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.
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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Hey Shu?” Jasper called.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.”
“You made the biggest mistake of your life, you know? You can’t replace me. I’m irreplaceable.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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?”
“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!”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.>”
“<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?”
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.
“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.
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?
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?
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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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
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!”
“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!
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“—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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“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?”
“Well, it felt like that, but instead of waiting for the Reaper, something inside took over and used me as a giant mech.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“—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.”
“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 not going to go on an eight-minute rant about global warming? Because that’s what my dad would do here.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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?”
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.”
“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
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.
“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.
San Myshuno’s favorite necrophiliac is here to step in before things get too real.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
(Synopsis: We go hard on a holiday special centered around Jasper’s first Winterfest. Shu antagonizes Jo by crashing the J.E. festivities. Charlie talks about BPD and ants. Set some time aside for this one; I promise it’s worth the read.)
“Jasper! Look over here!”
The youngest Jeong-Espinosa had already made plans to taste the arm of the wooden chair when he was done with his own hand, but decided to humor his mother this time.
“Jasper,” she said, holding her cellphone at a length where the camera minimally distorted his facial features while still being close enough to evoke feelings of intimate connection in the viewer, “do you want to tell Mommy about Winterfest?”
Well, he did, in fact, the problem being it was impossible to properly communicate the depth of his Winterfest knowledge with his limited command of Simlish. And by the same token, he hadn’t noticed most of this knowledge was secondhand from the requester herself. So the prompt may not have been in good faith, itself probably intended to showcase how poor Jasper’s command of Simlish actually was, but in a way that was endearing to its target audience. But he didn’t know that.
“It has, a treeeeeee.” That’s what he did know. Not being able to stop a terminal vowel once it had started was still an issue. The proper separation of clauses in conversational Simlish, he understood, for certain very short clauses, but was forced to insert his own as his mind ping-ponged around for whatever noun best represented what he was trying to convey.
“And what goes on the tree?”
That was just an unfair question in general, given that Jasper’s vocabulary was heavily biased in favor of frequently used words, and of those, the ones restricted to six letters max. ‘Winterfest’ being a notable exception. Here’s one that fit the bill. “A star!”
“And what else?”
As much as he would have liked to help his mother out, this particular query fell outside his realm of expertise. He reverted instead to his original course of action, getting his impermanent-toothed mouth close enough to the chair arm’s terminus to bash his tastebuds against the sweet sweet wood grains.
Jo made an appeal back to something she’d said fifteen minutes ago. “Or…”
Or what? Asked and answered, Mom.
“Ormanents!” Sic. Back to the chair, which would shortly gain some markings longer-lasting than the teeth that created them.
“Do you want to help put them on the tree?”
“Yesssss!” If only to find out what they were.
“Alright, honey, let’s go.” Jo pressed ‘record’ on her camera app, a gesture that did the opposite of what its name suggested, pleased with the real-stinking-cute candid moment she’d set up.
The conifer, handpicked by mother and son (Dr. J.E.’s off chasing flu patients, but he sends his blessings), made it as far as the front arch before Jo realized her house was too compact for it to actually fit anywhere. A couple hours after banishing Jasper to the bedroom, moving most of the furniture from the family room to the limitless void of the family inventory, placing the tree, unbanishing and filming Jasper as he decorated the bottom two feet of the tree (and maybe halfway at best, since the ornaments all seemed to be clustered in one area), redoing his work while he wasn’t looking, and taking the presents out from under the bed, she was done. It was presentable, if not elegant, or functional as a living room. It was at least what the situation called for.
Charlie came home around sevenish. He hadn’t been informed that the living room was now gone.
“What’s going on in here?”
“I cast a Winterfest spell and, poof!” Jo opened her hands in a whimsical manner. “The furniture turned into a tree. Right, Jasper?”
“Yessss!” And there was his revenge for the flashcard dishonesty earlier.
“Well, it looks great. It looks like Father Winter himself came down from the North Pole and did it.” The North Pole is slightly higher than the other worlds on the selection menu, offscreen.
“No, me and Mommy did it.” Sic. Give the kid a break.
“That’s right, we did! Do you know about Father Winter?”
“He comes in the, the, fire place, and.”
“And what does he bring?”
“Presents!” Two houses over, a flock of birds took off from a tree. There were already some gifts where the partially spit-covered chair had been, but more couldn’t hurt. He chose one and used the palm of his hand to slide a decorative ribbon back and forth over the outer edge.
“Not until tomorrow, buddy.” Charlie was either unaware of the ribbon-sliding loophole or being paranoid.
“Here, let’s all get a picture in front of the tree.” Jo set a tripod up at the front arch, setting the timer just long enough for her to whisk Jasper onto her lap and snuggle up to her husband. This was going on the e-cards.
From his omniscient post, Father Winter watched Jasper wake his parents up just shy of 3 in the morning to inform them it was Winterfest Eve. Or the day before, if you’d prefer having Eve apply only after sundown. Winterfest minus one. Again, his excitement about Winterfest dwarfed his ability to inform other Sims of this verbally, so he was stuck at the basal level of screaming and waving his limbs.
Jo sat down to pen what Charlie’s sister’s acquaintance would later refer to when he asked about ‘that bougie shit on the fridge.’ (It was a testament to sibling love that she had it up there at all.) The finished product, paired with a matching-sweaters type photo and copied 22 times, was snail-mailed out to everyone Jo thought could use the holiday cheer. There were 23 prints of the photo as well; a one-to-one thing, you get it. Her letter read:
How lucky we are as a family this Winterfest season! Yesterday Jasper and I set up the holiday decorations, and it ended up all being so much that we had to clear out almost the entire living room. Charlie came home and he didn’t know what to do!We were laughing so hard!
Jasper is so excited for his first Winterfest. He has been doing wonderfully with his flashcards and can even use the potty. He continues to warm all of our hearts and will almost certainly receive a present from Father Winter. We are so proud of him!
In case no one has told you already, Charlie recently got promoted to Chief of Staff at the hospital where he works. Go Charlie! I also started a venture of my own, and our website Jumping Jasper! is now live. If this letter tickles your curiosity, you can go there to find out what those Jeong-Espinosas are up to this time.
Today is Jasper’s birthday. I’m so excited to find out what the future has in store for this wonderful boy! We are all wishing you and your families a fantastic Winterfest with the ones who are closest to your heart.
Sending lots of love from my family to yours, Josephine, Charles and Jasper Jeong-Espinosa
So yeah: Jasper’d been dealt a crap hand, birth-timing-wise, and has one of those awful winter solstice birthdays that means he only gets one round of presents. But it’s split into two parts, and he hadn’t yet spent a whole spring/summer/fall present desert waiting around for the days to shorten, so he was grateful at the moment. It meant getting to celebrate a day early.
He occupied himself by chasing the dry ingredients around with a spoon in the medium-sized plastic bowl Jo had given to him. When he lost interest in that task, or Jo was done taking a power mixer to the cake’s fluid components, plus sugar, whichever came first, he was to poke Jo’s tablet at regular intervals to keep the recipe visible, and scroll 4/5 of the way down the post to the recipe if he happened to mis-poke and the browser reset to the top of the page. A couple minutes of quality stirring time passed before his mother reclaimed the bowl. From below, he watched her slow the mixer down to where changes in the glutinous structure of the batter could be tracked by eye, smacking the bowl to release the mostly-flour in small portions the rotating beater could deal with. It was one of those standalone mixers. She fetishized the thing. Jasper had already been pitched to multiple times about how easy it was to make whipped cream and soufflés and other foodstuffs with air as a major ingredient.
She poured the finished batter into a cake pan. “See how easy that was?” Jasper was already sucking on the batter-coated beater.
With the collaborative portion being done and Jasper figuring out how to fit the whole beater into his fun-sized mouth, Jo searched for decorated cakes on her Simstagram feed, particularly fondant-free ones she can replicate. This one seemed elegant, doable, and appropriate. On the blog it goes.
It remained lit until snuffed out by Jasper, surrounded by his parents, his Grandpa, his three blood uncles, two of his non-blood uncles, and the dead ex-spouse of his uncle’s husband. The boy found himself being lifted up by rainbow sparkle magic. By the time he came down, he had a new body. He wiggled his fingers in admiration.
Jo’s brother Maxwell turns to Charlie as Jasper shares his feelings about the aging ritual with other guests. “So, Charlie. What’s your favorite word?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie claimed instinctually before realizing his mistake. “Wait, I actually do have some. But it’s better if you see them written out.”
Charlie pulls a miniature black notebook out of his lab coat pocket, then makes a second excursion into the same pocket to locate a pencil. He flips through several pages of what looks to Maxwell like multiple layers of scribbles. Finding one with no scribbles, he flattens the notebook on the half-wall, clicks the mechanical pencil twice, checks that the lead extrudes at least a couple millimeters from its plastic casing, and ruins the infinite potential of his once-blank medium in two words.
“These,” Charlie said, presenting Maxwell with the notebook. “These are cool because they mean the same thing, but they’re both almost impossible to pronounce unless you’re already familiar with the roots.”
Maxwell read the words ‘haplodiploidy’ and ‘arrhenotoky,’ although Charlie’s handwriting had deteriorated enough during his career advancement to make them look like ‘mploolplady’ and ‘nmhenatoly.’
“How do you pronounce them?”
“‘Haplodiploidy’ and ”arrhenotoky.”
“Uh-huh,” Maxwell hesitated. “And what do they mean?”
“So, in Sims, the father and mother each have two sets of chromosomes, and when the baby is born, it has one set of chromosomes from each parent, right?” Maxwell nods. “That’s ‘diploidy’: two sets of chromosomes. And ‘haploidy’ is when it has one set of chromosomes.” Maxwell nods again. “So ‘haplodiploidy’ suggests an organism can have either one or two sets of chromosomes.”
“How does that work?”
“Well, it determines the sex in some species. Like in bees and ants. In bees and ants, males are haploid because they develop from unfertilized eggs, and females are diploid because they develop from fertilized eggs.”
“And where does the other word come from?”
“It’s a shorter version of ‘arrhenotokous parthenogenesis.’ It refers to—“
“Ok, buddy, you lost me,” explained Maxwell. He turns to Jasper. “And what’s your favorite word?”
Maxwell shoots Jasper with a single finger gun. “Kid’s got a point.”
Winterfest morning, the post-birthday boy avoids waking his parents up too soon in the A.M. by scrolling through picture-based subreddits on his favorite birthday gift, a smartphone. He began to suspect he’d been shorted in toddlerhood now that his picture books seemed so flat and unimaginative compared to the real world. The stunts, more impressive; the dialogue, less wooden; the messages, truer; the cats, cattier; the villains, also cattier. And the top comments, always so clever! Jasper fantasized himself being insightful enough to write a top comment, and having it become one of the most upvoted comments on the site, and coming up with another perfect riff on the next post, etc. Or better yet, becoming one of those instantly recognizable posters known for churning out quality OC at a preposterous rate.
But the main obstacle to Jasper’s ambition (aside from lack of ideas) was his ignorance of pop culture: the world was designed for and run by people several decades ahead of himself, an effect everyone seemed to have forgotten by the time their fine motor skills kicked in and their height enabled them to reach the cabinet where Mom was hiding chocolate truffles and the customs of their predecessors were replaced, or at least expanded upon, by the top minds of their own generation. The anonymous posters Jasper looked up to all had the experience of knowing the state of the world before something existed, and when it did, of watching it progress from conception to novelty to ubiquity. Everything they talked about was already in the final state by the time he entered the scene. The solution being, despite falling outside the hotly contested birth year range of the 90’s kid, he could get the resources to mimic the 90’s kid experience, inferring from the references what was important to Sims his age at the time. I’m saying he’s going to watch a bunch of cartoons.
First he’s going to sneak downstairs on Winterfest morning, through a home gym lit by the now-frosted panes of glass that are functionally more wall than window, into the living room/lobby/foyer again notable for its relative lack of walls, this time in a manner suggesting his parents would be constantly dealing with wet terra cotta if the arches didn’t count as impenetrable boundaries. No physical changes had occurred overnight, but Jasper’s heightened senses felt in the room a feeling of divine energy. Today was going to be special.
Jasper didn’t realize how long ago he’d eaten until the shock of the general solstice-festive aura wore off enough for him to notice the smell of bacon and eggs. He looked past the five inches of non-arch wall to find his father was already awake, hadn’t gotten dressed yet, and was using a plastic spatula to push something around in a skillet. He snuck closer.
“Hi Dad,” Jasper said.
“Hmm? Oh, good morning, buddy. You’re up early.”
“When are you gonna be done cooking?” Charlie’s buddy asked. He was dangling off the half-wall with both hands, pushing just enough into his palms to rotate back and forth around its corner.
“One sec,” he said, inverting the contents of the skillet onto a large platter, a motion that organized said contents in a self-sorting and aesthetically pleasing manner. “Now. Your mom will be up soon, but I’m sure she’ll be alright if we start without her.”
Both took a serving, one after removing himself from the wall first. Jasper had gotten as far as selecting the oiliest piece of bacon and opening his mouth before he was interrupted.
“What do we say?”
“Thank you for breakfast, Daaaaaad,” Jasper drew out, less from a sense of entitlement than because he thought the gratitude was obvious, and didn’t realize it wasn’t. Only then was he allowed to take the first bite. The winter-festivity magic applied to food as well; he milked the first-bite experience by savoring one forkful of each food type, swaying in approval of each new flavor. He sorted the foods in order from least to most favorite and vowed to stick to that order for the whole meal. So did the older J.E., who would have normally eaten in order of decreasing healthiness, given the body’s tendency to absorb nutrients more efficiently on an empty stomach, but was taking the holiday off.
“You excited for Winterfest?” Charlie asked at about the point where he’d finished his eggs and Jasper had eaten maybe half of his mushrooms and was now doing some twirling with one he had impaled in the divot of its stem with a fork tine.
Charlie realized it was up to him to produce enough momentum to keep the conversation going. “What are you most excited about?”
“I wanna meet Father Winter!”
“You think you earned a spot on the nice list?”
“Yeah!” Jasper said with confidence. He’d spent his toddlerhood learning the maximum possible amount of information, and, credit to Jo, knew four times as many words as necessary. Half of that was really more symbolic than anything else given that he’d already surpassed Charlie’s understanding of the non-Simlish languages associated with his ancestry. Also he didn’t punch anyone. Hence, nice list.
“How about going to see Grandpa and Abuela?”
Jasper paused to focus on procrastinatory fungus-twirling before declaring “I don’t know.” Tough luck, it was mandatory. He gave up on the mushrooms and the ordering went downhill from there.
“How about the presents?” Ahead, Jo dragged her half-conscious body into the bathroom, sans obeisance.
Charlie dropped his act of coming up with more stuff to talk about. They weren’t expecting anyone to drop by this early, or at all, so he was perplexed as to why his oldest friend would be walking through the front arch and heading towards the study. He decided to make an appeal from the kitchen instead of getting up. “Shu. Shu. Dude. You can come in. You don’t—” The study door closed. A round of virtuosic knocking echoed through its panels, threatening to continue until a resident came around to reopen it. Charlie tried to hide his annoyance while he navigated the redecorated family room, with its presents, thematic flora, and lack of furniture, until he reached the study door having collected at least a half-dozen pine needles with his slippers. He opened the door. “Yeah, get in here.”
“Cha-cha-charles!” said the visitor, greeting his friend with a brief hug. “Happy Winterfest! And happy Winterfest to you, too, Jasper! Ho ho ho!”
“Dad, who’s this?” He’d apparently been too overstimulated at his birthday party to keep track of the adults, memorable or otherwise.
“You don’t remember me? Oof!” He feigned being knocked back at the offense. “I knew you when you were just this small,” demonstrated by holding the palms of his hands a chestnut-sized distance apart. “This small.”
“No you didn’t. That’s too small.”
“Yeah, you’re right. It was more of a this-small type of deal,” he corrected, moving his hands to baby-or-keyboard distance. “But look at you now, you’re like,” he thrust his hands apart with some explosion sound effects that became increasingly unconvincing as they drew out, culminating in a gagging noise. That got a laugh out of Jasper.
“Jasper, this is my friend Shu,” Charlie answered, glad his extravert was here to drive things forward so he could resume jumping in occasionally with relevant information.
“Hey Jasi, we’re gonna turn this Winterfest out.” They fistbumped across the counter.
Jo emerged from the bathroom to find an obstacle between her and the food. She made eye contact with her husband across the hallway, hard to do with all the talking the obstruction’s hands were doing, and gave him a look that suggested Jasper would spend his second Winterfest contemplating the anniversary of his father’s death. For this degenerate to be here on a day meant for family—but why wasn’t he with his own family? The circumstances had to be dire if he was showing up on a family friend’s doorstep, and since he was already inside, it would go against the Winterfest spirit to send him back alone. She’d let Charlie deal with this. First she had to lay down the rules.
Jo tapped Shu on the back to get his attention, taking a deep inhale before delivering her prepared message. “I don’t know what you’re doing here,” she told him, “and this is going to be very hard for you, but I have to ask you to please refrain from using any form of profanity around my child. He is very impressionable and I don’t want him being exposed to that kind of language this early in his development. And stay out of the photos.”
“‘Kay. Hold on, Chantel sent me like eight texts.” Averaging almost one per hour today, impressive given the circumstances.
Jasper had already learned the seven dirty words (plus others. He’s also restricting himself to Simlish here) by getting past the parental controls 30 minutes after he aged up. For someone who was just beginning to develop his own system of ethics, the concept of certain words being powerful enough to send his mother et al. into a fit of disproportionate rage was the most compelling idea he’d been exposed to in his 20 hours of childhood. That those seven words had such emotional gravitas compared to, say, Mom’s suggestions of cat/gato/猫/고양이 or dog/perro/狗/개, e.g., elevated them to the position of highest importance in his growing mind. And now, from overhearing her warning, he knew to correctly view Shu as a modern-day Shakespeare in that his written work singlehandedly extended the vulgar lexicon by several increasingly elaborate and obscene turns of phrase. Jasper at last felt his thirst for knowledge outweigh his desire for material goods; the universe had sent his guru in the mountains, his Brahmachari. There would be rumors a century later that Jasi received his side-splitting neologisms from on high, Moses-style, but you can’t see the evidence because one of his acolytes let it get, I don’t know, eaten by ants or something.
If Jo had trusted Shu’s intuition on what is child-appropriate, or further clarified that Jasper lacked the context to grasp the vast majority of Shu’s œuvre (something she couldn’t do without exposing him to said context at a point NooBoo Corner agreed was five point nine years too early), her son might have ignored the man in favor of catching up on Fortnite dances. Instead her tiebreaker had deflected to the opposite camp regarding Shu’s presence at this or any other event.
She pulled Charlie into the corner by the card table, considerable bulk and all. “What do you think you’re doing,” she whispered. “This is a family holiday.“
“Yeah, and it didn’t occur to you that he might have a reason for not wanting to be with his family today?”
“Of course that occurred to me,” she hissed.
The intruder, the one with a negligible no-no square, stepped outside to make a call. “Hi babe. Yeah, since I couldn’t be there, I left a surprise in your purse.” Jasper was listening through the invisible arch walls while pretending to be on his phone.
Jo continued. “But that doesn’t mean you should put me in this situation where I have to tell him he’s not staying. “
“Jo, I’m sorry. Shu’s basically family, so I didn’t even realize.”
“You found it? Yaaaay. Yay. Yay. I love you too.”
“We’re not even visiting your actual family until later. This is supposed to be time for us and our son.”
“So let’s not waste time arguing about it. Look, Jasper’s alone over there.”
“<I don’t know.> Wear one of your other tailcoats.” Presumably he was speaking to someone else now.
“That’s not fair. You’re trying to end the conversation early so you don’t have to deal with this.”
“Could you please give him a chance? He’s good with Jasper, and he’s behaving himself. Please? This is very important to me.”
“<Yeah.> … <Yeah.> Bye, Dad.”
The three adults reconvened in the family room. “Okay Jasper, come over here. We’re going to sing some songs,” his mom said, ushering the others around the tree.
They settle in for a round of Fwingle Zibbs, etc., Shu occasionally breaking his harmony with Charlie to improvise a descant, Jasper overpowering everyone else as he hunts for the right notes. Damned if he wasn’t going for it with conviction. Note also that Jo isn’t taking her camcorder out.
Charlie checked the time. “Oh, it’s about time to head to my parents’.”
“Why?” asked Jasper.
“You have to visit the grandparents on Winterfest. It’s in the social contract.”
“My existence. Your existence. Their existence.” Charlie felt his phone buzz and checked his messages. “Gosh darn it, Kendra’s not coming.”
“Why?” It was Jo’s turn to ask.
“She’s going to a Winter Solstice celebration with one of my girlfriends.” Shu displayed a text from Kendra stating just that, sandwiched between two illustrations of Krampus in different stages of problematic child discipline (the discipline is problematic, i.e., not the child).
Charlie stopped himself from asking if he remembered which one. “Everybody, do me a favor and don’t remind Mom. She’s probably not too happy about that.” He got a couple understanding nods. The family headed in different directions to pick up their jackets.
Shu waited until the others were out of earshot to make one last call. “Hi! So, I know you told me not to come over today. I’m gonna be right across the street with the J.E.s. … But it’s right across the street. … You’re sure? Okay bye Mom, love you.”
“Well, well, well.” Mike had moved a swivel chair from the office to the entrance for the sole purpose of swiveling one hundred eighty degrees to address Charlie and co. “It looks like the doctor is in.”
“My darlings! Come say hi, I’m in the kitchen,” Claudia said, surprisingly clearly given that she was competing with the radio, the oven timer, the exhaust hood, the aromatics sizzling in at least two saucepans, and Mona and Perry barking slightly out of phase at the four interlopers. Charlie glanced toward his mother; she wasn’t even facing in the right direction to project her voice like that. The dogs skipped back into the kitchen to answer the pressing questions of what those smells were, and whether any sources of those smells were going to be dropped on the floor.
“Hey Claudia, Shu’s here too,” said Mike.
“Hi Shuuuu!” Claudia always welcomed his presence because there was no limit to how long she could draw out his name. This instance lasted at least a couple seconds.
“We don’t need stockings when we’ve got a Shu!” Good lord, Mike’s also a fan of the name. He turned to Charlie’s wife, placing his hands on his midsection à la Father Winter. “Jo Jo Jo!”
The unique instance of laughter came from Hector. He’d previously been multitasking, staring at them while eating a piece of cake.
Jasper felt a nudge from his mom. “Hello Grandpa. Hello Abuela. Hello Uncle Hector.” He received polite murmurs in return, except it was more of a polite yell in Claudia’s case. Then he got right to the meat of it. “Can we open presents?”
“One. Then wait four hours before opening the next one,” said Jo, speeding up the final words as her son was already darting toward the gift pile. Mike voiced his approval of the bluntness and claimed it had a genetic component for which he was responsible.
“Hector, could you please help me with the roast?” was the request heard from the kitchen. He went running to comply.
Shreds of the paper that had once concealed Jasper’s first gift lay on the floor. Mona had one in her mouth. “An airplane! Cool!” It was thrust in the air as high as his hands could reach. “Nyyyeeeeeeooooown!”
The airplane did a few laps around the living room before Jasper decided to test its ability to fly unassisted. He lobbed the thing right into the kitchen, hitting the stool from which his mother was spectating the head and sous chefs.
“Jasper, be nice to your toys,” Jo warned. “Remember what happened to the mean kid in Toy Story?”
“Sorry, Mom. Sorry, plane.” It didn’t have a name yet. Its owner performed a brief inspection and tune-up before resuming its cross-living-room schedule. Jo turned back to Claudia.
“Jo, I loved the beautiful letter you sent us.” This was sincere. Mike woke up that morning to find Claudia snoozing at the dining room table over a tear-stained summary of her son’s family’s life, the photo safely out of range. Kind of odd how something like that could set her off. “I felt like I was right there with you. It was the best gift I could have received, hearing about your family.”
“That’s sweet, Claudia. I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” Jo said.
“No, really, it means a lot. You have to come by more often.”
Jo’s fridge held enough empanadas from her last visit for them to eat three meals a day and still have leftovers for Jasper’s kids. Empanada overload. Empanada central. “Why don’t we go out to eat instead?”
“Nnnnneeeeyyyooowwwnn!” J.E. Airlines’ only vessel had returned for its regular stop at the kitchen counter. It picked up a cookie, which cargo had to be manually held on top of the aircraft’s body, much like how a Winterfest tree would be transported on top of an SUV, but without the security provided by bungee cords. They’d break the cookie.
Its destination, Charlie, had moved further down the hallway, taking with him the elephant in the room. Shu, that is. Not anyone’s internal conflict. “Thanks, buddy,” he said to the plane. The uneaten cookie was transferred to his jacket pocket as soon as the pilot had turned around. “So,” he addressed his childhood friend, “is everything okay? Why aren’t you with your family?”
He shrugged. “I celebrated with my dads a couple days ago, and Mom said she wants to be alone, so I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.” He gestured towards Jasper, still running around like a beheaded chicken. “Plus it’s this one’s first Winterfest. Cuuuute.”
“What about Chantel, or one of your other girlfriends?”
“Ah, not that again. I show up at the Lucases’ place, they’re gonna expect me to pull out a ring by the end of the day. Other than that, there’s Shannon’s parents, her dad hates me, and I don’t know any of my other girlfriends’ families.” He paused in thought. “Unless—“
“—No, no. Nope.” Charlie punctuated his triple combo by repeatedly crossing his open hands over one another in a gesture clearly conveying he didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. But given the tone of the conversation, he figured it was safe to ask more personal questions. “Come to think of it, haven’t you and Chantel been promised to each other since before Jo and I even met?” Shu’s left eye twitched. “It’s been a couple weeks. What are you waiting for?”
“I’m planning on doing it sometime, I just get the sense that,” he shook his head, “she doesn’t know who she is yet. Apart from me.” He broke eye contact to fidget with the highest toggle on his sweater. “It’s not healthy. I guess I’m trying to help her get to where the proposal is just a nice thing that happens and not something she’s focused on day in and day out.”
Underdeveloped sense of self, Charlie translated. “Wasn’t she, like, stalking you in high school?” Idealization. Clear pattern of obsession in close relationships.
“Yeah, she’s intense, but I’m also kind of a lot to handle. What with my line of work and all. I actually like that about her. It keeps things interesting.”
“And she’s just waiting patiently?”
“Oh, she’s pissed. She’s also accusing me of wanting to leave and stuff like that. But clearly it’s been a while and I’m not going anywhere.”
“And you have to—“
“Keep reminding her of that constantly, yeah. Also how talented she is. That’s what I’m trying to do, keep her focused on her music so she can develop her own voice. But she’s so upset about making mistakes, she breaks down crying almost every time.” Basically their song is “Issues” by Julia Michaels. “I have to keep telling her it’s going to be okay.”
Charlie winced at the final datum. “I hope I’m wrong about this, but if what you’re saying is true, you might want to read up on Borderline Personality Disorder.” His DSM-5 retained the classification system of its extra-worldly counterpart, but offered little insight on treatment beyond sadness hotlines and basketball. He wasn’t about to recommend Chantel drink some fucking OJ, either.
“Meaning there’s a chance things are going to get worse before they get better. There’s a chance,” he took a moment to decide if this were something he really wanted to say, “there’s a chance she’s always going to be like this.” Another beat. “Look, I’m only bringing this up because it might be the safest course of action, but have you considered calling the whole thing off?”
“Charlie. What. No. It’s Chantel.”
“I don’t know what that means,” he said. “I don’t understand why you want to stay with her if things are so difficult.”
Shu had been facing away from his conversational partner, but now directed at him a glare that had started fights in less festive settings. “Does everything have to have a reason with you? Do you think love is something that can be broken down to a formula? Do you really think that if the girl of my dreams just fell from the sky one day, I would just throw away everything Chantel and I have, like that?” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the word ‘that,’ and, while we’re on the subject, had earlier raised his open hands toward the sky and climactically arced them downward in an approximation of the dream girl’s trajectory. “I feel closer to her than anyone else in the world, and I always have, and I always will, and I’m not gonna try to explain why so you can argue with it.”
“Look, I never said you didn’t love her. But that kind of love-conquers-all attitude isn’t going to fix everything. I’m being dead serious here, Shu. If it’s really this hard for you, there’s no way to solve this that doesn’t involve you removing yourself as the source of her obviously destructive obsession. By staying, you’re slowing everything down, running the risk of becoming codependent, or worse.”
“You don’t know that. You haven’t even talked to her enough to make a real diagnosis.” Which Charlie knew, but was hoping his warning would catalyze the couple’s efforts to seek a second opinion. “Even with one, she could still get over it enough for us to be together.”
“Or not, given your history. You can’t predict the future either.”
He clenched his fists in an attempt to redirect his building tension to the sensation of nails digging into his palm.
“What are you going to do if she doesn’t?”
Father Winter burst through the chimney in a puff of good cheer and combustion byproducts, the former being more hazardous to the house’s inhabitants in that it could provoke one into becoming Hysterical, while carcinogens are a nonissue for these guys. All but the duo in the kitchen looked toward the fireplace. Jo pressed record on her offspring-directed camcorder.
“Father Winter!” Jasper screamed with an intensity that set off both dogs.
“Fuck,” said Shu.
The purported-mythical figure rose to his feet with an air suggesting a personality cozier than his Fair Isle mittens. A statement coat with a heroic amount of white fur trim, given how visibly it would be ruined after a single round of his preferred hammy method of entry, expanded on the effect of general snugness he was going for. (Ask if that’s real fur, Jo thought to herself.) Later, the emotions Jasper felt in that moment would be portrayed pretty accurately by the slow-mo Ken Burns effect Mom planned on applying to her footage.
Father Winter announced his presence. “Ho ho ho!” Jo put down her camera to admonish the fourth one for swearing, only to find he’d escaped by self-defenestration.
The embodiment of Winterfest spirit himself made a big show of shading his eyes with his right hand, looking high and low for something. “I heard from a little bird that in this house, there’s a little boy who just had his birthday.”
“Me! That’s me!” said boy clarified, jumping and waving his arms a couple yards from Father Winter’s avoidant face in case the message wasn’t clear enough. It landed; the patriarch finally searched the area directly in front of him and reeled back in astonishment.
“Oh! Oh, ho ho ho! There’s the fella!” Jasper was vibrating almost audibly with anticipation. “Why don’t we sit down here and have a chat? Is that something you would like?” Jasper nodded so enthusiastically, Jo’s most recently searched term became ‘whiplash,’ displacing ‘those hoodies everyone has what are they called.’
The pair sat down on Grandpa & Abuela’s caramel-colored leather couch, a pre-Jasper and even pre-Kendra piece of furniture whose aroma only became more complex with the passage of time. Father Winter started the seated portion of the conversation with his most anticipated question. “Have you been good all year?”
“Do you listen to your mommy and daddy?”
“Have you been doing your homework?”
Panic set in. “I just grew up yesterday,” Jasper explained. “They didn’t give me any homework.”
“Well, I’m looking at your grades, young mister, and you know what they say?” Jasper may have grown up yesterday, but even he could tell that the folksiness was thinly masking what was in fact extreme condescension. “It says right here on this piece of paper that someone doesn’t like to do his homework.”
“You know, son,” he said, placing his arm around Jasper’s shoulders to comfort the lad, “things might not always turn out how you want, but good boys and girls are good at accepting things the way they are. You want to be a good boy, right?” Jasper nodded in an attempt to end the first of many lectures he would sit through where the lecturer grossly underestimates his competence based on his demographics, in this case his age. “You have to let this go and do better next year. Life is complicated that way. Someday you’ll be old enough to understand.”
Leaving the family’s youngest with an encouraging pat and wise smile, cherry nose and all, Father Winter removed himself from the couch with some difficulty and headed eastward. Jasper waited until he was out of earshot to tear up.
Cut to the J.E. master bedroom half a second into Jasper’s first wail of the day, where his father decided to check out the exercise equipment to help relieve the stress headache he got from being surrounded by loved ones.
“Dr. Charles Jeong-Espinosa,” Father Winter drew out in an entrance that mostly served to annoy the sentence’s subject, “now that’s a name I know well. You’re near the very top of my list! Ho ho ho!” He actually grabbed his belly when he laughed. Charlie thought the gesture of bringing both hands to the gut during a Father-Winter-inspired belly laugh might have been to suggest excess adiposity, but no, he actually did that. “Let me tell you what it says here. A straight-A student, lover of the earth, dedicated pursuer of knowledge, selfless healer, devoted husband and father, and, oh! Stay away from that one,” he said, following the last statement with a wink that would have been appropriately lecherous had he been literally anyone else. “I saved something special for you.”
He placed a VR set on the ground and followed up with his best Vanna White impression. The recipient acted out an appropriate display of surprise and gratitude, though he was left wondering where on that list it was suggested that he played videogames with any regularity, and where in his house the list recommended clearing space to put that shit.
“Now where’s that mother of yours?” Could be like two places. Three if you count the other bar.
Charlie waited until Father W. was heading in the direction of potential cookies to sneak a peek at the list he was holding. It was blank.
“It’s alright, honey. There’s always next year,” Jo consoled her son as they approached her house’s front arch, the mixture of tears and snot beginning to freeze slightly on the boy’s face. Hearing an echo of Father Winter’s words only set him off more, enough to leave his mom with the tail end of yet another squeal and run off towards his second-story room, careening around six corners on the way. “Don’t slip!” she yelled.
Charlie put an arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I don’t know where we went wrong,” she admitted.
“No, Jo, there was nothing we could have done. You were great today.” He tried to come up with something that would cheer her up. “Someday we’re going to be able to look back on this and laugh.” He hoped.
Jo’s eyes widened in an expression of shock not unlike that of someone who realized they forgot to turn the stove off before leaving the house. “Charlie, that’s it! My footage!” She turned towards her husband, placing her hand on his chest. “We can take the footage, cut out all the parts with Father Winter, and show Jasper how much fun he was having!” Heck, maybe she’d leave Shu in some shots.
“Sounds good, dear.” He was paying enough attention to nod each time she asked him whether it was a good idea.
Above the gym, Jasper’s pillow was alternating between being a punching bag and a tissue. Jo slowly poked her head over the staircase railing so as to not startle him. Her son, not the pillow.
“What if I made you some burgers for dinner?” she offered. “Would that make it better?”
He nodded so she would go downstairs. It wasn’t going to work. Fuck the self-fellating old coot.
Jo found her husband sitting cross-legged in the garden, picking up handfuls of powdery snow and opening his palm to let the wind carry it away. “Hey, Charlie. If I made burgers, would you eat some?”
“I mean, if you’re going to make them, sure,” he muttered, watching the powder slip over the webbing between his fingers.
She sighed almost inaudibly. If he was going to be in one of those moods, it was best not to engage. It was best to focus on the task at hand and give him some space to play with the snow or whatever. But to the outsider, it looks like she’s too preoccupied with applying her personal spice mix to see her husband being carried away in a beam of light.
Jo turned around fifteen minutes later with a plate of burgers that bunned themselves.
There’s nothing to her right but the marks he made in the snow. Maybe he went inside. She checked the kitchen.
He’s not in the bedroom, living room, gym, bathroom, or study, either. It figures he’d left without telling her again. She picked up a hamburger and stormed off towards her son’s room.
Winterfest ended an hour ago and Charlie’s side of the bed was still empty. Jo decided this would be the part she would want to edit out of her mind, lying down on her side and staring at the indentation left in his pillow, not knowing whether he was five or a million miles away. He wasn’t answering his phone, either. She moved to his side so she at least wouldn’t have to look at it. The night sky was visible overhead. Maybe I should try it, she thought, telling her thoughts to some tiny speck of light in the distance instead of the person next to her. And after sending her doubts upward and watching them dissipate in the air like so many flecks of powdery snow, she finally closed her eyes.
She slept through the beam of light that appeared outside her window and gently lowered her husband back to earth. The beam grew dimmer. Charlie dropped to his knees. He felt his forehead with the back of his hand. The mental fog that had bothered him so much during his first abduction was now undetectable, blending in with all the other buzzing and tightness in his head he was feeling constantly.
And the worst part was he didn’t know why he was doing any of these things that made his head buzz. And that’s what he had to show for it, this list of achievements. Five, maybe six concrete items that identified who he was as a person. He was left to wonder what the difference was between Charlie Jeong-Espinosa and another man with an identical list. Just like, he could see another hypothetical person being happy with what he has: the job, grades, etc. So if it distinguishes him from the other guy, the one who accepts his responsibilities wholesale and can carry them out indefinitely in kind of a proud-complacent manner, then Charlie Jeong-Espinosa is an ungrateful bastard with no real goddamn purpose other than to not question why he was checking off items on some imaginary list before it took over his life.
The stupid oversized VR thing was a reminder of the praise he was getting for not letting his doubts get in the way of success. He found a spot where it couldn’t taunt him, a spot next to his sleeping son. The son Father Winter had tacked onto that list of achievements like yet another goal. Putting it here at least made sense. Tomorrow Jo would get to tell him Father Winter changed his mind.
Charlie managed to get under the covers without waking up his wife. He crossed his forearms over his head and adjusted the alignment of his neck into the most comfortable position for stargazing. He imagined a small green dot, like a laser, swooshing along the Big Dipper, gaining enough momentum from the net downward action of the first four edges to break from the bowl of the constellation and shoot off towards the North Star. Your holiday’s over, buddy, he informed it, on the off-chance it understood its role in Winterfest lore, could read his thoughts, and wasn’t currently too busy with something else to do so.
And graduates from hanging out in the bathroom to acting out a teenager’s worst nightmare—that is, if the teenager were capable of understanding the implications of two or more simultaneous events.
If we envision moving our p.o.v. along the positive z-axis (yeah, oriented so it’s going out of the screen, bite me), we’d find ourselves in a comically large room as green as it is empty. No one bothered to clean it out after the eldest J.E. child graduated from hiding in his room to living in a house where privacy is less a luxury than an impossibility.
The world ‘child’ here should provoke some opposition in the spirit of Fiddler‘s Yente. “From such children come other children!”
That aside, Jasper’s existence, even in absentia, has created ripples in the O.G. J.E. household strong enough to change one person: freshly-titled Abuela Claudia. This role is serious business for Newcrest’s sweetheart, enough to give her liver a break as she plots to ensure her grandchild turns into an empanada.
Forty-eight servings in, she opens the fridge door and interrogates its contents, her mind blanking on where she put that leftover Dulce de Leche. Right, it was directly under the deli jar in the container with the red lid. She removed the lid to find someone else had the same idea.
Any frustration Claudia may have felt was overshadowed by her desire to measure her son’s progress. Of the half he’d left uneaten, they weren’t leaking and looked about as even as one could expect for a less experienced folder. They were deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar—not choices Claudia would have made, given her background in bodybuilding—but they were probably more appealing to a child’s palate this way. She snapped a photo and checked the empty living room before savoring one of the carb bombs right in front of the fridge. Divine. There was her conversation topic for the next week.
Hector’s phone conversation with Charlie (i.e., teenage girl Charlie) and the continuation of a ballpoint-pen colony of bats, drawn over Kendra’s existing sleeve while she waited her turn to talk to Charlie, were halted by the sound of their mother’s voice projecting from her usual perch. Kids, we’re going to Charlie’s! Other Charlie! Pay attention; your brother’s house isn’t going to render itself!
Mike’s off on a casual weekend space trip. Doesn’t matter. Turn the boosters on and get your ass back down here.
Abuela propels herself through the open-air concept arches with at least a dozen containers of fresh pastries. She plays a short round of dead-fish Tetris in Charlie’s fridge, where Korobeiniki is replaced by her eldest’s almost rhythmic protests of “Mom,” and, occasionally, “Mom, c’mon.”
“It’s my job to feed you,” she counters, right at the point where the victory theme would take over. She opens a container and waves it inches from Charlie’s face. “Hector made these! Look how nice!”
The Dr. sees an opening to redirect his mother’s unabated stream of affection towards someone who hadn’t been jaded by excited matriarch overexposure. “If you’re looking for Jasper, he’s just—“
“Darling!” Claudia interrupts as she banks around the kitchen corner. Jasper tolerates a couple minutes of cooing before he notices the treat in her hand. “Here,” she says. “You have to try this.”
Claudia holds one of Hector’s empanadas at eye level for Jasper to take a bite. It’s amazing; crispy and gooey and messy—something that would make a very satisfying mess on the tile floor, he thought. Bits of powdered sugar were already falling into the grout. But when he opened his mouth for another bite, he saw something that made him hold back bile.
The pastry was full of poop. Poop! Light brown gushing baby diarrhea.
He shook his head no. This didn’t deter Claudia from brandishing the dessert at eye level, chanting “Take a bite! Take a bite!” as the contents of Jasper’s potty threatened to ooze into the outside world. He shook his head more forcefully and ran into his parent’s bedroom, bawling. Charlie watched his mom slump over and zone out in the manner she usually did when she thought no one was watching.
“Maybe next time?” Charlie reassured her, taking the rejected empanada and biting into it.
Jo was two-thirds of the way through Mike’s favorite story about his daring space exploits, a story she didn’t reveal was already recounted to her almost verbatim by Charlie. She gave no indication of having seen his stand-up routines either, which she was exposed to in the same manner, despite that information being publicly available elsewhere. She tuned out and used the extra time to plan out her next five blog posts. Microplastics. Indoor air pollution. Boundaries on physical touch. Feign surprise at exactly the right moment. “And that’s when the ray gun jammed!” You don’t say, Mike! She also had to throw her hat into the ring on whether or not eggs were healthy, but wanted to build more credibility first. She also had to pick up eggs on her next jog.
Claudia holds the bar with both hands, leaning into her shoulders with straight arms. What was she doing here again? Eh. Visiting Charlie reminded her of how quiet her house was compared to the old country.
She remembers an advertisement on her phone for what might provide an adequate source of noise.
Just to look.
The teens are once again summoned from their rooms by the command of a mother who, despite having acknowledged her need for racket, isn’t aware of the difference between her yelling volume and the average decibel level of everything else in the house. (Somewhat justified, given that Kendra’s room is upstairs.) One may have assumed the upstairs-dweller would be a cat person because of the everything about her, but she finds herself overcome by the presence of puppies. Double puppies.
Mike comes home to the adoption agent leaving with only one dog post-“just to look.” So, Perry and Mona Jeong-Espinosa, welcome to the family! We’re fucked up, but not organized-crime levels of fucked up. Just domestic shit.
Perry, a Dalmatian puppy, is seen here begging for food from the person least likely to part from it.
Mona, a gorgeous grey Weimaraner, is bonded to Claudia.
Sandra Lee here kept herself from the bar for an entire day after Mona’s adoption. The younger three, as well, have temporarily put their ambitions on hold in favor of canine bonding; the collective’s top and only priorities are now to pet the dogs, train the dogs, buy toys, play fetch, and cook for the dogs. Hector admits that the latter may have been self-serving.
Goofy bastard that he is, he’s still less awkward around potential partners than his brother was. Recall the organized crime statement—it’s a coincidence that both single J.E.s have a shared crush who happens to be an heir to the Chinese mafia and, worse, has the same name as their brother.
C(h)arlie are taking a more subtle version of the Chantel strategy, miraculously showing up in the same place as Kendra and Hector with jelly doughnuts decorated/squished to look like roadkill. When asked questions about their personal lives, they give a tantalizingly vague answer and divert the conversation. Neither target notices; Kendra actually prefers the air of mystery and Hector has no distinction between ‘good’ and ‘nice,’ let alone ‘nice’ and ‘docile.’
Charlie returns home with a clay octopus mug and a homemade churro in wax paper. Her room is nondescript and has few personal effects, save for a single shelf on the east wall loaded with creepy art. She pushes a matching necklace and earring set made of glass eyes to the side, placing the mug in the resulting space. She takes an ominous bite out of the churro.
Kendra and Hector deal with this by not acknowledging it whatsoever.
In the theme of puppy love, Perry is no longer a puppy, but a pretty adult. Hooray for Perry!
Mona almost immediately starts yelling hearts. Which is baffling, since they barely know each other and he was a baby less than an hour ago.
Mike grabs the leash in case getting Mona out of the house will stop the moaning, and—ah crap, not again.
Mike can never remember, but it’s probably a group of space pirates with too much free time and a fuck-you-William-Shatner attitude.
But this is the final career for Mike, as long as he gets to pick which actor plays him in the movie adaptation of his life. The shorter hours allow him to spend more time with his family, although they confuse him: why doesn’t intergalactic peacekeeping require more dedication from its authority figures? What shenanigans are happening when he’s chilling at the park?
Something clicks in Mike’s head while watching Claudia with the dogs. Charlie, Hector, himself—give her a cute thing to receive her love, and her mood elevates in a snap. Then the thrill wears off and she’s as dull as ever. Fascinating; if she seems like she’s really losing it, he’ll surprise her with a kitten.
Claudia is still letting herself ride the high from this temporary fix. She’s leaving the house more, down to three juices a day—
Mike getting probed, you can set your watch to, but Claudia? That’s just vindictive.
Kenny’s phone buzzed to announce the arrival of what she thought would be Wyatt’s noncommittal response to her time-lapse gif of a hypothetical apocalyptic pandemic where she used Paint to rename the disease “Wyatt’s Mom.”
Another one. Great.
Sure, she can convince Shu and like eight of his girlfriends to follow her there.
Wyatt has moved on from his absurdist “What is a party, really?” period, coming up with a far superior dual theme of Sexual Tension (to be expected, given their age group, but he’s making a statement by acknowledging it proper) and Weird Facial Expressions. This one’s in a house and everything.
Kendra and Hector got into the spirit with Superman Jawline and Big Hair, respectively. Wyatt personally thanked Shu for turning up. He’s indispensable.
“Isn’t it ironic that the term ‘post-modern’ has been around for at least thirty years?” Kendra thought aloud to Supes, intentionally constructing a conversation around Wyatt’s two favorite words. (She was misinformed; it had been in use since at least Bernard’s first lifetime.) “What are they going to call the next artistic movement? Post-postmodernism?”
“I think that’s part of the joke,” said Wyatt, having picked up on the magic words from across the room. “It’s supposed to be ironic. Also, post-postmodernism is already a thing, and it’s supposed to be reacting to irony.”
“So the next step is post post-postmodernism?” mused the one with six right angles for a jaw, whose name is actually Vincent. “And then postpostpostpostmodernism? And then…”
Wyatt tried to make the point that categorizing all art as reactionary to other art is inherently limiting, in itself a post-postmodern sentiment, but couldn’t sneak a second word into Vince’s ongoing chant of “postpostpostpostpostpostpost.” Kendra was too charmed by some masked crusader’s secret identity to notice him storm off. He would have botched the point or sounded pretentious anyway. God, he couldn’t wait to grow up and at least be able to take himself seriously.
To be self-aware enough to figure out what I’m doing wrong, he thought as he blew out his birthday candles.
Kendra takes the afterparty to the the Romance Festival, along with the budding Mafiosa, Repetition Man of Steel, an anime vampire dreamboat (but you can call him Daichi), and her little brother.
The pre-afterparty had put her in the mood to figure something out for herself. She knew she wanted to date, but even with the pink aphrodisiac altering her mental state enough to radiate its hue in an aura around her body, approaching other Sims was going to be hard. She crushed her empty plastic cup before spiking it conscientiously into a trash can. The plan was to ride this fuck-inaction high, using it to get the initial approach over with thrice and be done.
Daichi is used to people pointing out how well his look works for him, so he expected Kendra to start the conversation by admiring his coat. She asks, is the quilted white part one shirt and does the lavender overcoat have slanted sleeves that have to be constantly readjusted, or is the coat one layer on the sleeves and the underlayer a fake shirt sewn into the lapels? Does he wear an undershirt to keep it clean? Mentioning the coat is just a chiffon-thin ruse to touch his arm, of course.
She checks her phone for Shu’s answer to her plea for help dealing with Charlie, and her subsequent note clarifying the age and gender of the person she meant, to find a correct but useless response which may have suggested, in a different context, that her mentor in romance fell asleep with his forehead on the ‘L’ and ‘O’ keys. Kendra sighed, and, recalling his earlier advice on mirroring, improvised a course of action.
“So I noticed you invited me to the Romance Festival?” Charlie pressed immediately on Kendra’s approach.
“Oh, well, I invited you, but I also invited these other people,” she said, gesturing left in a way that didn’t uniquely identify which other people Kendra meant, although their identities may have been inferable depending on whether Charlie was aware of the existence of translucent hexagonal markers. “Why do you ask?”
“You never know, you never know,” Charlie trailed off in her usual avoidant manner.
“Maybe, or maybe not,” Kendra clarified. “If you’re confused about what someone wants, maybe you should ask them.” She turned around without watching for Charlie’s reaction. That should be cryptic enough.
She tried to keep her spooky mystery aura by doubling back to Creature of the Light, taking a microsecond break to pick out a topic of interest.
“So. How about those hats?”
Kenny’s birthday party theme is Greek mythical figures. In particular:
Phthonus, representing envy! In this case, not about romance, but because his best friend has a cooler trash can.
Sisyphus! Good luck with that.
Adephagia, goddess of gluttony! Beware! The internet has ruined her image search results.
Dionysus! Claudia is probably also Dionysus!
Kendra looks at her cake, candles snuffed out from oxygen deprivation, a fate which would either kill Sims like herself or fry the personality out of their brains, and realizes her own Gloom. At the time of aging up, she has maxed out zero skills, dated/kissed zero people, developed zero interest in these fucking numbers, and made 15 monster drawings.
There is no local Wiccan bookstore for her to frequent, no Demonology major to complete, no career based on occult knowledge—but dealing with the public as a surly bartender/barista should provide more than enough inspiration for her bilingual horror poetry.
The air is displeasingly dry on Kendra’s last day with her parents. She would have loved some cathartic rain, but maybe would have settled for an uncomfortable level of humidity. Just enough to evoke the threat of rain. That would reflect her feelings better; that the anticipation could be just as bad as, or worse than, the event itself.
I know who I am, she reminded herself as she withdrew from her second-story basement to the unforgiving world beyond. Everything else depends on execution.