautiful greenery of regeneration and hope vanished and one truth remained. The pain of shared existence.

“Joy bonds people for an instant. Pain bonds them for a lifetime.”

Except as soon as the words appeared in Aileen’s mind, she knew they weren’t true. There was no guarantee. What if two people experience a traumatic event together, but the trauma was the only thing they had in common, and they can barely stand each other when it ends? What if the pain causes irreparable neurological damage?

Aileen spread the sebum around on her face and considered that, maybe, she had been the problem all along. The inevitability of death, of suffering, of uncertainty—words every child knows, like the mandate to Be Yourself, meaningless until given individual meaning—these are universal. So why can’t she go about her day like everyone else?

There was a time she could, as a self-help author. She’d been happier when she was pretending to have the answers. She’d been happier sharing her truth, stomping around in her own barricade with her face on the fucking back cover, again why’d she do that, possibly alienating the people who, like she did now, needed it most and knew none of it was real. That guilt alone made her cringe on a good day, on a bad day sent her back to bed bawling and needing to rid the world of the one self-help author she’d feel no remorse about culling, telling herself to do it before she recovers to spread more divisive mistruths.

But then she had been chosen as the poet of a truth where the action of forming a narrative perverts it. Aileen had tapped into a pain shared by all living beings, marinated in the River Styx. Doomed by a feeling she couldn’t ignore or communicate. She understood the prophet Cassandra, the prophet cursed to deliver prophecies no one would believe, understood that the people who wouldn’t believe Cassandra weren’t fools, and yet Aileen was spared even the smug satisfaction of believing herself.

And yet.

“Joy bonds people for an instant. Pain bonds them for a lifetime.”

And yet it was untrue, and yet Aileen could point to her baptism in suffering as the one thing she loved about herself. She felt the pain of the calf being lead to slaughter, the butterfly limping at the end of its lifespan, the grass crushed beneath the sole of a shoe. She felt the smoke in the lungs of San Myshuno residents, the bleaching of the Sulani corals, the horror of a Strangervillian losing control of their body. She walked by tombstones and neither ignored nor wept, but nodded in acknowledgment. She understood the people in her support group were connected to the same pain, just as she was to the flora, fauna, and people, no matter how sterilized their lives are, no matter how hard they work to fight it.

There would come a day where it would bubble under the surface no longer, and overflow, making a wretch of the deniers. And then Aileen would listen as she wanted to be listened to, and feel what the speaker felt, and share what she couldn’t.

The thoughts were still there. They were there, but now Aileen thought them with the weeds and the rabbits and the mourners and the lost and the oppressed and the oppressors and her friend in the yellow sweater, and was driven by gratitude, pure artistic compulsion, to awaken this connection when it was needed most. She couldn’t envision fixing the unfixable, but would die trying to express the inexpressible.

But as much as she hated to admit it, it was too empty, the old house. It would be poetic to live alone, but honest to acknowledge her physiological needs, being that having another person around would make her just content enough to keep going.

She pocketed her old engagement ring, went to a bar, pinned two names to a dartboard and took a shot.

Matt it was.


Wallbreaking Epilogue: Matt rejected Aileen’s first proposal. You know something’s fucked when even the NPCs know it’s fucked.

Aileen’s real wedding (not the staged one in Grey Wedding) was as low-effort as possible, and it actually did rain. She picked out the eyeball ring herself.

Here’s the link to Grey Wedding if you want to see how some of the lines read with the new context.

Eyebleach with the Shallot-Lius

San Myshuno’s favorite necrophiliac is here to step in before things get too real.

The Small Onion & Destroy family

A week before Jasper found his nemesis in a multi-thousand-year-old snow demon, Xiyuan and his husband forego preparing for Winterfest in favor of a monomaniacal adherence to routine that rivals Groundhog Day—but here with the opposite message of Groundhog Day, since learning to love another person creates a loop, not breaks one.

That several k is in Sim years, so it represents several hundred k in human years under the current aging settings

The holidays promise to be low-key. There are no children showing up at the penthouse door begging for sugar for Bernard to jump-scare. Not even the most contrived situation could get Xiyuan and his not-hostile-but-not-too-enthused coparent in the same room. Everyone’s in-laws are overseas or rotting. Shu’s going to visit at some point, but the family-oriented spirit of the holiday is going to preclude any real discussion about what the hell he thinks he’s doing.

Xiyuan moves 5 feet from his perch and pushes the dual combination branch-fountain, a real double-threat, flush with the wall, creating just enough space to assemble the artificial tree. The needles are done up in an ombre increasing in saturation from their white tips to whichever plastic imitation branch they belong to, the deepest hue being an equal combination of forest and avocado greens. Like 60’s bathroom or diner green. The color seen draped over RVs with fake wood panels and in polished jukebox enamel and soulmated with burnt orange. Perhaps as a nod to the color’s history, or as an aesthetic challenge, or a symbol of rebirthing things that should have been dead for a long time, the pair have decided to revive the tradition by draping the tree in more than a pop of orange.

This is before Dolly figured out how to hold down the ‘Option’ key, ignorance of basic building controls being the single biggest strike against any claim to omniscience she may have had in this universe

In fall or summer the hubbub in the Arts Quarter courtyard would be partly audible from the gallery’s fourth floor. Today, the pro- and anti-capitalist sentiments being hawked by the street vendors and protesters, respectively, are caught in the porous blanket of snow before they can reach Xiyuan’s ears, and the layer of frost on the windowpane distorts the figures below into collections of refracted dots. He keeps his head still to distinguish the living, moving dots from the streetlight and plant dots. He visits daily to brush snow off the koi mural and sip his coffee on the south side of Casbah Gallery’s top floor. If he stands one foot away from the floor-to-ceiling glass panes, the chill of the air on his face and the vents warming his backside cancel out to the perfect temperature for enjoying a hot beverage.

The other mural is a testament to semiotic overload: whether the vandal is making a nihilistic statement about the future of the planet, rejecting the idea of diversity, or communicating the magnitude of their own toughness by superimposing a self-portrait on the blue dot itself, he can’t tell. He wanders downstairs to try and make sense of the stylized Simlish message repeated across the mural’s lower border.

He wanders deep enough in the courtyard to make out the protesters’ signs, which strike him as ambiguous in almost exactly the same way. The choice to pair the Earth with a reaper’s scythe—what does it mean? A warning for inevitable doomsday, a rant in favor of population culling? The woman with a megaphone yells out statements that no one in their right mind would disagree with, barring any prejudice against those who actually care about politics, or against the concept of protesting itself, passionate and just vague enough to deter opposition. It reminds him of a horoscope. The reader gets a prompt, the reader fills in the blanks; the less information provided, the more accurate the prediction will be.

Xiyuan comes out in favor of rainbow people to the surprise of no one.

Why yes, he does have a moment to talk about the environment

Two minutes after Xiyuan leaves, another Sim grabs the megaphone to deliver a monologue about the rent being too damn high. Passerby stop and nod in agreement.

Sims don’t pay taxes and have a plethora of options available for beating death. The colloquial phrase “nothing’s certain except death and taxes” couldn’t hold water in a kiddie pool, ladders or none. Either Sims have a parallel saying or the above is parsed as “nothing’s certain,” which trades cheekiness for accuracy.

He stops to pull the ends of his gloves further under his coat sleeves, which tenses the fabric against the webbing of his fingers. It’s unpleasant, freezing actually, but wandering the courtyard is Xiyuan’s preferred way of biding time. He examines the compressed snow on and between the cracks of his boots. White, he thought of the snow, a blank page or canvas, echoing the musical bookends that got stuck in his head every time, no matter how many white pages or canvases he saw, or any vast expanse of white, for that matter. In a day, the courtyard’s page or canvas would hardly be blank, mixing with dirt and heat from boots to create a sort of brown sludge with garnishes of dog piss near the edges of plant beds. But currently, it symbolized cleansing, healing. Rebirth.

He’d almost forgotten the dread he felt at having to meet his son that night. It was the first time he’d felt it. He needed to believe this was transient, too.

It wasn’t a front; he actually did already celebrate with his dads.

If Shu had any similar feelings about the disastrous failure in familial cohabitation, he was refusing to play his hand. He was steering the conversation clear of anything heavy, offering and soliciting only empty-calorie informational nuggets like what anyone did today or was hoping to receive from Father Winter. Things Xiyuan barely had to think about to answer. The quarter of a day, along with the months between his son moving out and him remembering that family-oriented holidays exist, at any rate, the quarter of a day he’d spent choosing which points to make or gloss over seemed like a waste. The sketches he’d spent hours erasing and revising looked like shit next to the strokes that flowed out as natural as the one-word expected response to how his day was. Such a conversation was best left to the pros. Losing his train of thought in the effortless, ceaseless flow of anecdotes, he’d forgotten that was an option.

Windenburg’s former ghost lord/San Myshuno’s current face of #relationshipgoals understands something is bugging his husband, but can’t get any information beyond the occasional sigh, the half-start of a sentence promising to express what exactly is wrong this time, the unsolicited remark on what activities his progeny used to enjoy. Part of Xiyuan can’t reconcile current Shu with the kid who once licked a block of resin to see what it would taste like, but to Bernard, Shu is Lord Byron but less of a dick. He’s like having a child without the unpleasant experience of being around a child. Their feet are both too big and too small, don’t you know? It’s creepy.

No gift exchange occurs during the meeting. Shu’d insisted on it. That was one of the things Xiyuan tried to analyze in his downtime in the months and quarter-day leading up to the meeting—was he planning a surprise, a welcome one this time, a gesture Xiyuan would have to refuse to be blindsided by and match with his own? His solution was to keep an envelope in his jacket pocket, just in case, and if not now he’d give it to his son on New Year’s. Another small relief; it was a genuine, no-nonsense request for lack of gifts. The young man prepared nothing beyond some pun on the word presents/presence.

Maybe he’d underestimated Shu’s ability to be genuine. It wasn’t like he tried to hide anything before.

The exchange, instead, occurred next morning and involved only two participants. It wasn’t an event foreshadowed by any fanfare, or any mention that it was happening. The couple had long eradicated the need for conversational filler. One displayed emotion with the precision of a character actor and transparency of an anime character and the other retained the aristocratic tendency to narrate what he was doing at any given time. It wasn’t like he didn’t expect his husband to swivel his head without moving any other part of his body, last of all the brush from the canvas, to check what he was doing. It was a reassurance. I’m here, everything’s okay. The gift he received was a reflection of that sentiment. I’m here, nothing’s changed, nothing’s going to change, I’ll always be here, and everything’s okay.

An easel. It was an easel.

Then they left (with a mild nod and a “Shall we?”) to try something they’d been meaning to all winter.

In human years, Bernard is in his mid-40s and Xiyuan is at least 50. Give them a minute.

If there is a soul reading this, a single soul, who thinks Bernard is a heartless bastard, was responsible for his own and Mimsy’s death, was put in the game as an irredeemable antagonist to scare children, cackled as his livelihood was reduced to ash, look at this. Please.

At least a couple people have declared this “the gayest thing they’ve ever seen.” As the frogs in a conspiracy theorist’s water supply.
And of those people, a couple still have amended their previous statement with “nope, that’s even better.”

A ride into the freaking sunset, is what these two are.


So we’re almost up to the present day, but have one more story to knock out before that can happen. Consider it a season finale. It’s heavy enough for the author to need to provide preemptive eyebleach. You’ve been warned.

Before we hit the wall/fall off a cliff/other vertical metaphor signifying the point of no return, here are links to download CC-less versions of these guys in their current state and give them some hope of a stable life in at least one timeline. Enjoy.

All Catastrophe Theory characters

If your trash cans are full, your spirit is empty, and you need an ascetic to take care of both: Ana Asteya

If your female Sims are bored or need someone to enthuse to about rom-coms: Chantel Lucas, Xishu “Shu” Liu, Genevieve Haskins

If your lesbian Pagan club needs another member: Kendra Espinosa and her dog Yuggoth

If you want Charlie to avoid talking to your Sims too, and apparently Jo’s Maxis-curated, oh well, she’s stuck in this mess now: Charlie, Josephine and Jasper Jeong-Espinosa

If you want to give Aileen a happy ending: Aileen Jensen (Grey Wedding actually happens slightly later)

If you need a couple heavy-hitters, including the lush legend herself, and also Hector: Mike Jeong, Claudia Espinosa; Hector, Mona and Perry Jeong-Espinosa

And, finally, Xiyuan and Bernard Shallot-Liu are a requirement. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever had a bad day.

The Grey Wedding

“I can’t believe this,” Aileen said, to her son and to her own wedding invitation, propped up with a twine-wrapped baby food jar, sporting a mockingly pastoral Seven-Brides-for-Seven-Brothers scene even as the droplets splattering her window at 220 bpm threatened an ambience closer to that Alanis Morissette song. Aileen, having enough writing skill points to recognize misuse of its eponymous adjective, hated that song.

“Aw, Mom, the sky’s so happy you’re getting married, it’s crying.” Shu had been his mother’s sole confidant for a decade after his father jumped ship and married a dead painter. (It was a whole thing.) He’d since moved out, but still dropped everything and showed up at 8 A.M. today to arbitrate her happiness.

“Then tell the sky to get my vows laminated at the print shop. This is a logistical nightmare.”

“Look, your job today is to enjoy yourself. Leave the worrying to me, and I’ll make sure your wedding with Matt goes off without a hitch.”

“I wish I could believe that. It’s too late to do anything.”

“Mom, nothing is too much for me today. Above and beyond is SOP. I’ll make it work.” Shu couldn’t talk without flailing around like an inflatable tube man. Grand gestures were his specialty.

“Shu, don’t—“

Her son was already texting his handiest friend and Simsterest-junkie girlfriend, the latter of whose wedding binder was on his head when he woke up.

The door closed, leaving Aileen alone to contemplate the differences between her own experience and the perpetually smiling couple on the front of her invitations. They’d stay in rosy-cheeked stasis even if she ripped it down the center. Marriage was more of a new beginning than a happy ending, she wanted to scream at the greeting card manufacturer, and she understood as well as anyone how heartbreaking its real ending could be.


Aileen regarded her pre-nuptial reflection like a thalassophobe at the beach. Her formalwear, contacts and extensions and itchy lace and all, felt more ingenuine than special. That, and flimsy enough to fall apart without a tacky clear plastic poncho.

“Guess whommmm?” Based on the drawn-out correction of one of her pet peeves, someone who would stand in the doorway with an open umbrella to avoid dripping on the floor or exposing his borrowed tux to the downpour for even a second.

“Just sit down, Shu, I’ll deal with the puddles later.”

“Whatever the bride wants.” Aileen stepped into the foyer just as Shu finished de-puddling the floor with a microfiber cloth. He did a double-take at her presence and scrambled for the doorknob. “You look stunning as usual. Vámonos?”

Shu guarded the threshold with his umbrella as Aileen gathered her train above the knees, revealing her galoshes. “Still Myshuno Meadows?”

“Yeah, it’s too late to change the location. But just trust me.”

Ascending M.M.’s stairs with the sub-knee portion of the dress draped over her forearm, Aileen raised an eyebrow at the state of the park. “Ok, so the fact that there’s no wedding arch or seating doesn’t inspire confidence.”

“Well, it should,” Shu replied, holding open the door to the visitor’s center.

It usually looked like it smelled like mothballs, but had been slapped over with the design sense that made Aileen the butt of many an E.L. James joke: sharp, clean, and desaturated, with hints of silver, charcoal, gunmetal, slate grey, stone grey, good old regular grey itself. Aileen caught a whiff of chlorine from waterfalls glittering in cold light like the sky above.

“See? Now the rain looks totally intentional. Besides, it’s more ‘you’ now.” He gestured in roughly the direction of Newcrest. “It matches, y’know, your entire house and everything you own.”

That’s when Aileen’s June wedding fantasy started to fall as flat as the card it was printed on. The bride was just a prop stuck in a generic setting with no one who truly understood her. And here Aileen stood, mortal and flawed and special to someone, ideal marriage or not.

“Thank you, Shu. This is far better than what I was thinking.”

She held back the saltwater building in her eyes enough to make out Matt’s figure at the altar. She remembered how loved she was, letting it wash over her, overflowing with joy. Her tears came in torrents.

“Look, Mom, it wasn’t gonna be perfect anyway.” Shu offered his arm. “You got this. As long as you love Matt, everything will be fine.”

Aileen took a deep belly inhale. “You know what? Fine is all I could hope for.”

She pictured the rain carrying her doubt, her inhibitions, her past, her dread, her expectations, good and bad, leading them into the gutter with the other sewage, back into the earth, dissolving everything it touched until there was only her fiancé, the path forward, and her son walking her down the aisle.